When I learned Michelle Obama was coming out with a memoir, I immediately pre-ordered it. My copy arrived just before Thanksgiving and I couldn't wait to get started.
I felt pretty confident that I knew a lot about our former First Lady - she grew up in Chicago, went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, worked as attorney (which is how she met Barack), loves to dance, and cares deeply about the health, well being and education of children. Now that I've finished the book, I can say I only knew about 10 percent of her story.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on the South Side of Chicago. She grew up in an apartment with her parents, Fraser and Marian, and her older brother Craig - who she idolized (and shared a room with for most of her life). Her great-aunt Robbie lived in the unit downstairs. Robbie was a piano teacher, so naturally, Michelle learned to play.
She was always curious and bright, reading at a very young age. As a teenager, she tested into Chicago's first magnet high school, Whitney M. Young High School. It was a long bus ride each way, but Michelle amused herself by trying to find the fastest routes - switching up which stops she got on and off at, and how far she'd walk.
Fun fact: one of Michelle's best friends in high school was Sanita Jackson, daughter of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. She describes, "When Reverend Jackson was at home, a different energy pulsed through the house. Routines were cast aside; dinner conversations lasted late into the night. Advisors came and went. Plans were always being made. Unlike my apartment on Euclid, where life ran at an orderly and predictable pace, where my parents' concerns rarely extended beyond keeping our family happy and on track for success, the Jacksons seemed caught up in something larger, messier, and seemingly more impactful."
As a junior, Michelle met with her high school guidance counselor to talk about her plans for college. Her brother Craig was at Princeton, and she was interested in the school as well. The counselor (who Michelle had the grace not to name) said, "I'm not sure that you're Princeton material." Can you imagine? Saying that to the face of the Michelle Obama we know today? Continuing to share the memory, she writes, "That day I left the college counselor's office at Whitney Young, I was fuming, my ego bruised more than anything. My only thought, in the moment, was I'll show you."
And show her she did! Getting into Princeton, graduating, and continuing on to Harvard Law School. Another fun fact: at Princeton, Michelle majored in sociology - same as me!
After law school, Michelle returned to her hometown of Chicago to work for Sidley & Austin, where she was in the marketing and intellectual property practice group. It was there that she met Barack. She had already been at the firm a few years, and he was hired as a summer associate. Michelle was to be his mentor and show him the ropes. I have to say, I love this power dynamic.
The first sentence of chapter seven reads, "Barack Obama was late on day one." Michelle shares all of her first impressions, including being surprised by his "rich, even sexy, baritone" voice. For that whole summer, the two danced around each other, going to firm events, but never really crossing the line from friendship into anything more. As the end of his internship neared, Barack asked Michelle if she'd like to get ice cream as they were leaving a firm BBQ. So together they went to Baskin-Robbins, shared their first kiss, and as Michelle says, "with that, I leaned in and everything felt clear." Swoon!
I love the way Michelle dissects her magnetism to Barack. On page 112, "Barack intrigued me. He was not like anyone I'd dated before, mainly because he seemed so secure. He was openly affectionate. He told me I was beautiful. He made me feel good. To me, he was sort of like a unicorn - unusual to the point of seemingly almost unreal. He never talked about material things, like buying a house or a car or even new shoes. His money went largely toward books, which to him were like sacred objects, providing ballast for his mind. He read late into the night, often long after I'd fallen asleep, plowing through history and biographies and Toni Morrison, too. He read several newspapers daily, cover to cover. He kept tabs on the latest book reviews, the American League standings, and what the South Side aldermen were up to. He could speak with equal passion about the Polish elections and which movies Roger Ebert had panned and why." Despite his unicorn status, when Michelle's father met Barack, he said to her brother, "Nice guy. Too bad he won't last." Ha!
As we all know, Barack did last. The couple got married in October 1992 at the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. Over the next four years, they both worked several different jobs in public service. As the 1996 election loomed, there was an opportunity for Barack to run for state senate in Illinois. After much discussion, they decided as a couple he would go for it. In November 1996, he won and was sworn in.
Around this same time, Michelle and Barack wanted to start a family. She very bravely shares that they struggled with infertility, ultimately deciding to pursue IVF. After all the tests, shots and ongoing worries, Malia was born on July 4, 1998. What are the chances that you're born on the fourth of July and your father becomes president? It seems destined.
Sasha came next - Natasha Marian Obama (Marian for Michelle's mother) - on June 10, 2001. Michelle explains, "Sasha, we planned to call her. I'd chosen the name because I thought it had a sassy ring. A girl named Sasha would brook no fools."
In discussing their adjustment to parenthood, Michelle is very open about the fact that Barack's unpredictable schedule brooded a lot of resentment in the beginning. Every time he called or texted to say, "On my way," but still missed dinner or bedtime, Michelle felt angry. So, they decided to see a counselor. Michelle discovered she needed to set some rules in order to feel more in control of the situation. She writes, "When it came to the home-for-dinner dilemma, I installed new boundaries, ones that worked better for me and the girls. We made our schedule and stuck to it. Dinner each night was at 6:30. Baths were at 7:00, followed by books, cuddling and lights-out at 8:00 sharp. The routine was ironclad, which put the weight of responsibility on Barack to either make it on time or not." She continues, "We didn't wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us." God, I love her!
By summer 2006, the media was starting to speculate about Barack running for president. Michelle was against it, already finding it trying to juggle his schedule in Washington with their family life in Chicago. For the next six months, they debated it constantly, finally coming to a decision around Christmas time, that he would move forward with a campaign. Though Michelle admits, she was still skeptical. She says, " . . . I'd seen enough of the divisions to temper my own hopes. Barack was a black man in America, after all. I didn't really think he could win."
In the following chapters, Michelle shares the hard truths about life on the campaign trail, including harsh comments about her clothes, body language, smile (or scowl), and her speeches. As a result, the campaign added dedicated staff for her - a personal aide, a communications specialist, a stylist, and a hair and makeup person.
I have to admit, in reading her recounting of election night in 2008, I got teary. I remember the excitement of that first campaign. The optimism. The hope. Sitting here now, two years into Donald Trump's presidency, those feelings have been replaced by anger and embarrassment. As I turned the pages, hearing her perspective on the inauguration, the balls that evening, and the process of moving into the White House, I just wanted to go back to that time.
More fun facts: each family member had a Secret Service name that began with the letter R. Renegade (Barack), Renaissance (Michelle), Radiance (Malia), Rosebud (Sasha) and Raindance (Michelle's mother, Marian). The girls would attend the Sidwell Friends School, the same school Chelsea Clinton had attended.
Michelle knew she was not going to be a First Lady who simply attended events and smiled. She had an international platform, and she planned to use it. One of her first initiatives was around healthy eating, and she worked with the family's chef, Sam Kass, to plant an eleven-hundred-square-foot plot on the South Lawn. This would become a garden where Michelle and Sam would invite local school children to come plant and harvest with them. This is just one of the ways Michelle tried to open up the White House, and make it a place where all people feel welcome.
She also championed education for girls all around the world, and worked side by side with Dr. Jill Biden on supporting our country's military veterans. The Ellen Show put together an amazing video package about Michelle's eight years in the White House. You should watch it, but keep the tissues close by!
This book traveled with me first to Miami, FL and then to Reno, NV. I was reading the final pages on the flight from Reno back to Boston, and as I read the epilogue, I cried. Michelle shares the experience of attending Trump's inauguration, and her family's final moments in the White House. She also gives some words of wisdom to us, her loyal fans and admirers, and no surprise, it's about hope. Not giving up. Making your voice heard. And, I'm crying again!
I admire this woman so much, yet she's also incredibly relatable, which is part of her magic. I just wanted to share two more excerpts. The first is about the important of prioritizing female friendships. In chapter four, "At school, we were given an hour-long lunch break for lunch each day. Because my mother didn't work and our apartment was so close by, I usually marched home with four or five other girls in tow, all of us talking nonstop, ready to sprawl on the kitchen floor to play jacks and watch All My Children while my mom made handed out sandwiches. This, for me, began a habit that has sustained me for life, keeping a close and high-spirited council of girlfriends - a safe harbor of female wisdom."
And lastly, Michelle is addicted to trash TV too! " . . . I'd become so fed up with the relentless, carnival-barker commentary on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that I'd permanently blacklisted those channels during my evenings at home, treating myself instead to a more steadying diet of E! and HGTV. At the end of a busy day, I will tell you, there is nothing better than watching a young couple find their dream home in Nashville or some young bride-to-be saying yes to the dress."
I could not love her more. In fact, I am planning to set up a home office this year, and one of the first pieces of art work I bought for the space was an illustration of her at the Democratic National Convention, in that stunning blue dress, when she declared, "When they go low, we go high." Every time I look at it, I feel like she is cheering me on. Pushing me forward.
If it isn't clear from this ode of a post, you have to read this book. If you don't feel up to 426 pages in hardcover, you can listen to the audio book, which is read by Michelle! You should also listen to her appearance on Oprah's Super Soul Conversations.
Tell me, have you read Becoming?