Taps’ Notes: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Rishi Taparia
Sep 22 · 16 min read

I read Becoming by Michelle Obama and reviewed it as part of my ongoing series.

Quick review: I read this book on the recommendation of a close friend. Autobiographies have a tendency to be hit or miss. Going into this one I was skeptical. Michelle Obama, for all the amazing things she has accomplished in her career and as First Lady, has largely remained private about her history and family, especially as compared to her husband. After this read it’s clear: Becoming is her coming out party.

I was struck by two things reading this book. First, Michelle Obama is a fantastic writer (or has a fantastic ghostwriter if you believe her husband). Second, contrary to other autobiographies that tend to paint a rosier and more glamorous picture of life and never seem authentic or genuine, the First Lady is incredibly open and vulnerable. She takes us through her internal struggle between what society believes she should do versus what doing what she is passionate about. She walks through the importance of family and the foundation it created for her life. She is open in her love for Barack and how she didn’t think he could win and didn’t want him to run but simultaneously didn’t want to hold him back. She talks about being a mother and describes the sense of time with a baby perfectly:

When there’s a baby in the house, time stretches and contracts, abiding by none of the regular rules. A single day can feel endless, and then suddenly six months have blown right past.

Becoming is a worthwhile read if for no other reason, Michelle Obama is clearly a very intelligent and capable person, open and vulnerable in a highly relatable manner.


Book Highlights:

I just wanted to achieve. Or maybe I didn’t want to be dismissed as incapable of achieving.

Whatever sweet scenes you might witness on a playground, beneath them lay a tyranny of shifting hierarchies and alliances. There were queen bees, bullies, and followers.

Decline can be a hard thing to measure, especially when you’re in the midst of it.

I look back on the discomfort of that moment now and recognize the more universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go. I also realize that I was a long way, still, from finding my voice.

I realize I don’t know exactly what my mom did during the hours we were at school, mainly because in the self-centered manner of any child I never asked.

My mother maintained the sort of parental mind-set that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate — a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality. I had friends whose mothers rode their highs and lows as if they were their own, and I knew plenty of other kids whose parents were too overwhelmed by their own challenges to be much of a presence at all. My mom was simply even-keeled.

She loved us consistently, Craig and me, but we were not overmanaged. Her goal was to push us out into the world. “I’m not raising babies,” she’d tell us. “I’m raising adults.” She and my dad offered guidelines rather than rules. It meant that as teenagers we’d never have a curfew. Instead, they’d ask, “What’s a reasonable time for you to be home?” and then trust us to stick to our word.

If you’ve never passed a winter in Chicago, let me describe it: You can live for a hundred straight days beneath an iron-gray sky that claps itself like a lid over the city. Frigid, biting winds blow in off the lake. Snow falls in dozens of ways, in heavy overnight dumps and daytime, sideways squalls, in demoralizing sloppy sleet and fairy-tale billows of fluff. There’s ice, usually, lots of it, that shellacs the sidewalks and windshields that then need to be scraped. There’s the sound of that scraping in the early mornings — the hack hack hack of it — as people clear their cars to go to work. Your neighbors, unrecognizable in the thick layers they wear against the cold, keep their faces down to avoid the wind. City snowplows thunder through the streets as the white snow gets piled up and sooty, until nothing is pristine.

My worries about high school, if they were to be cataloged, could mostly be filed under one general heading: Am I good enough?

Craig, in his ambling and smiley way, had conveniently broken every trail for me. At Bryn Mawr, he’d softened up the teachers with his sweetness and earned a certain cool-kid respect on the playground. He’d created sunshine that I could then just step into. I had always, pretty much everywhere I’d gone, been known as Craig Robinson’s little sister.

But my first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible — the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.

I liked most of my teachers. I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand in class. At Whitney Young, it was safe to be smart. The assumption was that everyone was working toward college, which meant that you never hid your intelligence for fear of someone saying you talked like a white girl.

What we sacrificed was control. This would become one of my early, unwitting lessons about life in politics: Schedules and plans never seemed to stick. Even standing on the far edge of the vortex, you still felt its spin.

But as I’ve said, failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result. And for me, it felt like that’s exactly what she was planting — a suggestion of failure long before I’d even tried to succeed. She was telling me to lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me.

I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself. Instead, I switched my method without changing my goal. I would apply to Princeton and a scattershot selection of other schools, but without any more input from the college counselor.

All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

While my father took his customary extra minute to get out of the driver’s seat and steady himself on his canes, David and I stood wordlessly in the dusk, surveying the immaculate diamond of green lawn outside my stone fortress of a dorm.

You don’t really know how attached you are until you move away, until you’ve experienced what it means to be dislodged, a cork floating on the ocean of another place.

I let his voice be my comfort. It bore no trace of pain or self-pity, carrying only good humor and softness and just the tiniest hint of jazz. I lived on it as if it were oxygen. It was sustaining, and it was always enough. Before hanging up, he always asked if I needed anything — money, for instance — but I never said yes.

I can admit now that I was driven not just by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval, too. When I was a kid, I quietly basked in the warmth that floated my way anytime I announced to a teacher, a neighbor, or one of Robbie’s church-choir friends that I wanted to be a pediatrician.

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. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly. Maybe you spend three years in Massachusetts, studying constitutional law and discussing the relative merits of exclusionary vertical agreements in antitrust cases. For some, this might be truly interesting, but for you it is not. Maybe during those three years you make friends you’ll love and respect forever, people who seem genuinely called to the bloodless intricacies of the law, but you yourself are not called. Your passion stays low, yet under no circumstance will you underperform. You live, as you always have, by the code of effort/result, and with it you keep achieving until you think you know the answers to all the questions — including the most important one. Am I good enough? Yes, in fact I am.

If I found it unsettling, Barack did not. I sensed already that he was more at home with the unruliness of the world than I was, more willing to let it all in without distress. I woke one night to find him staring at the ceiling, his profile lit by the glow of streetlights outside. He looked vaguely troubled, as if he were pondering something deeply personal. Was it our relationship? The loss of his father?

As an organizer working in urban communities, Barack had told me, he’d contended most often with a deep weariness in people — especially black people — a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time.

“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” It was a phrase borrowed from a book he’d read when he first started out as an organizer, and it would stay with me for years. It was as close as I’d come to understanding what motivated Barack. The world as it should be.

The second was that I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. I saw it coming already, like a barreling 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.

He’d tried out some things, gotten to know all sorts of people, and learned his own priorities along the way. I, meanwhile, had been so afraid of floundering, so eager for respectability and a way to pay the bills, that I’d marched myself unthinkingly into the law.

I wondered if I could find a job that engaged my mind and still left me enough time to do volunteer work, or appreciate art, or have children.

It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colors go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful — a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids — and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.

There’s something innately bolstering about a person who sees his opportunities as endless, who doesn’t waste time or energy questioning whether they will ever dry up. Barack had worked hard and dutifully for everything he was now being given, but he wasn’t notching achievements or measuring his progress against that of others, as so many people I knew did — as I sometimes did myself.

Highlight(yellow) — Location 2488

In a nutshell, Barack believed and trusted when others did not. He had a simple, buoying faith that if you stuck to your principles, things would work out. I’d had so many careful, sensible conversations at this point, with so many people, about how to extract myself from a career in which, by all outward measures, I was flourishing.

It’s taken us time — years — to understand that this is just how each of us is built, that we are each the sum total of our respective genetic codes as well as everything installed in us by our parents and their parents before them. Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained, still in sight.

I couldn’t be shy or embarrassed about my needs.

Barack, I’ve come to understand, is the sort of person who needs a hole, a closed-off little warren where he can read and write undisturbed. It’s like a hatch that opens directly onto the spacious skies of his brain. Time spent there seems to fuel him.

On our date nights at Zinfandel, Barack and I often continued a conversation we’d been having in one form or another for years — about impact, about how and where each one of us could make a difference, how best to apportion our time and energy.

If I were to start a file on things nobody tells you about until you’re right in the thick of them, I might begin with miscarriages. A miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not. Or a tragedy, which, regardless of how utterly devastating it feels in the moment, it also is not. What nobody tells you is that miscarriage happens all the time, to more women than you’d ever guess, given the relative silence around it.

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. It was me who’d alter everything, putting my passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of reckoning. Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.

When there’s a baby in the house, time stretches and contracts, abiding by none of the regular rules. A single day can feel endless, and then suddenly six months have blown right past.

We were, as most new parents are, obsessive and a little boring, and nothing made us happier. We hauled little Malia in her baby carrier with us to Zinfandel for our Friday night dates, figuring out how to streamline our order so we could be in and out quickly, before she got too restless.

Part-time work was meant to give me more freedom, but mostly it left me feeling as if I were only half doing everything, that all the lines in my life had been blurred.

I thought maybe he’d try and fail to get into national politics and that this would then motivate him to want to try something entirely different. In an ideal world (my ideal world, anyway), Barack would do something like become the head of a foundation, where he could have an impact on issues that mattered and also make it home for dinner at night.

This turned out to be the big revelation for me about counseling: No validating went on. No sides were taken. When it came to our disagreements, Dr. Woodchurch would never be the deciding vote. Instead, he was an empathic and patient listener, coaxing each of us through the maze of our

I said yes, though I was at the same time harboring a painful thought, one I wasn’t ready to share: I supported him in campaigning, but I also felt certain he wouldn’t make it all the way. He spoke so often and so passionately of healing our country’s divisions, appealing to a set of higher ideals he believed were innate in most people. But 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.

The same went for me. I knew the stereotype I was meant to inhabit, the immaculately groomed doll-wife with the painted-on smile, gazing bright-eyed at her husband, as if hanging on every word. This was not me and never would be. I could be supportive, but I couldn’t be a robot.

That day in Butte, we visited the local mining museum, had a water-pistol battle, and kicked a soccer ball around in the grass. Barack gave his stump speech and shook the usual number of hands, but he also got to anchor himself back inside the unit of us. Sasha and Malia climbed all over him, giggling and regaling him with their thoughts. I saw the lightness in his smile, admiring him for his ability to block out the peripheral distractions and just be a dad when he had the chance.

I, on the other hand, was still learning about public life. I considered myself a confident, successful woman, but I was also the same kid who used to tell people she planned to be a pediatrician and devoted herself to setting perfect attendance records at school. In other words, I cared what people thought. I’d spent my young life seeking approval, dutifully collecting gold stars and avoiding messy social situations. Over time, I’d gotten better about not measuring my self-worth strictly in terms of standard, by-the-book achievement, but I did tend to believe that if I worked diligently and honestly, I’d avoid the bullies and always be seen as myself.

Anytime my spirits started to dip, I’d punish myself further with a slew of disparaging thoughts: I hadn’t chosen this. I’d never liked politics. I’d left my job and given my identity over to this campaign and now I was a liability? Where had my power gone? Sitting in our kitchen in Chicago on a Sunday evening when Barack was home for a one-night stopover, I’d let all my frustrations pour out.

What I lived for now were the unrehearsed, unphotographed, in-between moments where nobody was performing and no one was judging and real surprise was still possible — where sometimes without warning you might feel a tiny latch spring open on your heart.

was humbled and excited to be First Lady, but not for one second did I think I’d be sliding into some glamorous, easy role. Nobody who has the words “first” and “black” attached to them ever would.

I took in the spectacle: thousands and thousands of pounds of metal, a squad of commandos, bulletproof everything. I had yet to grasp that Barack’s protection was still only half-visible. I didn’t know that he’d also, at all times, have a nearby helicopter ready to evacuate him, that sharpshooters would position themselves on rooftops along the routes he traveled, that a personal physician would always be with him in case of a medical problem, or that the vehicle he rode in contained a store of blood of the appropriate type in case he ever needed a transfusion.

was a child of the South Side, now raising daughters who slept in rooms designed by a high-end interior decorator and who could custom order their breakfast from a chef. I had these thoughts sometimes, and it gave me a kind of vertigo.

The White House, one learns, operates with the express purpose of optimizing the well-being, efficiency, and overall power of one person — and that’s the president.

From where I sat, I could see most of the chamber below. It was an unusual, bird’s-eye view of our country’s leaders, an ocean of whiteness and maleness dressed in dark suits. The absence of diversity was glaring — honestly, it was embarrassing — for a modern, multicultural country. It was most dramatic among the Republicans. At the time, there were just seven nonwhite Republicans in Congress — none of them African American and only one was a woman. Overall, four out of five members of Congress were male.

Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth.

My mom relished being a grandmother, most especially the part where she got to throw over all my rigidity in favor of her own looser and lighter style, which was markedly more lax than when Craig and I had been the kids under her care. The girls were always thrilled to have Grandma in charge.

I found Buckingham Palace breathtaking and incomprehensible at the same time.

Barack ran on the treadmill about an hour every day, trying to beat back his physical restlessness. I was working out every morning as well, often with Cornell, who’d been our trainer in Chicago and now lived part-time in Washington on our behalf, coming over at least a few times a week to push us with plyometrics and weights.

Today, virtually every woman in public life — politicians, celebrities, you name it — has some version of Meredith, Johnny, and Carl. It’s all but a requirement, a built-in fee for our societal double standard.

Grief and resilience live together. I learned this not just once as First Lady but many times over.

My interaction with Mandela was both quiet and profound — maybe more profound, even, for its quietness. His life’s words had mostly been spoken now, his speeches and letters, his books and protest chants, already etched not just into his story but into humanity’s as a whole. I could feel all of it in the brief moment I had with him — the dignity and spirit that had coaxed equality from a place where none had existed.

I flew home propelled by that spirit. 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.

This would be the only time in eight years that he’d request my presence in the middle of a workday, the two of us rearranging our schedules to be alone together for a moment of dim comfort. Usually, work was work and home was home, but for us, as for many people, the tragedy in Newtown shattered every window and blew down every fence. When I walked into the Oval Office, Barack and I embraced silently. There was nothing to say. No words.

The proximity of children made everything lighter for him. He knew as well as anyone the promise lost with those twenty young lives.

My early successes in life were, I knew, a product of the consistent love and high expectations with which I was surrounded as a child, both at home and at school. It was this insight that drove my White House mentoring program, and it lay at the center of a new education initiative my staff and I were now preparing to launch, called Reach Higher.

I’d been lucky to have parents, teachers, and mentors who’d fed me with a consistent, simple message: You matter. As an adult, I wanted to pass those words to a new generation. It was the message I gave my own daughters, who were fortunate to have it reinforced daily by their school and their privileged circumstances, and I was determined to express some version of it to every young person I encountered.

Rishi Taparia

Written by

Dad and husband | VP @Poynt | Angel @garudavc | Alum @MatrixPartners, @ScaleVP, @MerrillLynch, @NorthwesternU | SF via Calgary, Jakarta, Chicago and New York

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