BECOMING by Michelle Obama (2018)

January 2021

Young Michelle Robinson had carefully planned her life:  good education, career, home ownership, children.  While she did achieve those goals, it was done in a way that she never could have imagined in her wildest dreams.  In fact, her life took a path that wouldn’t even have been available to her when she had those dreams.  No African-American woman had lived as the First Lady with her President husband in the American White House.  They were the first.  Becoming is the story of her journey.

Michelle has divided her book into 3 parts, the first of which is “Becoming Me.”  She grew up on Chicago’s South Side amid a loving, supportive, extended middle-class family.  When we read the wonderful stories about her family in those years, we see where her confidence and strong family values originated.

From an early age, she was focused on achieving excellence in school and in everything else she did.  Her efforts led her to Princeton for undergraduate work, then to Harvard Law School.  She followed her big brother Craig to Princeton, applying and being accepted despite a counselor’s opinion that she wasn’t sure Michelle was “Princeton material.”  Michelle understood that she was being told to “lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me.”  [p. 66]  She proved that in fact she DID belong at Princeton, then at Harvard Law School.

By her mid-twenties, she was a partner-track lawyer at a prestigious Chicago law firm, beginning to realize that she didn’t really enjoy the work and contemplating what she might prefer to do.

She writes:

“You’re a lawyer now.  You’ve taken everything ever given to you…and converted it to this.  You’ve climbed the mountain….A senior partner asks if you’ll mentor an incoming summer associate, and the answer is easy:  of course you will.  You have yet to understand the altering force of a simple yes.  You don’t know that when a memo arrives to confirm the assignment, some deep and unseen fault line in your life has begun to tremble, that some hold is already starting to slip.  Next to your name is another name, that of some hotshot law student who’s busy climbing his own ladder.  Like you, he’s black and from Harvard.  Other than that, you know nothing—just the name, and it’s an odd one.”  [pp. 92-93]

“The altering force of a single yes” launched Michelle Robinson into an alternate life that she’d never imagined, turning the impossible into reality.

In Part 2 Michelle takes the reader through “Becoming Us” as Michelle and Barack Obama (the oddly named law student she mentored) marry, change careers, and start their own family.  Michelle acts on her dissatisfaction with practicing corporate law by starting to work in more people-oriented fields.  She worked for Public Allies in Chicago helping young people prepare for public service careers.  She also worked in community relations to help South Side residents find affordable health care through the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Barack returned to Chicago after finishing Harvard Law School to resume working in community relations and teach.  He was asked first to run for an Illinois Senate seat, then to run for U.S. Senate.  After Michelle’s final hesitant permission, he ran for and won both races.

This period of Michelle’s life was probably the most difficult.  Her opinion of politics and politicians was not a high one, although her father had worked to get out the Democratic vote in Chicago when she was young.  She knew that Barack’s absence for much of the time would be a serious strain on the Chicago-based family.  Yet she knew his values and drive to help people make their lives better wasn’t really something she could deny him, OR the people he helped.  She gave her permission, but those years were a terrible strain on her.  Keeping a career going with 2 small children and a household to run was an ordeal that would break many women, but she survived it.

In this period, she also became a “political wife.”  Meet-and-greet sessions with voters and making speeches on behalf of her husband became part of her life.  As it happened, that was training for Part 3 of her book:  “Becoming More.”

Voters in the 2008 election did what many people thought impossible:  they elected an African-American president, and the Obama family moved into the White House, leaving Chicago behind for 8 years.  They all had to learn a different way of living that included being followed and often limited in activities by their Secret Service contingent.  Simple things like going out for ice cream became a major undertaking.

Michelle had to re-think what SHE wanted to do besides be a supportive wife and mother.  She decided to start by creating a garden on the White House property, growing vegetables and fruit to emphasize the need for healthy eating.

Over the years in office, she created several initiatives to help people, including:

Let’s Move!; Reach Higher; Let Girls Learn; and Joining Forces.

In all, she focused on healthy eating and exercise; reducing childhood obesity; encouraging young people to set aspirational goals to reach through education and service; and bringing attention to military members and their families.  She and Barack showed by example what people can accomplish—even the previously impossible!

What does “becoming” mean?  Why did she choose that title?

“I see it as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.  The journey doesn’t end….It’s all a process, steps along a path.  Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor.  Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.  [p. 419]

What does Michelle herself credit for the shocking divergence from her original life plan (which was not a bad one)?  “The altering force of a single yes” brought her into contact with Barack, as unlikely as it would seem they’d ever meet.

“I tried to think back and remember how it was that my life had forked away from the predictable, control-freak fantasy existence I’d envisioned for myself.  At what point had I chosen away from that?  When had I allowed the chaos inside?”

She cites her first kiss with Barack; and the day she walked away from her law career.  But most of all, it’s an event at a neighborhood group meeting, where “as Barack put it that night, you may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”  She says:

“I’d known this 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.”  [p. 395]

There are good reasons Becoming has graced the New York Times bestseller list for nearly 100 weeks—and why Michelle Obama may be the most loved and respected American woman.  I’ve shown only a few reasons, and this well-written book includes dozens, maybe hundreds, more.  Her experiences and wisdom gained through them can inspire every reader.  I highly recommend this book for every age group:  to young people for inspiration and aspiration; and for older folks to reflect on our own life journeys.

Remember, “becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”  We see where that concept took Michelle Obama.  Where might it take YOU?

This book will soon be available at the Grover Beach Community Library.

–Donna Rueff–