We all know by heart Michelle Obama’s public story: The girl from the South Side of Chicago, raised by incredibly hard-working parents. The descendant of slaves who attended two Ivy League institutions and then returned home to invest in her community, eventually meeting her beloved husband and raising two daughters. We know, too, Michelle Obama’s accomplishments and awards.
“I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was ambitious for,” Obama writes of her younger self.
The former first lady already has several biographies and has already written a book chronicling part of her experience at the White House in creating her garden. Why, now, a memoir? “There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice,” she writes.
“I’ve been held up as the most powerful woman in the world and taken down as an ‘angry black woman,’” begins Obama, barely a page into her memoir, Becoming. “I’ve heard about the swampy parts of the internet that question everything about me, right down to whether I’m a woman or a man,” she writes, before adding that these comments and others hurt her. But she learned from her parents how to laugh stuff like this off—along with keeping her word and the importance of working hard. She is also open about how racism and the other things that cannot be so easily laughed off—the coded and direct ways race and gender were weaponized to attack her and her husband as they navigated caucus, election and presidency; her worries for Barack’s safety and the threat of assassination like other black leaders who have crossed the national stage.
The things that Obama learned from her parents—the quintessential working-class descendants of enslaved Africans and the whites who enslaved them, is also, of course, legend. Obama has made no secret of her appreciation for the people who have supported her in life, endlessly citing her parents for their hard work and sacrifice in raising her and her brother.
A key through line in Obama’s story is the importance of community—of her parents, of her close network of female friends, of the support of fellow mothers when she was just a new mom. Obama describes the renewing effect of her friendships with a relatable honesty: “Each one of these women was educated, ambitious, dedicated to her kids, and generally as bewildered as I was about how to put it all together.”
She is also unflinchingly honest about the difficulty of her experience as a working mom, analyzing the different weight and responsibility on women in childbirth and childrearing that still exists; and her wrestling with the decision to work in the home or work outside the home after the birth of her two children.
In Becoming, Michelle Obama opens up, more than politics has allowed her to in the past, and talks about how she really felt about certain moments along her life journey. Here is her wry self-critique regarding her much-lauded “respectability.” She describes her own desire to be “so eager for respectability and a way to pay the bill, that I’d marched myself unthinking into law.” She shows how, as a recent college graduate, she began to question everything she thought she had known about herself and her desires for the past decade, and stepping through that uncertainty to career-changing opportunities.
This moment of post-college self-awareness and self-discovery is something other recent college grads can appreciate; indeed it is something that will resonate for nearly all readers. Who hasn’t, at some point, had a situation that forced one to reevaluate one’s life?
This is the essence of Michelle Obama’s memoir—while seeming to speak to one specific subsection of the population, she always finds a way to extend her message into the universal. This desire to form a human connection with people was emblematic of her leadership style as first lady. In engaging and inspiring prose, exactly like her personality, Becoming is an honest and inspiring depiction of the formation of self. Interspersed with family pictures, it is richly layered and detailed, a story that speaks to the larger experience of many black Americans who have lived aspects of Michelle Obama’s story specifically, and also many Americans of all races who can see themselves in her journey as well. And, in this political climate, it reads as a warm breath of nostalgia.
Michelle and Barack are open in Becoming about being deeply conscious of history—of learning from it, understanding it, honoring it. Indeed, it was only by thinking through what it would mean for her husband and for the country that Michelle was swayed to support Barack’s presidential run. She is a very reluctant presidential wife or even political wife; her fondest aspiration was for her husband to work a normal 9-to-5 job at a foundation where he could chip away at changing the world.
Instead, Barack burst onto the national political stage with the brightness of a supernova, and Michelle had to find a way to navigate the harsh glare of this high-powered political arena. “We both felt an obligation not to be complacent,” Michelle says of her husband and herself.
Of particular sweetness is young Michelle’s understanding of learning how to be a wife; how she asked herself very real, honest questions about how to maintain her individual personhood and career while supporting her husband’s intensifying political ambition and accompanying fame. Heartbreaking is Michelle’s candid conversation about her fertility struggles and miscarriage.
“Seeing women and their children walking happily along a street, I’d feel a pang of longing followed by a bruising wallop of inadequacy,” she writes.
The personal is constantly political in a woman’s life, Obama shows us; she credits her excellent health insurance through her employer with paying for the majority of fertility treatments, including IVF, and opens up the need for women to have difficult conversations about topics like that loss to know they are not alone. It also underscores the need for human health-care policy to make options like IVF available to more Americans.
Becoming shows us the ways we hide and do not hide from ourselves. It shows us how we learn to live. Reveling in the importance of community and self-discovery, Becoming is a lovely, inspiring read from one of the most respected world leaders of our time.