“Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
The above quote appears on the very first page of Becoming, the memoir by Michelle Obama, who has become one of the most beloved, iconic and inspiring First Ladies to ever reside in the White House. I’ve read autobiographies in the past, but as a genre, I’ve never found them the most interesting books to read. Often badly or methodically written, with an agenda to push or bias to share, and with very little to them that people don’t already know, let’s just say I was a little apprehensive when purchasing this book – despite being a fan of her and her husband, and the eight years they spent as America’s “First Couple”.
But once I read that line above, I just knew this was a story I was going to enjoy reading. This belief that we have to decide when we are children what we want to be, and that when we become that then it’s just a case of settling in and waiting for death, is something that has always baffled me (and something I push back against). Growing up in Ireland, especially rural Ireland, if you don’t have a pensionable job, marriage, kids and a mortgage by the time you’re 35, you are often seen as somewhat of a failure. So, to see somebody as well known and liked as Michelle Obama talk about how life should be about constantly striving for more, learning and achieving new things, it really inspired me!
Of course it wasn’t just that first page that did it. When you read on, you discover just how relatable she is. Born into a loving and encouraging but largely poor family in Chicago, Michelle Obama didn’t have the kind of life that one would think would lead to becoming America’s First Lady. What her parents lacked in money, they made up for with hard work and determination, and instilled in their children (Michelle and her older brother Craig) the same work ethic and believe they could succeed. It’s this work ethic and determination that leads the siblings to land strong grades in school, and eventually earn places at the prestigious Princeton University.
From here we follow Michelle’s journey through studying law, becoming a competent lawyer, meeting and marrying the love of her life Barack, changing careers to work in public service in Chicago to find something more fulfilling, dealing with grief at a young age when faced with the deaths of family members and close friends, her struggles to become a mother, her struggles financially, and the moment she throws her support behind Barack’s ambitions to be the 44th President of the United States, changing their families lives forever.
For anyone who feels they would be weary of reading this due to a distaste for politics, you can rest assured that this is not an overly, in your face political read (Obama herself frequently talks of her own struggles with politics, how it’s a world she never truly ever strived to be a part of, and often feels uneasy about for it’s ugliness). Instead, this is a story of a woman who made the best of what she had to transform her life…from growing up poor, to landing a high paying position as a lawyer. From marrying the love of her life, and the struggles they experienced in that marriage under the glare of the media spotlight. From trying to balance her work with the needs of her children. And from wanting to use her power as First Lady to help create change, in a country that didn’t seem all that ready to accept a President’s spouse who wasn’t happy to play the doting, but ultimately silent, wife of the world’s most powerful man.
Some of the most fascinating things I found reading the book are about life in the White House when you are the President’s wife. From the outside looking, it can be easy for us to think they have it all. And while there is a certain level of privilege attached to being America’s First Family, there are definitely a lot of drawbacks and sacrifices we don’t consider. Imagine not being able to open the window of your office for some fresh air without getting security clearance first. Or how having a simple dinner and catchup with friends at the White House would require intense security checks weeks in advance. Or – which was the case for a large part of the time during their eight years as POTUS and FLOTUS – having to have your staff talk to your husband’s staff to arrange meetings with each other.
We also hear about the experiences of Malia and Sasha, the Obama’s daughters, through their mother here rather than first hand. But imagine being a teenager, going through all the changes that come with that, under an intense media spotlight. Unable to go anywhere without armed guards around you constantly, and unable to make any slip ups that we all made at a young age without having it slashed across a newspaper. All because your father decided he wanted to be President. We can all assume that the sisters had an amazing life of privilege because they of course would have access to more than most their age, but it’s clear that being a first daughter is not easy when you are young and trying to find your footing in life!
Of course, given the current political climate in America, Donald Trump receives a mention. But Obama to her credit shows class as she avoids dragging the tone into the gutter like so often happens with the current President. She states her feelings about the man and his lack of knowledge around governing a country, without resorting to name calling or going after his family. She like the rest of us can’t quite believe how things ended up how they did, but rather than be crestfallen, reading her words will leave you feeling hopeful that a change for the good will come sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, what stands out the most for me with this book is that Michelle Obama is a fine writer. The way she tells the story of her life, from poor Chicago girl to the most recognisable woman in the world, feels more like an exciting story than just a simple recounting of facts, and that is down to her talents as a storyteller. While I was reading, I could picture every scene of the inevitable movie that will come from this book, and it’s one I’m looking forward to seeing!
Have you read Becoming yet? What did you think? Let me know in the comments, Tweet me, or you’ll find me on Instagram too!