By Uma Ramesh
I see Michelle Obama as the human embodiment of my favorite Emily Dickinson poem, which begins: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops at all.” Mrs. Obama makes my heart feel light; her warmth fills me with faith in my own worth and potential, while her conviction helps me find strength in myself. For these reasons and more, I devoured Becoming, her recently-released memoir, eager to read the former First Lady’s reflections on her remarkable life.
Many pieces have been written about groundbreaking and surprisingly candid passages from the work, including Mrs. Obama’s admissions that she had a miscarriage and went to marriage counseling with her husband. I found these parts of Becoming powerful and moving; I was equally struck by other insights of hers that don’t lend themselves as well to headlines. Her quietly profound thoughts have helped me see many things differently. Here are a few from Becoming that I hope you’ll find meaningful:
1. On the challenges of being a first-generation college student:
“So many of us arrived at college not even aware of what our disadvantages were . . . It was like stepping onstage at your first piano recital and realizing that you’d never played anything but an instrument with broken keys. Your world shifts, but you’re asked to adjust and overcome, to play your music the same as everyone else” (75).
Recalling her college experience at Princeton, Michelle describes the insidious, multi-layered obstacles that privilege placed in her way. Growing up in a working-class community, she didn’t receive the same academic support as her wealthier peers – nor did she know how robust their college preparation was. To succeed, Obama was doubly challenged to learn about these students’ advantages while bridging the gap. This passage is a reminder that overcoming the barriers of privilege is harder than most people think; it has helped me forgive myself for moments when I wasn’t able to bridge the gap.
2. On how she grew committed to community-focused work:
“My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood – to look ahead and overcome . . . But listening to Barack, I began to understand that his version of hope reached far beyond mine: It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck” (117-8).
Recounting how she fell in love with her husband, Michelle explains that he expanded the scope of her dreams. When they met, her primary goal was achieving the kind of life that had been out of reach for her parents. He helped her see the importance of looking beyond that to address the problems keeping members of her community stuck. This passage states that the most meaningful definition of success includes more than a person’s individual achievements. By encouraging readers to dream of progress for themselves and their community, Obama is moving us towards social change.
3. On her determination to balance her ambition and her family’s needs:
“I wasn’t going to try to hide the messiness of my existence, from the breast-feeding baby and the three-year-old in preschool to the fact that with my husband’s topsy-turvy political schedule I was in charge of more or less every aspect of life at home . . . Somewhat brazenly, I suppose, I laid all this out in my interview with Michael Riordan, the hospital’s new president” (202).
Soon after she gave birth to Sasha, Michelle was invited to apply for a full-time job at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She decided to bring Sasha to her interview and candidly explain the demands motherhood placed on her life; she would give her all in the position but needed accommodations like flextime to succeed. With this passage, Obama affirms that women can own their ambitions without apologizing for their commitment to their families. Her message is groundbreaking, given that many American parents face pressure to prioritize their job over all else.
4. On navigating her role as a political spouse:
“And as much as Barack’s staffers respected me and valued my contribution, they’d never given me much in the way of guidance . . . I’d never received media training or speech prep. No one, I realized, was going to look out for me unless I pushed for it” (268).
Campaigning for her husband in 2008, Obama was pilloried after she remarked: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” This episode helped Obama realize that she hadn’t received the training she needed to withstand public scrutiny. In response, she resolved to push for the support she deserved. This passage empowers me to advocate for myself in spite of my fear that I’ll be labeled aggressive for doing so. While women are often criticized for assertive behavior, Obama’s example makes clear that staying silent carries greater risks.