Updated: Mar 19, 2019
Here’s a question – if the significant other of the president of the United States was a man what would he be called? The First Gentleman perhaps? I just googled this and apparently the term First Lady was originally created for James Buchanan’s niece when he was in power – as a bachelor he didn’t have anyone who automatically assumed the role that we now know as First Lady and so his niece took it on and the term had to be created because prior to this the wife of the president was always simply called his wife. James Buchanan was president in the 1800s so it would be fascinating to know how that original FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) would compare her role to that described by Michelle Obama in her autobiography ‘Becoming.’ Those musings aside this book is about so much more than life at the White House.
‘Becoming’ is a witty, honest, engaging and authentic life story that I think many people will be able to connect with. She's destined to be known by us all as Michelle Obama but the book introduces us to the young Michelle Robinson who's growing up in a one bedroom apartment on Euclid Avenue on the South Side of Chicago with her brother Craig and her parents. They live above her aunt who teaches piano and one of the early stories that captured me is of Michelle, having learnt to play on her aunt’s piano that had a chip out of middle C allowing for easy recognition, giving her first public recital on another piano and realising that she doesn’t actually know which is middle C without that chip to help her. What a great metaphor for any of us who have ever moved from something familiar and become suddenly, and sometimes cripplingly, aware of the differences we have to get to grips with even though we were feeling really comfortable with our competence levels in our old familiar space.
Our journey with Michelle takes us through high school and onwards to university. The descriptions of situations and people really made me feel as though I was accompanying her without being overly detailed or in any way saccharine. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her friends and accompanying her through the challenges of growing up, finding her way and her voice. She grows up with a loving family who send her out into the world with this incredible work ethic that is a huge strength but also brings with it the difficulties of being a ‘striver’. Again I suspect many of us can empathise with that.
We, of course, meet Barack and experience the early days of their relationship, then the campaigning and ultimately their move to the White House. Throughout it there’s a real sense of her working out who she is, what she’s about and how she stays true to her evolving sense of self as a lawyer, wife, mother, professional and then as someone who is supporting her husband as he starts his political career which, although she talks openly of her dislike for politics, requires her to step into the spotlight and allow others into who she is. On heading out on the campaign trail for the first time she writes
'I was given no script, no talking points, no advice. I figured I’d just work it out for myself. My job, I realised, was to be myself, to speak as myself. And so I did.’
Being authentically ourselves is something that many people find difficult, trusting that we are good enough, likeable enough, clever enough (insert your own words here just before the word ‘enough’) can sometimes be a battle behind closed doors never mind with the eyes of the world on you. And Michelle Obama knows that as well as anyone that has been at the mercy of other people’s opinion and judgment.
‘I was female, black and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry’. It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room. An unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
I was starting now to actually feel a bit angry, which then made me feel worse, as if I were fulfilling some prophecy laid out for me by the haters, as if I’d given in. It’s remarkable how stereotype functions as an actual trap. How many ‘angry black women’ have been caught in the circular logic of that phrase? When you aren’t being listened to, why wouldn’t you get louder? If you’re written off as angry or emotional, doesn’t that just cause more of the same?’
How many of us, both male and female and regardless of race, can say we’ve felt like this at some point in our careers? How many of us in leadership positions have at some point been labelled as something that we simply don’t feel fits us and then had to decide how much energy to put into the fight to change someone’s mind about us, whether to stand firm in our knowledge of ourselves and indeed whether it matters at all? This is perhaps when our sense of self comes into greatest focus. You might find yourself questioning whether your self-perception is true or whether the opinion you are being offered is the truth. Often there is no right or wrong simply a choice of what to do with the feedback you are getting.
Michelle’s doctrine of ‘when they go low, we go high’ is core and clear throughout. She doesn’t pull any punches but she also doesn’t fight dirty, choosing to tread her own path, one that she feels comfortable with. The tone throughout the book is one of unflinching honesty but never mudslinging. She is forthright and never swerves an issue – it would be easy for her to simply not talk about certain things or keep it at surface level, but I suspect we would have a whole lot less respect for her if she didn’t for instance give us an insight into how appalled she is by Donald Trump
‘Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance.’
She’s also consistently honest about her own doubts and uncertainties and this is what makes her so easy to like and connect with. She tells us about the personal elements of her life, the pain of a miscarriage, the loneliness of loving someone who is away from home a lot, the challenges of bringing up two girls in the midst of political campaigning. Choosing to sit quietly alone waiting to see if Barack is elected for a second term she sends a message or two wanting to be updated but gets no response
‘I felt my equilibrium slip. I didn’t dare turn on the news, assuming suddenly that it was bad. I was accustomed at this point to fighting off negative thoughts, sticking to the good until I was absolutely forced to contend with something unpleasant. I kept my confidence in a little citadel, high on a hill inside my own heart. But for every minute my Blackberry lay dormant in my lap, I felt the walls starting to breach, the doubts beginning to rampage. Maybe we hadn’t worked hard enough. Maybe we didn’t deserve another term.’
How many of us have experienced our brain’s ability to catastrophise – to turn one small piece of information or, in this case, a lack of information into an enormous disaster? How much time as human beings do we spend worrying about things that actually never happen? How often do you notice this in yourself – waiting to hear about a promotion, waiting to hear your teenager come home from a night out, waiting for someone you went on a date with to call or message you, hearing a rumour about a restructure at your work and immediately fearing the worst? Us human beings are great at it and use up a whole load of energy on worrying that could be better used in action.
And she gives us a lovely reminder about how the stories we tell ourselves can shape us
‘I grew up with a disabled dad in a too small house with not much money in a starting to fail neighbourhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.’
This book resonated for me on a number of levels – she talks often about things that I believe, practice and support others in developing, some of which I’ve mentioned in this review. I wanted to like her and it wasn’t difficult to do so. Her honesty about herself and the inner struggles is captivating and engaging and I doubt that there are many of us who wouldn’t see something of ourselves in there
‘For me becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously towards a better self. The journey doesn’t end. () I have become, by certain measures a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.
It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigour. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.’
It became apparent to me how this family managed to be the first to ‘survive’ the White House without any major scandal and come out the other end relatively whole. The desire to keep growing whilst rooted to a firm and solid set of values is clear throughout. A sense of fun and a need to occasionally escape the expectations and requirements of others shines through, especially in the White House days. An empathy and consideration of others is absolutely evident but most of all Becoming is about the process of finding out who we are, taking off masks and armour when appropriate and allowing people in. Michelle Obama reminds us that we are only human, make mistakes and can still be loved as our true selves. That we can struggle and experience fear regardless of our position in the world and that we may never be a finished, polished product but that’s OK as long as we are learning and growing
‘It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.’
Thanks Michelle, I enjoyed getting to know you.
Did you read the book? What did you think of it? What resonated for you?