Our former first lady’s autobiography tells about her experiences from childhood through the present, sharing both triumphs and missteps and imparting the wisdom she has acquired alone the way. Her intelligence, humor, dedication to public service, and love of family shine through on every page. (An added bonus: the book also doubles a love story of epic proportions!) If you did not already love her, you will be smitten when you finish Becoming. It was a delight to read, and I finished it in awe of the amazing woman Michelle Obama is, a true American treasure. Becoming paints the picture of an ordinary American who took the opportunities she had been given and used them to accomplished extraordinary things.
Her story, while utterly unique, has elements of relatablity that surprised me. She discusses her heartbreaking struggles with infertility; the vulnerability she felt parenting two daughters with a husband who traveled extensively, and her professional crises of self-confidence that anyone can identify with. I felt deeply for the new mother, tired and overwhelmed, who desperately wanted a husband who came home to help with dinner and bedtime — but who had to share the man she loved with his then 200,000 constituents. (She points out this number would seem laughable later, when he answered to more than 300 million Americans as President.) In the end, she knew her husband could make the lives of the people who elected him better, make the country better, and who was she to stand in his way? As her husband is famous for saying, “Do we settle for the world as is is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” (118)
Her staunch feminist beliefs underlie many of her stories: her refusal to take on certain roles simply because she is a woman, standing up at work to be paid what she is worth and demanding that her child-care arrangements be accommodated, and refusing to be judged based on how she looks or how likeable people found her. In one powerful example, she relates that her campaign events were largely ignored by Barack’s staff until she made a small misstep and suddenly she was reprimanded and scrutinized. She stood up for herself, telling staff that if they want her at campaign events at all they would provide her with technical and logistical support she needed to be effective. She also let the experience teach her that she would no longer wait to be told what to do…she would hire her own staff and decide that for herself. “The lesson being that in life you control what you can.” (33)
The most interesting elements, I found, were her detailed descriptions of life in the White House and the almost other-worldly experience of being the First Family. The stories are a wonderful peek behind the curtain at the rules, formalities, and opulence provided to them, but also strain they felt living under such restrictions. (She had to consult political advisors before she could have her hair cut into bangs!) “My job was to hold steady and get myself through.”
While chronicling her journey from South Side to the White House, she also offers straightforward, thoughtful and practical advice about navigating a world that is can be unexpectedly complicated and unwelcoming. And about how, when you love a person, you embrace the things that make unique, even if they make your life complicated. “The answer is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: you find ways to adapt. If you are in it forever, there’s really no choice.” (171)
I was struck by the knowledge that Michelle Obama’s upbringing could be the story of nearly every young girl who lives in my neighborhood or who sits in the classroom with my children. What an amazing thought that, nurtured and supported, nearly any young woman could grow up to be Michelle Obama!