Books

Michelle Obama’s Becoming: The Power of Family

Read this book if you want to know what it’s like to be married to the most powerful man in the world. If you want to know what it’s like to be part of one of the most groundbreaking family ever to occupy The White House. If you want an insider’s view of the pressures of being on the world stage while every word you say is parsed and magnified.

But you should also read it if you want to understand a woman who is a powerful, forceful, and an extraordinary person in her own right. If you have lived with someone whose goals and ambitions diverge from your family’s needs and great compromises had to be made. If you are a woman who has always had to live feeling like she has to be better than excellent to feel she is good enough.

To say Michelle Obama’s story is like every woman’s is a stretch and yet the greatest strength of her memoir is how much resonance it will have with readers. Intensely personal, she writes in a conversational voice about her experiences in a moving and authentic way. And her story is not just a memoir of the first African-American First Lady of the United States. It is a vivid portrait of the American landscape itself.

Her family, middle class strivers living in Chicago’s southside neighborhood, shared the struggles and joys of most average people. Her mother Marian Robinson was a homemaker, while her father, Frazier Robinson, worked in a water filtration plant. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as an adult, he continued there even after he became dependent on a cane and then a wheelchair. When he took the family out for Sunday drives, his beloved Buick Electra gave him a sense of freedom and mobility that his condition robbed from him.

Michelle and her older brother, Craig, a basketball prodigy, were the focus of their parents’ hopes and ambitions. Things were changing enough by the 1970s and 80s that opportunities that had been denied to them were now opening up to their children. As the descendants of slaves who had come north during the Great Migration, when millions of blacks migrated north to escape the Jim Crow South, Marian and Frazier Robinson still faced significant prejudice because of their race. African-Americans were excluded from labor unions and were ineligible for the best high-paying blue-collar jobs—the only jobs available to them. Whites were moving out of minority neighborhoods. As a result, the schools in those areas declined, and Michelle, having been accepted into a top “magnet” school for bright students, traveled ninety minutes on a city bus each way to get there.

While Craig and Michelle excelled and both went on to Princeton University, their parents never were able to buy a house, go to restaurants, take vacations, or get new furniture. When the kids were growing up, Marian made Michelle’s clothes, and they lived in the second-floor apartment of their Aunt Robbie’s house, a space of 900-square feet jerry-rigged into three bedrooms. Eventually Aunt Robbie, who supported herself by giving piano lessons to the neighborhood children, died and left the house to the Robinsons. Michelle’s childhood dream had been to live in a house with stairs—a symbol of having a luxurious amount of space to her.

Michelle’s mother emerges as a quiet heroine. She was an attentive, meticulous, and wise wife and mother, who never complained but seemed to delight in the joys of her life even as she urged, with inspiration rather than pressure, her children to strive for more. Michelle writes, “I understand now that even a happy marriage can be a vexation, that it’s a contract best renewed and renewed again, even quietly and privately—even alone.” She reveals, “Much later, my mother would tell me that every year when spring came and the air warmed up in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving my father.”

Michelle describes the trials of living through winters in Chicago, and how her mother tackled the spring cleaning each year. In this passage, demonstrating both her writing and her deep empathy for her mother, she describes how at the end of winter:

“Eventually something happens. A slow reversal begins. It can be subtle, a whiff of humidity in the air, a slight lifting of the sky. You feel it first in your heart, the possibility that winter might have passed…It allows you to think, to wonder if you’ve missed out on other possibilities by becoming a wife to this man in this house with these children.

Maybe you spend the whole day considering new ways to live before finally you fit every window back into its frame and empty your bucket of Pine-Sol into the sink. And now maybe all your certainty returns, because yes, truly, it’s spring and once again you’ve made the choice to stay.”

The ultimate proof of Marian’s wizardry is in her children. Michelle grows up with an unshakeable sense of her own self-worth. Despite her constantly questioning “Am I good enough?” on every page of her book, you can see that she knows it. As a child, she was the only person in the family to stand up to the dictatorial Aunt Robbie or to call out her grandfather, nicknamed “Southside,” for being cranky and short-tempered. Always mindful to cross her ‘t’s,’ Michelle was nevertheless someone who takes risks, constantly challenging herself to hit a higher mark.

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  • Jo Shafer January 10, 2019 at 2:28 pm

    Loved this review! I can hardly wait to read it after it’s made the rounds on my daughter’s list. I’m next in line! Michelle Robinson grew up questioning whether she was ever “good enough.” So did I, but for different reasons. I still raise that question in my 70s in spite of my accomplishments, both private and public. That’s another story for another time which I struggle with in my memoir-in-progress.

    Reply
  • Emily January 10, 2019 at 9:29 am

    Thank you for correcting Kimmel’s comment.
    We all have obstacles in life. A mother like Marian makes the obstacles doable without losing yourself.
    Many women who have to fight through their childhoods to hold onto themselves have come to adulthood successful…as defined by her story.
    I’m happy for Michele but she doesn’t represent the majority.
    I’m giving a “ shout out” to all the women who were robbed of a childhood and still managed to make an inspirational life for themselves and their children!

    Reply
    • Jo Shafer January 10, 2019 at 2:29 pm

      Michelle represents me, I must say.

      Reply