Except for their last name and world-famous faces, Barack and Michelle Obama were just like so many other parents earlier this year when, as late summer began crisping into fall, they sent off their youngest to school.
“Time just goes so fast. But like so many experiences in the last 10 years, we wanted to make it feel as normal as possible, given our family’s circumstances,” the former first lady tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, reflecting on 18-year-old daughter Sasha Obama‘s next chapter.
“It was of course a little emotional to drop Sasha off at college,” says Mrs. Obama, admitting “the tough part” has been “missing our girls.”
“It’s an adjustment to see each other for a weekend here, a holiday break there, but the moments we do spend together feel extra special because of it,” she says.
And when Sasha is in her college dorm (the Obamas have asked to keep private where she is enrolled) she will still be surrounded by the familiarity of family.
“We were there, just like most parents, helping her unpack and make her dorm room feel like home,” Mrs. Obama says.
“But by and large, we let her take care of herself,” she continues. “As a parent, one of the most important things we can give our children is the freedom to find their own way in the world.”
Echoing what she wrote for PEOPLE in a special Mother’s Day essay earlier this year, Mrs. Obama says, “I first learned this truth from my own mother, who made sure my brother and I had plenty of space to speak our minds, make mistakes, and follow our passions, wherever they might lead. I try to do the same with Sasha and Malia, honoring the unique flame each of them has inside.”
“They are their own people, and that’s what I love about them,” Mrs. Obama says. “And they’ve got to have room to breathe and explore.”
Since the Obamas left the White House in 2017, the former president and first lady have been busy with their eponymous foundation, where she focuses efforts on increasing girls’ access to education worldwide, among other issues — not to mention a record-smashing memoir, Becoming, and sold-out book tour. (President Obama is busy writing his own memoir, which could come out next year, and the two are working with Netflix.)
“Barack and I try to make sure that our daughters know that there’s no limit to what they can be or what they can achieve,” Mrs. Obama tells PEOPLE. “They don’t learn that if their parents treat them like delicate little ornaments, set aside so they won’t break. Girls need to have the chance to create and explore and skin their knees from time to time, too.”
Last year, in a PEOPLE cover story upon the release of Becoming, Mrs. Obama looked back at her family’s eight years in the White House and the spotlight in which Malia and Sasha literally grew up.
“They are the most recognized teenagers in the world, trying to be out in the world like regular kids,” she said then. “And that’s hard when you’re a child, and every day people are watching you, and you know that. There’s no time to just be … to blend in and have fun and make mistakes or smoke your first cigarette or have your first kiss or have a boyfriend.”
“I try to remind them that even the toughest parts of this have value,” Mrs. Obama said. “They’ve grown up with being able to maneuver it with grace.”
She told PEOPLE then she was far from broken up about having an empty nest with President Obama.
“Unlike my parents, who dropped me off at college and just had a phone call, I text with my kids. I can text Malia [at Harvard] right this second and know what she’s thinking. I feel like she’s off on her next adventure, so I’m excited for her,” she said. “I don’t need my children to make me happy. I had them so that they’d be happy.”
Speaking with PEOPLE for this week’s issue, in which she was named one of four People of the Year, she talks about not what she’s losing, with her daughters moving out, but what they are gaining.
“The most gratifying part of it all has been watching the girls enter into their next phase of independence,” Mrs. Obama says. “Our role as parents is to raise self-sufficient, thoughtful, and compassionate individuals, and in order for them to fully embrace their own journeys, we have to be willing to let them go, so that they can grow on their own. That’s the only way they can become more.”