I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and womanism was in full bloom. My scope of womanhood was a universe built by the likes of Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood, and Shirley Chisholm. The truth is that I never understood first ladies and our preoccupation with them. (The exception being Jackie Kennedy because she was a New Yorker, worked in book publishing, and was so impossibly chic.) The day that Michelle Obama entered the public stage changed everything.
Here was a woman, just a few years older than me, who had accomplished so much and talked publicly about the very things I was in the thick of—marriage and motherhood, the importance of self-care, and the Marian Wright Edelman edict that “service is the rent you pay for living.” I realized then that first ladies preoccupy us because as women, we are always in the business of composing a life, and watching a woman in the White House, a woman whose decisions and choices, from fashion to family to public issues, offer us clues as to how to go about it. Whether we embrace their choices or reject them, the choices are there—public and unhidden.
Becoming by Michelle Obama is a lyrically told journey of her life from the South Side to the White House and beyond. It’s the perfect, curl-up-on-a-winter-day and made-for-book-club read, and, although I haven’t heard it on audio, I can only imagine that her voice narrating the memoir would be a heavenly companion for a long trip via planes, trains, or automobiles. (I’ll mention here that I was already a Michelle fangirl and edited the collection The Meaning of Michelle.)
What stuck out to me most however is that the Michelle Obama’s memoir is chock full of lessons that we can all use. As she writes, “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 toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”
Here are nine of the top take-aways from Michelle Obama’s memoir.
You can demand—and you deserve–a second chance (and a third, and a fourth)
The story that inspired the lesson may seem a million miles away from our grown-up life: When Obama was in kindergarten, the teacher called on her in a spelling bee, and she froze. What struck me is that as she wrote, “The next morning in class, I asked for a do-over. When Mrs. Burroughs said no, cheerily adding that we had kindergartners had other things to get to, I demanded it.”
One of the things about getting older that has given me so much joy is that the longer my life gets, the more I get a second chance at things.
One of the things about getting older that has given me so much joy is that the longer my life gets, the more I get a second chance at things. And sometimes a third chance. We don’t always get it right. We choke. We freeze. We fall flat on our faces. Reading the story in Becoming reminded me that I have the right to not only hope for a do-over, but I could take it a step further—I could demand it. In my grown-up life, that can mean taking the time to think about what I want another shot at and figuring out how to get it. To me, that’s more than liberating. It’s energizing. It’s exciting.
Grief realigns us
At a young age, Obama lost both her father and a beloved college friend. Her grief propelled her to reach for clarity and purpose. She writes, “Losing my Dad exacerbated my sense that there was no time to sit around and ponder how my life should go. My father was just 55 when he died. Suzanne had been 26. The lesson there was simple: Life is short and not to be wasted. 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.”
You have to learn how to fight
Like so many people, I grew up in a home where fighting was so constant and so vicious that I made it my business to avoid conflict at all costs. I am only just learning that conflict is inevitable, and, for so many of us, we have to learn—teach ourselves—how to fight, not just in romantic relationships. The advice in Becoming seems to me to be applicable to any important relationship in our lives: “It’s taken us time—years—to understand that this is just how each of us is built, that we are each the sum total of our respective genetic codes as well as everything installed in us by our parents and their parents before them. Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained, still in sight.”
We live in a state of constant recalibration
Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.
About her posse of mommy friends, she wrote: “Each one of these women was educated, ambitious, dedicated to her kids and generally as bewildered as I was about how to pull it all together. … Most of us lived in a state of constant calibration, tweaking one area of life in hopes of bringing more steadiness to another.” It’s a powerful reminder that brings to mind the Tom Stoppard quote, “Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.”
A dress can transform a moment
I’ve always believed in the power of dressing up to both lift my mood and ground me in the moment. I was really touched by what Obama wrote about her inauguration dress: “In my life so far, I’d worn very few gowns, but Jason Wu’s creation performed a potent little miracle, making me feel soft and beautiful and open again, just as I began to think I had nothing of myself left to show. The dress resurrected the dreaminess of my family’s metamorphosis, the promise of this entire experience, transforming me if not into a full-blown ballroom princess, then at least into a woman capable of climbing onto another stage.” As I look ahead to the holidays, I’ll be thinking about this passage and reaching for a dress that allows me to connect with some part of myself that has felt hidden in a year that was chockablock of busy work days and bruising personal challenges.
The confidence game is our life’s work. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our girls.
In Becoming, Obama writes about how a visit to schoolgirls, early in the first term of her White House tenure, helped realign her with her own confidence and inspire the girls: “Speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good enough? Yes, you are, all of you. I told the students of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson … that they were precious, because they truly were.”
Who’s your personal gospel choir? The people who hold you up and lift you up?
There’s a moment deep in the Michelle Obama’s memoir, when Obama reflects on the people who helped her along the way. Reading this passage reminded me to look back and give thanks but also to reinforce my current support systems. She writes that these people “formed a meaningful constellation. These were my boosters, my believers, my own personal gospel choir, singing, Yes kid, you got this! All the way through.”
It’s a glorious thing when your daughters become your wing women
My daughter is still young, only in sixth grade. But I’ve already felt the shifts of moments when I don’t need to be in the pure Mom role of doing, making, cooking, providing. When we have a glam girls day or go out to tea, I can take a step back and just enjoy the young woman she’s becoming. I was reminded of the importance of making time for these moments and savoring them when Obama wrote about sneaking out of the White House with her eldest daughter, Malia: “[She] surprised me a little by immediately signing on. I’d found my wing-woman. We were going on an adventure—outside, where people were gathered—and we weren’t going to ask for permission.”
Build a garden
Becoming’s most powerful message, I think, is the reminder that in our quest to move our lives forward, we should all plant a garden, in some way, shape, or form.
One of Obama’s enduring legacies will be the White House Garden. She was the first first lady to plant vegetables in the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden. As she put it in Becoming, “The most enduring mark, however, lay outside the walls. The garden had persisted through seven and a half years now, producing roughly two thousand pounds of food annually. … We expanded its footprint to … more than double its original size. We added … a welcoming arbor made of wood sourced from the estates of Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and the childhood home of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
I am not a gardener but I believe in the idea of legacy. I endowed a study room in my grandmother’s name at my alma mater, Bard at Simon’s Rock College, before I purchased my first home. I give some money to good causes. But I also believe in finding little pockets of time. I’ll write a friend who runs a teen journalism program and ask if I can pop in for an hour. Like so many NextTribe readers, I can feel exhausted by the weight of all I want to do and be and have. Becoming’s most powerful message, I think, is the reminder that in our quest to move our lives forward, we should all plant a garden, in some way, shape, or form.
Veronica Chambers is a prolific author and journalist, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl, the young adult novel The Go-Between, and Yes Chef, which was co-authored with chef Marcus Samuelsson. She is the editor of The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own.