I hit pause on social media, social events, and non-essential meetings for three days in order to carve out the time to devour Michelle Obama’s Becoming. It was a long anticipated read so I tried to tamp down my expectations for fear of disappointment. Little did I know that expectation management would be a theme of the book. From the opening line, “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving,” we’re made privy to the expectation that would most define her life: excellence. Courageously, Michelle Obama lets us in on the emotional and psychological journey of negotiating between what others want from her, whether it’s great-aunt Robbie wanting perfection at the piano or the media wanting perfection on the campaign trail, and what she wants for herself.
In a tiny apartment on the Southside of Chicago in the 1960s, where her and her older brother Craig were raised by a city laborer and a homemaker, striving means proving. An early reader, she insists that her Kindergarten teacher allow her to retake a reading test that she failed the previous day by misspelling the word “white.” She passes and loves her gold star. But what she relishes even more is obliterating any doubt that she deserves it. By the time the former First Lady is moving out of 300 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2016 striving means evolving. A reluctant political wife, she learns to appreciate the privilege of advancing initiatives like Let’s Move and Let Girls Learn and the magnitude of serving as the anchor for the most powerful man in the world.
Due to the beautifully intricate writing this book feels intimate. It’s as if Michelle Obama is curled up barefoot on your sofa cradling a cup of tea, telling you her entire story. This is not surprising given her authentic and accessible brand, but it’s still an impressive feat for one of the most popular and recognizable women of this era. The author doesn’t shy away from the struggles of being a woman, either. She writes about the resentment of being the primary breadwinner and caregiver while her husband prioritized his civil service (and workouts). She’s honest about her failing attempts at trying to meet the unrealistic expectations of being the perfect wife, mother, and professional. In the most stinging “indictment,” she realizes she’s got to cut back on fast food after the pediatrician warns her daughter is overweight. In keeping it real, Michelle Obama poignantly illustrates the dilemma of modern womanhood: it’s impossible to fully cater to the ambitions society fuels in you and to simultaneously execute the familial responsibilities society saddles you with. But she is also clear that feminism doesn’t exist within a vacuum. Michelle Obama’s female identity is inextricably linked to her identity as a descendant of enslaved people and the pressure that comes with being the embodiment of hope. Becoming is the memoir of one striving woman, the story of black America, and an invitation for us all to discover that no matter where we are in our path, we are always enough.