Saying that Becoming is a must read for any working mother who wants to have her all, particularly the self discovery and life purpose part of it, would be an understatement. In her well-written memoir, Michelle Obama chronicled her journey from childhood on the South Side of Chicago to growing up earning degrees from both Princeton and Harvard, from landing a job at a prestige law firm to taking the steps to find her true calling, from marrying a man of a big vision with personalities so different from her own to managing the relationship through tough times, and from struggling with conceiving to raising two daughters in the White House where having an ice-cream with some friends was a luxury as it would involve a long security check process.
Over the past two months, in the comfy sofa in our living room after our children have been well asleep, I marvelled at each line as if I had been chatting with an open yet listening friend besides. Within that quiet one hour, I could see an old video tape slowly flashing back different episodes of my own life: a childhood in Vietnam during its opening era, doing a Master Degree in Public Policy under a full scholarship in Singapore, building my expertise in Human Development and climbing the corporate ladder, getting married and having children, going through an existential crisis after suffering from insane work hours and culture, and pulling me, us and the world altogether as a mother in America. Turning the pages with a colored pencil for underlining and note taking, I see my story in Michelle Obama’s story. And I believe this is also the story of many mothers on her path of “becoming”, so here are the key lessons the book reinforces in me to share.
1. On Career and Purpose
Michelle Obama dedicated a big part of her memoir narrating about her career and purpose story. “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving,” her story begins. And she grew up constantly after the question of Am I Good Enough by graduating from two Ivy League Schools and working at a well-known law firm. This success formula based on outward measures could have been further unfolded if she hadn’t met Obama whose sense of purpose was so strong and alive that it shook her interiority. Michelle realized being a lawyer didn’t make her happy as it didn’t give her meaning and joy. She was good at it but she also hated it. However, she had no clues about what the right next step would be. At the same time, she was worried about making less money if she made a big change. Doesn’t this story sound familiar?
She could have followed her mom’s motto of “money first, happiness later”, but she was courageous to be her whole, especially after her dad’s passing with which she learnt life was too short to be wasted. She met with as many people as possible to understand what was possible, what each possibility exactly entailed and how she could make the transition. Along the way, she also met with great people including her future hiring manager, a life-long friend as well as a great advocate, supporter and mentor who later worked for the White House during Obama’s eight years as the President. And she did make the move that led her down to a different road. She felt fulfilled and her purpose was further fine-tuned with each action she took, each program she created and each move she made, from the Chicago mayor’s office to the University of Chicago to its Medical Center to the White House. Everything centered around public service, particularly in the areas of health and education/career, focusing on women and children, the youth and families, especially military ones.
The lessons are:
· If we want to make a career pivot, don’t lock ourselves in our own head and go to the real world with a thirst to learn and a belief that when we are genuine and willing to grow, people are generally open and helpful.
· When we have a click with our purpose, make the leap as the unknown “isn’t going to kill” us and we would be “far away from being poor”.
· Once we follow our purpose, our purpose will follow us. And we’ll never look back.
· Even a First Lady’s and a president’s job are not greener, as having a couple dinner in a restaurant in New York could be rocky as it would involve a big operation that interrupts the lives of many people, in Michelle Obama’s words 😉
2. On Parenting
Not less than a time throughout the book, Michelle Obama shared about how her parents raised her and her brother, Craig, to be who they were. Opposite to snowplow parenting approach, her parents always gave her and Craig space of their own, literally and metaphorically, so they could make their decisions for which they were also responsible. And she carried this spirit on when raising her very own children. Despite unusual challenges of public curiosity, she and Obama managed to maintain a sense of normalcy for their girls.
I believe that such approach did help Michelle become strong, independent, always have her opinions and challenge the norm from creating a garden in the White House to introducing up-and-coming designers and designers of color through her choice of fashion. The way her dad lived his life from the value perspective also instilled in her a great sense of responsibility, first towards her family and then to the world. However bad his pain was, he never complained and missed a day at work.
The lessons are:
· Give our children space, let them use their brain and we don’t have to worry about how they would cope with adversities in life (and the robots, AI or machine learning!). Instead, we will feel contented that their creativity and resilience carry them throughout their lives.
· The way we parent and honor our values daily have impact on generations to come.
· Regardless of circumstances, we have to protect our children’s normal childhood so they grow up well-grounded.
3. On Marriage
I got hooked onto this part as much as I was drawn to her career story. Isn’t that true that for a married woman, a fulfilling career, well-groomed kids and a happy marriage can mean everything? Michelle mentioned as any other new couples, she and Barack, who were raised in different families with different values, learnt to fight more efficiently. However, the true big challenge arrived when her husband got more active in his political journey and was away from home most of the time leaving her managing work, life and two young kids alone. Toppled by lapses in communication and the difference in expectations, their marriage was shaken with intense frustrations.
With the desire to protect her marriage, Michelle managed to get Barack to go to counselling where they both had aha moments. And these lines seem to speak of the source of any husband-wife relationship conflicts, at least from the perspective of myself and of the dozens of women who shared with me their stories: I’d been stoking the most negative parts of myself, caught up in the notion that everything was unfair and then assiduously, like a Harvard-trained lawyer, collecting evidence to feed that hypothesis. I now tried out a new hypothesis: It was possible that I was more in charge of my happiness than I was allowing myself to be. I was too busy resenting Barack for managing to fit workouts into his schedule, for example, to even begin figuring out how to exercise regularly myself.
The lessons are:
· A happy marriage doesn’t have to be, and practically, isn’t happy all the time. It’s a journey of getting to understand each other more by being better at arguing against each other.
· Reminding ourselves and our spouses of the mutual vision we have for the future helps ease any tension and drive us back on track.
· Help doesn’t have to come only from our spouses. If our husbands, in good faith, have maxed out his ability to support, help could be from our extended family, friends, and others. If we open our own minds that way, we have solutions to uplifting our lives while filling our hearts with contentment instead of resentment against our other halves.
· The reality is every marriage has miscommunication, misunderstandings, and conflicts. When spouse talks don’t work, and if we truly want to keep our families, don’t shy away from expert help as it helps unlock self-limiting hypotheses, get us and our husbands learn to communicate better with each other, and strengthen the marriage.
· When we, as mothers and wives, are happy, our family will be happy. So we’d better take care of our happiness first and everything will follow.
4. On Life & Happiness
In the book, Michelle wrote about her fond father with a sea of love and respect. However, she, her mom and her brother struggled with him on one thing: he didn’t want to get any help with his multiple sclerosis. As he didn’t want to see himself as a burden to anyone, he buried the fact and carried on living as if he suffered no illness even when his legs were so swollen. His health was sinking till he was on the hospital bed with his last heart beats and Michelle by his side. “He was saying that he knew he should have gone to the doctor a lot sooner. He was asking for forgiveness,” she said.
Also in the book, the First Lady bold-heartedly talked about haters during the election campaigns as well as Obama’s administration terms. At one point, she shared the punches that invalidated her not only made her feel emotionally worn out but also forced her into a negative circle of disparaging thoughts. However, she overcame all such rough stuff by talking it out to Barack, by resetting her expectation that “this is just politics”, and by thinking more of the people who supported them.
The lessons are:
· We all know that health is important, but when it comes to even the basics such as sleep and exercise, we always have reasons to stay away from them. So the next time we procrastinate, think of the why we should run, do yoga, go to bed early, etc., think of the vision where we don’t want to ask for forgiveness from our families and loved ones.
· Rejection is everywhere and happens to everyone. Each time we feel deflated, depressed, or disappointed as we feel someone doesn’t like us, undervalues us, ignores us, we should think of the people who support us, love us, and value us. We need to serve this people and make them proud, knowing that rejection is just the business of life — even Michelle Obama has it!
5. On Voice
From a black girl in a poor neighborhood to one of the most popular First Ladies of America, Michelle Obama has undoubtedly built a strong voice. Sprinkled throughout the book are the First Lady’s thoughts and stories about being black, being woman and being a mother. Often mentioned is the feelings of “otherness” and all the striving to make up for it so she felt validated. After switching her career and seeing her new path unfolded in meaningful ways, Michelle no longer dealt with the question of Am I Enough, as she was more than enough by empowering not only those who are black, who are women, who are mothers but also many others. She became beyond herself.
The lessons are:
· Skin doesn’t matter. Accent doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter… All that matters is who we can help and what impact we create in the world. And this can be achieved by uncovering our life purpose and living it everyday.
· By uplevelling ourselves with hard and purposeful work and by sharing our stories, we also show others who share our skin color, who share our accent, who share our age, … that they can.
“Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become,” the story ends. Flipping over to the last page of the well-loved book, I have more inspiration and motivation to keep sharing my own story, the story of a Mother 4.0 — just a mother like many other mothers — who is on her way to her Version 4.0 with 4.0 tools and knowledge, and who constantly learns through and shapes her journey of refining with purpose, managing her cause, building her voice, parenting two young kids, cultivating her marriage and hardwiring her happiness everyday.
To carry on Michelle Obama’s spirit, I want to invite you in, so together, we become.