Days before I received former first lady Michelle Obama’s much-anticipated memoir, “Becoming,” I was taken aback by the headlines announcing the book’s arrival.
From USA Today: “Michelle Obama used IVF to have Malia and Sasha.” From NBC News: “Michelle Obama revealed she had miscarriage, used IVF to conceive daughters.” From Newsweek: “Michelle Obama on turning to IVF after suffering miscarriage with Barack Obama.” And on. And on. And on.
The story of our nation’s first-ever black first lady was distilled to chatter about the workings of her womb. So was Michelle Obama’s ability to get pregnant the most salient part of the 421-page book?
I wasn’t buying it.
With a quickness, I retrieved “Becoming” from my mailbox and dove in. In the beginning pages, I was lovingly introduced to the Robinsons: Michelle, her older brother, Craig; her dad, Fraser, and mom, Marian, as well as an extended family, including a host of grandparents, great-grandparents and aunts and uncles who moved to Chicago from various Southern cities as part of the black migration.
I read about how a young woman tried to fit into elementary school, high school, and Princeton University, a woman who at times was teased for “talking white” and whose first college roommate changed dorms because she was black. I was inspired by how Obama stepped into her truth and “swerved” — her way of not complying with expectations thrust upon her — when she left her high-powered job as a corporate lawyer to embark on a more fulfilling career path in public service. I teared up reading the intimate details of her courtship with Barack.
It wasn’t until I got to the middle of page 187 that the story of Obama’s pregnancy struggles were revealed. She wrote tenderly about the pain of miscarriage and the ambivalence that comes with fertility treatments. But by page 189 — thanks to the modern miracle of in vitro fertilization — Obama was successfully pregnant with Malia. Ten pages after, she tells us that, three years later, she gave birth to Sasha, through IVF, too. That was recounted in seven lines, not even a quarter of the page.
This is not — and I want to repeat this — not at all to say that Obama’s fertility issues aren’t an important part of her story of becoming. I believe Obama can and will help women who have had trouble getting pregnant, or who are in the midst of trying, feel they are not alone. Obama did women — all women — a huge service by opening up.
My quibble, believe it or not, is with the media. Why are women’s fertility issues always the selling point, the headline topics when it comes to their stories? I remember feeling this way last year when I read actress Gabrielle Union’s deeply personal collection of essays, “We Are Going to Need More Wine.” Union, who coincidentally welcomed a baby girl last weekend through the help of a surrogate, wrote eloquently about how she survived rape, the insecurities that come with being a dark-skinned black woman in Hollywood, and lessons learned from a perilous first marriage, but the headlines about her book, too, focused on her miscarriages.
Is this the only way we can find common ground? Is this the only part of Michelle Obama’s story that all women can relate to?
Motherhood is no doubt a crucial part of womanhood. Yet when we make a woman’s fertility the focus of who she is, we add unfair pressure for her to be perfect at something that, quite frankly, has nothing to do with her will and everything to do with that of Mother Nature.
Those headlines don’t celebrate her wholeness. When we focus on only that part of Obama’s story, we’re inadvertently telling women their ability to have children is all of their self worth, and I can’t subscribe to that.
I chatted with some colleagues about my dismay, and, for lack of a better word, they were dismayed with me: The headlines were right on point, they said. This was important. And shocking. Michelle Obama’s life hasn’t always worked out perfectly and easily.
That would make sense to me if infertility were the only supposed crack in the perfect Obama veneer. But the entire memoir is an ode to her humanity. It quickly becomes evident that Obama not only wanted to write this, but that she needed to write this, because she, as she puts it, throughout her entire life, had to “earn her grace.” By the end of the book, it’s clear she owned it.
Michelle Obama wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She grew up in a 900-square-foot apartment built into her great-aunt’s home in Chicago. She is not an angry black woman, but she does understand how decades of institutional racism can haunt even the most upwardly mobile black person.
Sure, she went to Princeton and Harvard, dotted all of the I’s and crossed T’s she didn’t even know she had to cross, but she failed the bar exam the first time she took it. And my favorite part — she was hailed for being a fashionista during her tenure as first lady, but to her chagrin, she wasn’t an expert, and every outfit she chose was a chore. There were hits and misses. High heels hurt her feet, too. And she and Barack went to couples’ counseling.
In short, the former FLOTUS’ life is about not just discovering, but fighting for her voice despite the towering expectations of others.
“Becoming” is a beautiful, well-written memoir. Don’t read it because you are curious about the painful details. Pick it up because you want to relate to the whole story of a working woman who, on the surface, has everything together, yet in reality is trying to keep it all together.
Just like all of us.
(Article written by Elizabeth Wellington)