My mother and I do not usually read the same kinds of books – I read novels, she reads non-fiction and books on Christian spirituality. Every now and then, one of us will hand the other a book that has really inspired us, but rarely do we find that the same things capture our attention. Last year, she asked for a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming for Christmas. As soon as she finished reading it, she started telling me that I needed to read it, too. I delayed, and her copy of the book was passed around to a couple of her sisters and some of my cousins before making its way back to me. “She reminds me of you,” my mom said. (Being the encouraging and loving mom that she is, she has a slightly unrealistic idea of how high-achieving I actually am!) I was not completely enthusiastic; although there are many social and political issues that I care about, I do not like following politicians’ lives or personalities like celebrities. It turns out, neither does Michelle Obama. In reading Becoming, I found that there were many things about her that surprised me. Most surprising of all, was that I found that I admired her very much, despite my initial reluctance to read the book.
Becoming is divided into three parts: “Becoming Me” about her childhood and college years, “Becoming Us” about meeting Barack Obama and their early marriage, and “Becoming More” about their family’s time in the White House. In the first part, I was struck by how wonderful and supportive her parents were and how important that was in her life’s path. She shows that her parents were the sort of people who held her to high standards by the example of their own actions. They believed in her deeply and this is made clear not by words, but in the sacrifices they made for her happiness and education. I admired her parents, their work ethic, and the love they showed for their children. Michelle also shows how the changes in her community on the South Side of Chicago affected the people around her. I was struck especially by one of her anecdotes regarding a friend whose family was involved in politics, and how much she hated getting swept up in politics for her sake; it seems that political work finds her no matter where in life she is! By the end of the first section, the reader sees her development from a curious and bold child into a driven young lawyer with strong ties to her family and friends.
In the second part, I was blown away by the relentless drive that young lawyer showed in her profession. It is during her time at a law firm that she meets an intern named Barack Obama. I found that even though I knew the outcome of her relationship with her new boyfriend and the outcome of his eventual run for presidency, her writing put me in the moment so that I was invested and eager to keep reading. I admired how her relationship with Barack for how he encouraged her to follow her dreams of using her skills to better her community. I also admired her honesty in describing the ups and downs of married life. Michelle does not shy away from showing the tough reality of balancing marriage, parenthood, and a career and the bravery required to manage it all. I may never be motivated to the sorts of community initiative and professional high achievement that Michelle attained, but having an insight into the life of someone who never stops striving for greatness inspires me to do better.
The third part I found less interesting than the first two – to me, it largely read as a rapid-fire summary of the most notable events of Barack Obama’s presidency from Michelle’s point of view. The insights into how their family functioned in the White House and how they worked to give their daughters as normal a childhood as possible were interesting, but ultimately I found the first two parts of the book much more rewarding.
At the end, Michelle says, “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.” Her determination for self, family, and community improvement and the different ways she reaches for those goals is inspiring to me. It may not be what she had intended a reader to take away, but I found that I kept thinking to myself “behind every great man is a greater woman.” After reading this book, I found myself wanting to read more memoirs and biographies of great women and, hopefully, learn to reach toward a little greatness myself.
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