'Becoming' chronicles the life of Michelle Obama, from her childhood in Chicago town to eight years in the spotlight as the former First Lady of the United States.
“Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” - Michelle Obama
This essentially forms the crux of former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s debut book, Becoming. Who we are, are we good enough, can we be who we want to be - these are questions we have asked ourselves at different points in life. Through her life story, Michelle Obama takes us through some of these questions.
Am I good enough?
It’s one of the questions that define Michelle Obama’s childhood, especially her early years in school, growing up in the South Side of Chicago. “Am I good enough?” It is a question that many of us reading this piece have asked ourselves. It is a question that helps define who we are and separate ourselves from what we feel we aren’t.
Michelle Obama displays optimism, self-belief and courage amply as she chronicles her childhood replete with dinner conversations, fights with her brother, and her father’s battle with multiple sclerosis.
The initial chapters are detailed and the rambling tone tends to get tiring at times, which may have been fixed with some good editing. However, the book picks up pace once Michelle heads to college.
Ignore the naysayers and critics
“What I’ve learned is this: All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout out I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away but the most successful people I know have figured how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goal.”
Be it her school counsellor who thought she wasn’t good enough for Princeton to her critics following her every step when she was First Lady, Michelle Obama just cut out the noise and kept doing what she wanted to. She writes, “And until recently I was the First Lady of the United States of America - a job that’s not officially a job, but that nonetheless has given me a platform like nothing I could have imagined. It challenged me and humbled me, lifted me up and shrank me down, sometimes all at once.”
From promoting healthy eating, mentoring girls, wearing young and lesser-known designers, speaking at schools and colleges, welcoming more children into the White House and championing arts and culture - Michelle used every opportunity to go beyond being what was expected of a First Lady or the wife of the most powerful man of the world.
It is a strong message and reminder not to be affected by critics and naysayers. She assures that she was angry and upset at the time, but bounced back to ensure that the job at hand, was done well. It is a strong message to each and every one of us to use the wonderful opportunities we get in life to make an impact.
Grief and resilience go hand in hand
“It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colours go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful- a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids - and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.”
The loss of life and death features prominently in Becoming - the death of her best friend when she was 26, or her father when he was 55 or her miscarriage.
In talking about death Michelle Obama shows how important it is to live fully. She talks about pain and loss, and the grief of losing children to gun violence, havoc and loss of life caused by natural calamities and about the challenges of the armed forces and their families - their grief and loss. But she uses each of these examples to not just show pain but also hope and resilience.
“Grief and resilience live together - I learned this not just once as First Lay but many times over,” she writes.
Be who you are
The book is worth a read because it is a reminder to everyone and not just women that it is important to be who you are and own your story.
For women, it is about the realisation that whether you are the First Lady or a single mother, life does not come easy. It is important to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. You can choose to change the world or let it change you, the choice is yours.
She reveals her challenges of being a parent, a mother and a wife. She speaks about how she was totally against Barack Obama running for president or how once she gave her consent on the day he was to announce his candidacy, and how she refused to play to the stereotype. “I knew the stereotype I was meant to inhabit, the immaculately groomed doll-wife with the painted on-smile, gazing bright-eyed at her husband as if hanging on every word. This was not me and never would be. I could be supportive but I couldn’t be a robot.”
Her frustration of him not making it home for dinner and having to share him with the world are so relatable. They encapsulate the challenges of women world over. These are women supporting their own careers, husbands and trying to strike that proverbial balance.
She also explains how marriages need work and adaptability. “The answer, I’m guessing, is probably the best and the 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’re in it forever, there’s really no choice.”
Becoming is an insight into what it means to live in the White House, to know power and responsibility that comes with it, but also the lack of freedom and how stifling it can get at times. Of sometimes missing the normal and the mundane.
One of the big takeaways from Michelle Obama is about overcoming invisibility. It hits you especially if you have faced invisibility and lived it. It is a timely reminder to everyone about how change, though slow, can happen. As I read the lines below I was reminded of the euphoria, the joy and the celebration the announcement of Barack Obama had brought to not just America but the world.
“I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility. I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.”
There are plenty of other takeaways from the book but what worked for me, and could for all of us, is to keep finding ways in which we can own, and live our stories - not in the shadows but in the light, by not being afraid but embracing ourselves fully and by standing up together.
As Michelle Obama points out-