Nonfiction – audiobook. Read by the author. Random House Audio, 2018. 19 hours, 1 minutes. Purchased.
In 2009, Michelle Obama became the first African-American First Lady of the United States after her husband, Barack Obama, was elected President. Prior to that, Michelle attended Princeton and Harvard Law and worked as both a partner-tracked lawyer for a prestigious firm in Chicago and as an administrator in the University of Chicago medical system.
These impressive achievements were – and continue to be – overshadowed by those of her husband and the cultural expectations for how the First Lady should behave. More baking cookies; less policy negotiations.
In her memoir, Obama shares the story of her blue collar, African American family living on the South Side of Chicago. Her father “brought home to bacon”, working even when his multiple sclerosis (MS) condition made it difficult for him to leave his chair. Her mother worked behind the scenes to ensure Obama received a quality education, pulling her from a class with a lousy teacher and requesting the school move her to another classroom.
The emphasis on education and hard work led Obama to Princeton University and, later, to a law degree from Harvard. After she graduated and passed on the bar (on her second attempt), Obama would meet her husband when she served as his mentor for his summer associate position.
The Obamas’ relationship wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The couple struggled with infertility and attended marriage counseling when they realized their views of work-life balance were polar opposite. The information about their fertility treatments became headline news when excerpts of Obama’s memoir was leaked to the press, and I went into the memoir expecting to hear more about those struggles.
What I did not expect – and what I most appreciated about her memoir – was her feeling that Barack lived above the emotional and physical toll of parenthood. Obviously, Obama would carry more of the physical burden when it came to fertility treatments, pregnancy, and childhood.
But this feeling magnified after their first daughter, Malia, was born when Barack was unwilling to shift his schedule to accommodate fatherhood. He could not commit to coming home at a regular time for dinner, and Obama often let the girls stay up late in the hopes they could get a goodnight kiss from their dad.
The Obamas attended counseling to address Obama’s feelings and frustrations, an admission that I was surprised and relieved to find included in the book. Even then, it fell to Obama to set boundaries for their daughters, letting Barack decide if he wanted to prioritizing showing up or not.
It is clear from Obama’s memoir that Barack was a good father to their two daughters, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise by focusing on this moment. To me, though, Obama’s experiences showed her marriage was more similar to those experienced by American mothers than I expected to be.
For all the praise heaped on him, Barack is merely a husband who failed to recognize the unequal burden of parenthood. It took becoming President for him to show up consistently for dinner with his wife and daughters.
The other aspect of Obama’s memoir that stood out to me was the number of “scandals” that were manufactured by political opponents and splashed across the media. Obama reviews each one in her chronological memoir, reminding the reader of how the came about and the reactions of the American public and the media.
I’d forgot the vast majority of these moment; a testament to how short our attention spans have become – and how stupid these “scandals” were. Their inclusion in Obama’s memoir is a testament to how harmful click bait headlines and splicing video clips to remove context can be. It was clear in Obama’s voice that these moments still bother her after all these years, after this reader has long forgotten about them.
I’ve read a number of political memoirs, primarily focusing on those written by candidates for office. As such, I didn’t have much interest in picking up Obama’s memoir until my book club picked it as a selection for 2019.
But this is one of the best political memoirs I’ve read – intimate, candid, and hopeful with an evenhanded sprinkle of policy prescriptions. And the audiobook read by Obama is beautiful done; I felt like I was having a conversation with a friend rather than being lectured at by a public official.