"Becoming" by Michelle Obama—Sharing Her Story with The World
Who are you becoming? That’s the central question in Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming” that spent weeks in the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and it seems to resonate with millions of readers across the globe. She is currently on a worldwide book tour and engaging her Instagram followers daily with questions stemming from her book.
She weaves common themes throughout her mostly chronological telling while maintaining a conversational writing style. It inspires you to reflect, connect, and share your own story. So that’s what I’m going to try to do here.
Four Themes, Too Many Quotes, and My Connections
Reckoning with the Need to Achieve
“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path--the my-isn’t-that-impressive path--and keep you there for a long time.”
I never expected to have so much in common with Michelle Obama. But it turns out that we are both classic overachievers who are desperate to avoid failure. Fun, right?
In her book, she shares a formative, kindergarten memory involving sight words, flashcards, and public humiliation. She didn’t know one of the words when tested in front of her peers, so she buckled-down, practiced, and demanded another try to show everyone that she could read. I have similar elementary school memory with addition flashcards. These stories are early evidence of a strong inner critic and some serious self-invoked pressure.
Only later did we realize that caring about what other people think isn’t the key to success, happiness, or anything, really. Even so, like Michelle Obama, I still wonder, “Am I enough?”
She revisits this theme several times throughout her writing, each time trying to break free of her own definition of failure. It’s the lessons that matter not the specific achievement--a comforting thought to someone like me.
Finding Love, Family, and Home
“I’d known the guy for only a couple of months then, but in retrospect I see now that this was my swerve. In that moment, without saying a word, I’d signed on for a lifetime of us, and a lifetime of this.”
For Michelle Obama, her family is the bedrock of her childhood, and she makes it clear that family remains paramount. That’s not to say she doesn’t encounter problems or doubt along the way.
As a Cleveland girl, I loved the metaphor she crafts that compares the weather of her hometown of Chicago to her parents’ marriage: “You can live for a hundred straight days beneath an iron-gray sky that claps itself like a lid over the city,” but then “the sun is out and there are little nubby buds on the trees and your neighbors have taken off their heavy coats.” I took it to mean that every marriage experiences seasons, and it takes courage to stay through the bitter cold in anticipation of warmer days.
Later, she discusses her relationship with former President Barack Obama. Their love story begins with a kiss on the cub in front of a Baskin-Robins and lasts throughout the presidency. She relays his “inborn confidence” as admirable, but she “couldn’t help but feel a little lost by comparison.” I get that. My husband is not headed for Capitol Hill, but on our first date, he did tell me that he wanted to be president of The United States. That’s a showstopper. My decision to support his career ambitions in the army and government sector mean personal and professional sacrifices on my end. Many women who believe in and fight for equality find themselves in the same situation. It’s not easy, and Michelle Obama knows it.
Surviving Infertility, Motherhood, and Guilt
“It turns out that even two committed go-getters with a deep love and a robust work ethic can’t will themselves into being pregnant. Fertility is not something you conquer.”
In truth, I picked this book to read those lines. I heard that the Obamas struggled with fertility on the news one day, and I had to know more. You see, my daughter exists because of the same scientific “high-stakes lottery” that is commonly called in-vitro fertilization (IVF). She writes this section with matter-of-fact ease that might surprise an audience who is unfamiliar with fertility issues. She throws around phrases like “ovulation window” and “plunge a syringe into my thigh” that can make people grimace, but it’s our reality. And I’m grateful that she shares her story because it gives strength to the one in eight women who are currently struggling to create a family.
She explains that once you get that long-awaited baby, life takes a drastic turn away from the “zest of Mary Tyler Moore” and toward the “stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland” path of being a mother. It can be a shock to the system, and it’s one that Michelle Obama works to balance. But she admits that motherhood is more like “a state of constant calibration, tweaking one area of life in hopes of bringing more steadiness to another.” To me, she sounds like every mother in America.
Seeing Privilege, Racism, and A Way Forward
“Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”
While she is telling her unique story, she is also telling the story of being black in our society. She writes about invisible barriers stacked in front of family members and systemic oppression that led to “simmering resentment” in her grandfather.
I feel her passion when she says that college opens pathways, “ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.” And she wants to change that grim reality. Her life’s work seems to be increasing access to tangible things like education and healthy food options--and then more lofty goals like bringing hope to blighted communities and envisioning “the world as it should be.” I bet this book is the first step to something much bigger for the Obamas.
Review of “Becoming” by Michelle Obama
Who am I to critique a well-written, best-selling life story from a former First Lady? So take it with a grain of salt. First off, I could tell when she was writing from the heart and when she felt forced to recap something--like when she talked about her nonprofit work versus remembering the campaign trail. Also, I think she included a few petty examples where she felt slighted during the 2008 election; they interrupted the hopeful tone and flow of the book.
However, the good far outweighs any small complaints. There are lessons to be learned from every life, especially if that life started on the south side of Chicago and ended up in the White House. And she believes the way to build empathy and understanding is by sharing our stories. Becoming invites us to do just that. Who’s next?