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Dear Michelle… Here’s What Your Words Mean To Me, And To Millions Of Women

Michelle Obama was loved by many as First Lady, especially by women. Her book Becoming is proof of why it was so. As this author tells us, so much of it resonates with the common experiences of being a woman. 

Michelle Obama was loved by many as First Lady, especially by women. Her book Becoming is proof of why it was so. As this author tells us, so much of it resonates with the common experiences of being a woman. 

“Everyone on earth, they’d tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg. 7.

After reading Becoming by Michelle Obama, the thoughts I had expressed themselves as a letter to her – a personal letter from me, the woman, to Michelle, the woman. Here’s what I said to her.

Dear Michelle,

I definitely should not be referring to you by your first name. After all, you were FLOTUS. I mean no disrespect, however. It’s just that ever since I devoured Becoming over a period of 4 days and 3 nights, you feel less like a distant celebrity, and more like a wise older sister, or friend.

Our lives could not be more different. I have no real idea of what it is to grow up as a black girl on the South Side of Chicago, or what life is like inside the world’s most famous address, or what the pressures of being FLOTUS are. I will never know what it to be the wife of a man whose attention and commitment must be shared with a superpower. I’ve only read about all that in your book, and while I can empathize, I have not actually lived that life.

Similarly, I doubt that despite your empathetic nature and wide experience with meeting all sorts of people, you truly understand what it is like to grow up as a urban girl in India. Or what it feels like to try and build a life in the absence of any permanence, as a brown woman in the US, on a temporary visa.

And yet, wildly differing though our stories may be, when you take away all the social and political context, at the core, as women, we share so much. More importantly, reading about your life has given me surprising insights into mine.

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I immediately resonated with an incident from your childhood, where you were upset with being unable to read aloud the word ‘white’ and asked the teacher for a do-over. It was important to you, not just to be able to do it, but also to do it as well as the best. You owned that competitive spirit, which allowed you to advocate for yourself.

It made me realize that though I have that same urge to be the best at everything I do, I have never acknowledged it, assuming that such competitiveness suggests a weak and petty outlook towards life and other people. I saw ambition as something negative. Reading your story has shifted that perspective. I see now that one can speak about oneself and one’s own achievements, and that one can try to be the best, without necessarily putting others down. Achievement is not a zero sum game.

Another thing that I wholeheartedly agree with you on, is the power of female friendships. I found my female BFFs a little later than most girls, but ever since they have been an incredible source of strength and joy for me. The pick me up when I am down. They set me right, quite brutally sometimes, when I am wrong. And they always listen. So I did cheer when I read this:

“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.”
Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 42.

To see the power of sisterhood being acknowledged by a woman of your stature, was extremely gratifying.

There is another thing you said, in the same chapter, that has given me food for thought. Speaking about failure, you say,

“Failure is a feeling long before it became an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”
Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 43.

I am ashamed to say that I have let myself fail too often, without even trying. I have let negative self-talk and self-doubt cloud my judgement of myself too often. I have given in to the fear. But now, I am making changes. I take risks. I talk to myself differently. I see the difference.

Some fears though, are too real. Too many women, in too many places will feel the pain when they read this:

“Like a lot of girls I became aware of the liabilities of my body early, long before I began to even look like a woman…With the new freedoms came new vulnerabilities. I learned to keep my gaze fixed firmly ahead anytime I passed a group of men clustered on a street corner, careful not to register their eyes roving over my chest and legs. I knew to ignore all the catcalls when they came. I learned which blocks in our neighborhood were thought to be more dangerous than others. I knew never to walk alone at night,”
-Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 49

I was 8, when I first realized that my body would be treated as a ‘thing’. I was lucky, in that I had a mother who had prepared me so I knew about the “bad touch”, decades before it became a matter of national conversation. Since then, I have done everything right, and yet it hasn’t stopped men from ogling, or touching or speaking lewdly. Is it surprising really, that women are angry? That #MeToo is a reality?

Life goes on though. We take all the pain and anger, and turn it into a ladder. We reach for our dreams and ambitions, shining far above us, and we climb. I climbed too, and like you, I thought I was on the right ladder.

You write about how you went for the future and the job that you thought you ‘should’ have, and how you later realized that your heart wasn’t in it. I did that too, with my first job. I took the job that impressed a lot of other people. I was lucky, in a recession year, to get a job at a reputed company, with a salary which afforded me the ability to spend without thinking too much about the cost. The job itself, however, gave me no satisfaction whatsoever.

“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path –the my-isn’t-that-impressive path –and keep you there for a long time…what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.”
Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 91

I’m exploring what it is that will give me that feeling of true achievement and satisfaction. Writing may fit the bill, though I’m not sure it will pay the bills. I have also considered opening a food truck, becoming a librarian, or doing something (anything?!) in the publishing industry. This part of my life is a work in progress.

It was also inspiring to read about how you negotiated aspects of your work life so that you had more control over it. I wish employers everywhere would realize that women (and men too!) can give their best, if they allow these freedoms. I hope your actions encourage more women to demand what they deserve. I surely, have made a note to push, in the future, for what I want, because no one else is going to look out for me.

“I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 202

You have always been an inspiration. As FLOTUS, I saw you as your husband’s equal. You were never in his shadow. You were just as articulate, just as influential and wielded your own power. Reading Becoming helped me understand why. It is because you recognized early on, that he had a powerful personality and that you had to be careful not to let it overpower your own. It was enlightening, to read this:

“I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could end up swallowing mine. I saw it coming already, like a barrelling wave with a mighty undertow. I wasn’t going to get out of its path –I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love –but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.”
-Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 132

I truly wish that more girls and women could learn this, and internalize this. That even though love demands a lot of “giving,” it should not come at the cost of one’s own brightness. That one can love fiercely, but also be independent and whole.

Someone had asked me years ago, when I was newly engaged, how I knew that my husband was “the one.” I could never answer that question then. Now with experience, I know better, and I would answer that question like this:

“I knew he could handle a partner who had her own passions and voice. These were things you couldn’t teach in a relationship, things that not even love could build or change.”
-Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 124.

I sensed that somehow, all those years ago. I have been lucky to have a husband whose presence acts as a scaffolding to my voice. Who, even when we disagree, does not push his opinions on me. I have also learnt and fully agree with this:

“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.”
-Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 51

Your experience with marriage counseling, and what you learnt from it, will help and inspire many women.
Equally relatable is your journey as a mother. Reading about your struggle to conceive and your IVF treatment was a revelation. My husband and I have been trying too, to build a family, and while our cultural background adds some layers to our struggle, I could especially relate to this,:

“…the sacrifices would be more mine than his.”…”None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, pg 189

It also gave me a lot of strength and hope, when I read this:

“That thing I’d felt –my envy for Barack’s separateness from the process –had now utterly reversed itself. He was on the outside, while I got to live the process. I was the process, indivisible from this small burgeoning life…”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 190

You articulate with honesty the struggle of being a new mother, and many a working mother will find reflection in your stories, and in your admission that you too, battled guilt, as you worked hard to have both a family and a career. You write with passion and conviction when you write about your dreams for your children –dreams that many mothers share, across geographies and cultures:

“More than anything, I wanted them to be strong, to have a certain steeliness, the kind that would keep them upright and forward moving, no matter what.”
-Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 199.

I thought I wouldn’t really find much similarity in our lives, once politics became a big feature in yours. Surprisingly, even there, I found connection. You speak about how your passionate speaking style led to your being labelled an “angry black woman.”

I haven’t ever been in the public eye, but I share completely, the frustration of being an “angry woman” who is just trying to make herself heard. I have been criticized for being “too serious’ when I advocated for something I believed in. I have been told to “learn to take a joke.”

“It’s remarkable how a stereotype functions as an actual trap. How many “angry black women” have been caught in the circular logic of that phrase? When you aren’t being listened to, why wouldn’t you get louder? If you are written off as being angry or emotional, doesn’t that just cause more of the same?”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 265.

I related also, to your impulse to bend tradition in the White House to make it more inclusive and forward leaning. You did it with social events like traditional parties and dinners like the Easter Egg Roll, and by ensuring that African American artists were represented on the walls of the White House. I do it in my humble home, with my culture’s traditional and religious festivals, by tweaking the rituals and narratives around them, to make them more inclusive, and reflect my progressive values. Tradition doesn’t have to be a burden. It can be a template for something better.

You speak of the aftermath of the 2016 election. You write about how the women in your team, mostly minority women, some from immigrant families, were in tears. You tell how you offered them reassurance that all was not lost. I wish I’d had someone that day to give me that support, because I too, was scared.

In the months before, I had seen signs in support of Trump mushrooming around the locality that I lived. The sense of otherness that I have always experienced in the US has deepened considerably since that day. It is made worse by the fact that the same tribalism and nastiness in politics that is so visible in US politics, is reflected in the politics in my home country.

But, like you say, becoming is a forward movement. A journey that doesn’t end. So I keep moving on. I try to keep the cynicism down and the hope up.

“Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 371.

I agree with you also, when you say that,

“Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 315.

There is so much more that I have taken away from your beautiful, wonderful memoir. It is a gift –a Valentine’s gift from by husband, and also a metaphorical gift of wisdom from you. Thank you, Michelle, for telling your story.

Finally, I take to heart your own mantra, and make it mine,

“Am I good enough? Yes, I am.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming, Pg 284.

This post was earlier published here.

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Images credit: Vijayalakshmi Harish

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