Stories that inspire

Becoming Michelle Obama

‘Am I good enough?’ sets the tone of Michelle Obama’s memoir ‘Becoming’. Every time she faced a challenge, she questioned herself “Am I good enough?” and outperformed herself. This is a book of hope, encouragement, and also impetus to dream big. Sitting in India, miles away from the US, this book is relatable to me as a girl, as a professional, as a mother, and more.

Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.

Being the First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017, she could have easily indulged herself in luxury and could have been content with throwing lavish parties at the White House for delegates. She could have easily been the trophy wife of President Barack Obama. Instead, she chose to be different. To stick to her story and toiled her way towards causes like child obesity, a better life for military spouses and families, education, and upliftment of underprivileged women from the minorities not just in America, but across the world.

I want to share an incident that happened in my house while I was reading Becoming. A woman, assigned by the Corporation of Chennai to do regular inquiries for Covid symptoms in residential areas came to my house. She would be barely twenty years old. She interrupted my reading to do her regular inquiry. I was mildly annoyed, nevertheless answered her with a smile. She became curious and asked me about the book I was reading. I told her that I am reading a book written by Michelle Obama. I casually asked her, ‘by any chance have you heard about the Obamas?’ Half guessing that she might not know them. Forgive this prejudiced me for judging her.

To my surprise, she replied, “I know Michelle Obama. She inspires young women. I have heard her speeches on YouTube.” Readers can now assume the reason behind my adulation for Michelle Obama.  It is safe to conclude that I, like some millions around the world, am smitten by the Obamas.

Modest beginning

Michelle Obama was born and brought up in a small two-bedroom house by her working-class parents. She neither lived in a fancy neighbourhood nor went to private schools. But she worked her way up to get admission in Princeton, one of the prestigious colleges of the United States.  She went on to get her degree in Law from the coveted Harvard Law School.

Her story is not very different from most of ours. She took educational loans to finish college. Was working fulltime to pay off debts and home loan until the very end of the Presidential campaign. Throughout her life’s journey from a school girl to the First Lady, her decisions reflected her candour and her humble upbringing.

At one point when the Presidential campaign tired out the duo (both her and her husband), they were hesitant to appoint a cook for their family. This might seem odd for many, but for me, that is a mark of who they are. A normal family that appreciated home cooking and looked at ‘hiring a cook’ as a luxury.

At the White House

If the stories before her entry into the White House were inspiring, her journey as the First Lady and her actions from being in that position of power were phenomenal.

You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far. As the first African American family in the White House, we were being viewed as representatives of our race. Any error or lapse in judgement, we knew, would be magnified something more than what it was.

This story will correlate to the above quote from the book. My favourite one from the memoir too. The US government offers the President-Elect, a certain amount for redecorating the White House to suit their tastes. She mentioned in her memoir that they did not use that money, instead used their own money to redecorate. The Obamas were very cautious in the decisions they made during their residence in the White House and kept their heads above water most of the time.

From tilling a vegetable garden in the White House to adding a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the mansion, her steps had been assertive and thought provoking. She added life and colour to the magnum opus Presidential mansion by introducing casual wear to the staff. She wanted the White House to be accessible for everyone, especially kids. With this in mind, she hosted Easter and Halloween parties to invite more children and Military families who had never seen the White House before.

Her work with youngsters

Michelle Obama playing hop scotch with children
Michelle Obama playing hopscotch / Wikimedia commons

Through her campaign ‘Let’s Move!’ she made an impact on the issue of obesity in American children. She even hula hooped on her lawn and did push-ups on TV shows to send across a strong message ‘exercise can be fun,’ to children.

I didn’t want to be some sort of well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings. I wanted to do things that were purposeful and lasting.

Her speech at the ‘Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School’ in England, to a group of girls from minority communities, made a huge impact on both the school girls and Michelle Obama herself. Months after her speech, the grades of the girls in the school had considerably increased. She even made it a point to be in regular correspondence with the school.

This goaded Michelle to start a leadership and mentoring programme for young girls at the White House. She invited sophomore and junior girls from high schools for monthly get-togethers that included informal chats, field trips, and mentoring sessions.

Michelle as a mother

The family of Barack Obama
The Obamas with their daughters / Wikimedia commons

Reading the memoir, her role as a mother, especially as a protective mother at the White House appealed to me the most. While being a working mother, she took guidance and inspiration from her women superiors and peers, who managed both home and work efficiently. Her constant struggle to be a better mother despite her commitments makes her more relatable to working moms throughout the world.

At the White House, she instructed her kids to make their own beds. She installed swings in the garden, invited her children’s friends for sleepovers to make her children feel more at home at the colossal building. Despite being under the scrutiny of the secret service agents, she made sure that it did not stress them. Her constant urge to protect her daughters either from the shutterbugs or from the gossip sites, her intention to spend as much time as possible with her daughters despite her gruelling schedule makes her one adorable mom.

I made it clear to the house keeping staff that our girls, as they had in Chicago, would make their own beds every morning. I also instructed Malia and Sasha (her daughters) to act as they’d always acted – to be polite and gracious.

The Karaoke Bit

What makes the book ‘Becoming’ more believable and inspiring? It is the different stories and people from her life, whom she recalls at various instances to encourage us to believe in our story no matter what. She has constantly fought her doubts to deliver her best. Michelle is a planner. She is family-centric, comfortable within her community, and hated politics. She always opted for what is more sensible and stable. She thought a lot about how people perceived her.

Also, she liked meeting people, empathizing with them, making jokes and listening to their stories. This quality made her a powerful speaker for her husband Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. People called her ‘The Closer’. Her talks helped people to make up their minds.

It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice.

She did exactly that. She raised funds for improving education for women throughout the world. To do that, she sang along with an American TV host James Corden in his show Carpool Karaoke. A feat which no other First Lady had tried before. The story of her transformation is ‘Becoming Michelle Obama’. I have no doubt that her memoir will continue to encourage several readers across cultural and territorial barriers in making their voice heard.

The Karaoke video on YouTube
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