“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”
Michelle Obama writes that she is and always will be “Michelle Robinson from the South Side inside this larger sweep of history.” That perspective informs her life and her memoir, a fascinating story that takes us with her from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton and Washington and the world.
Michelle Robinson grew up in a Black working-class family, her father working a blue-collar job and her mother staying at home to take care of Michelle and her brother Craig. Her early years saw a move from a housing project to a family-owned duplex. Family was everything: mother and father and brother Craig upstairs, Aunty Robbie and Uncle Terry downstairs.
“Everything that mattered was within a five-block radius—my grandparents and cousins, the church on the corner, the gas station where my mother sometimes sent me to pick up a pack of Newports, and the liquor store, which also sold Wonder bread, penny candy, and gallons of milk … [and] the nearby public park, where by day we climbed on the playground jungle gym and played tag with other kids.”
Telling stories infused with affection and humor, she still pulls no punches in describing how racism, segregation, and economic disparities shaped her family’s history and her own growing up. At the same time, she describes the never-give-up attitudes of parents and teachers who created opportunities and pushed children to succeed. If that pressure contributed to her lifelong “Am I good enough?” self-doubt, she also credits it for her family’s successes. This blue-collar Chicago family sent first her brother, Craig, and then Michelle herself, to Princeton.
After Princeton came Harvard Law School, and then a high-powered Chicago law firm, a big salary, and an office overlooking Lake Michigan. There, as a young attorney, she was asked to mentor a summer intern who was supposed to be brilliant, “a comparatively exotic geek.” Before he returned to Harvard, they were in love: Michelle from the South Side and the tall, skinny, serious community-organizer-turned-law-student.
During the next two years, as Barack Obama finished law school, Michelle struggled with the question of what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to be of service, to do something that felt more meaningful than corporate law. Her brother Craig shared her unease, as he looked for some life work more meaningful than banking.
When their father died, succumbing to Cushing’s syndrome after a decades-long battle with MS, she knew she had to take the next step:
“If I died, I didn’t want people remembering me for the stacks of legal briefs I’d written or the corporate trademarks I’d helped defend. I felt certain that I had something more to offer the world. It was time to make a move.”(p. 145)
By the time Michelle and Barack married in 1992, she was working at City Hall, having taken a big pay cut to work at a job that might make a difference in the world. Barack was working in an even lower-paying job, leading a hugely successful voter registration campaign. Over time, both moved to other jobs, still prioritizing meaningful work over money.
While the young couple chose to have children, that was not easy. Michelle describes the pain of miscarriages and the unexpected necessity of in vitro fertilization, which “felt like having a high-stakes lottery ticket, only with science involved.” (p. 188) When Malia, their first child, was born, she was consumed by motherhood, which “dictated my movements, my decisions, the rhythm of every day.” (p. 191)
As a woman with a career and a family, Michelle summarized her see-saw life choices as a choice between Mary Tyler Moore and her own mother, Marian Robinson:
“Mary had a job, a snappy wardrobe, and really great hair. She was independent and funny … youthful and at the same time grown-up. … If you were a girl with a brain and a dawning sense that you wanted to grow into something more than a wife, May Tyler Moore was your goddess….
“I had so much—an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition—and I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me. She’d taught me how to read before I started kindergarten, helping me sound out words as I sat curled like a kitten in her lap, studying a library copy of Dick and Jane. …
“I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. … I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all.” (pp. 172-173)
Besides her personal choices, Michelle and Barack faced “questions would come to dominate the next decade of our lives, pulsing like a drumbeat behind almost everything we did.” (p. 182) Though she “didn’t much like politicians” and thought he would “get eaten alive,” she supported his dreams as he had supported hers.
The final half of the book opens a window into the political life of the Obama family, the campaigns, the presidency, and finally, leaving the White House. While this part is fascinating (especially to a lifelong political junkie like me), I find Michelle’s story of her inner life, of her striving and balancing competing responsibilities, to be even more compelling. In the epilogue, she describes why the book is title “Becoming,” and her vision of life as “forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. … Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.” (p. 419)
Obama, Michelle. Becoming. Crown. Kindle Edition. (2018)