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Before she was an Obama, she was a Robinson, and Michelle Robinson would rather not eat eggs. As a child, she debated her mother over the merits of the go-to breakfast food — and she won. For the next nine years, she happily started her day with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
As a kid, I was fine with eggs. Socks, though, were a form of cruelty. I found them constricting. They made my feet sweat. My bare soles against the floor felt like freedom. My aunt, with whom I’ve been close since before I could speak, is the opposite. During sleepovers at her apartment when I was young, she’d nudge me to wear socks — “so you don’t get cold,” she’d say. One night, my small feet on fire, I debated with her on the matter, explaining that exposed toes made me feel at peace in the world. She relented and never dangled a sock my way again.
While reading Michelle Obama’s new memoir, “Becoming,” I was struck by the ways our reactions, instincts and experiences intersected. Obviously, I’m no former first lady, but like Obama, I too “was the kind of kid who liked concrete answers to my questions, who liked to reason things out to some logical if exhausting end.” I too am a black woman “focused on achievement, bent on checking every box.” I too, at times, “can’t stop wondering, ‘Am I good enough?’”
When she was 10, Obama’s cousin asked her the above question.
“Speaking a certain way — the ‘white’ way, as some would have it — was perceived as a betrayal, as being uppity, as somehow denying our culture,” Obama writes.
I get that.
My mother, our household’s resident wordsmith and frequent corrector of mispronunciations, instilled a reverence for words in me. That translated to proper diction and a bang-up vocabulary, which perplexed some of my peers.
Some black folks see language as a way to connect, and in certain circles, I didn’t speak the vernacular. “Ain’t” has never rolled easily off my tongue. I am perpetually unaware of the latest slang for “cool” — or the latest slang in general. Once, a high school boyfriend asked me, “What’s good?” I wasn’t sure how to reply. The weather was good. I was in good health. I believe I’d just woken up from a good nap. What he meant, I soon found out, was “What’s up?”
He was amused, but with others, that wasn’t always the case. I’ve been questioned about how I speak, and sometimes that made me feel like I didn’t belong, like I existed between two worlds, but fit neatly in neither. Sometimes, that was painful.
As Obama put it, “Everyone seemed to fit in, except for me. 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.”
Michelle Obama had a miscarriage. I can’t claim that particular pain, but I’ve had other reproductive troubles that left me wallowing in shame. And I’ve watched women I adore and admire try and try for a baby, grappling with feelings of brokenness and profound longing when those efforts aren’t successful.
It scares me, that completely unjustified feeling of inadequacy, the loss of control. I spent the first two decades of my life set on being childless. My sole aim was to land a spot at an Ivy League school and translate that into a top-notch writing career. As a teen, I’d tell my parents, “Give up on the idea of grandkids.” That ironclad certainty softened in my mid-20s. I began to entertain the idea of tiny humans in my likeness. And now, on the cusp of 30, my desire for children has crystallized. If I can’t have them when I’m ready, I suspect the sadness would be crippling.
“A miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level,” Obama writes.
What she says next is critical — words all women must hear.
“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.”
There’s no pleasing everyone. That said, I’ve spent a good chunk of my days on earth trying to please everyone. If I failed, guilt followed — big, crashing, likely-to-drown you waves of guilt.
That’s behind me now. I thank my therapist. I had to come to terms with the specter of unmet expectations, as Obama did when she found herself on the campaign trail, then in the White House, under the white-hot heat of the spotlight.
In her words: “I was either hard-driving and angry or, with my garden and messages about healthy eating, I was a disappointment to feminists, lacking a certain stridency.”
Somebody’s going to be unhappy. In my case, that’s my parents, whom I’ve frustrated plenty.
I am always searching, constantly considering next steps. I struggle to sit still in the present. I fear complacency more than death. Some mornings I wake and think: Why haven’t I become a runner? When will I write that book? Will I ever be fluent in Spanish? What’s my reason for being?
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim,” Obama writes. “I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.”
I’ve long wondered if the internal prodding I feel is a liability.
Perhaps, it is a blessing. Perhaps, I am becoming.