In her much anticipated appearance at the American Library Association Annual Conference In New Orleans on Friday, former First Lady Michelle Obama said her forthcoming memoir, Becoming, captures the “ordinariness” of her “very extraordinary story.” But if her talk is any indication, the former First Lady’s message of empowerment could become an extraordinary bestseller this fall.
In an hour-long conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, whose relationship with the Obamas goes back to her days working as a children’s librarian in the early 1990s in Chicago, Obama reflected on her blue collar Chicago roots, and her struggle to balance her professional, public, and parental roles.
“I had big jobs before I was First Lady,” Obama told librarians, conceding that she wrestled with what was expected of her as her husband rose swiftly to the presidency.
“I didn’t come to the position of First Lady with a blank slate, and that’s sort of what happens in society, you become a spouse all of a sudden,” she said. “Because the burden of child rearing fell on me, as a woman, that was part of my trajectory. As my husband’s ascent got faster and higher and louder there was the challenge of how I make sure that my kids were sane, and I have a career. But that started very early, those doubts of how do you balance it all, and is it fair that we’re on his rocket ship ride when I have one too? That’s something that I write about, and that’s what you learn, the balance of marriage. And I tell people this all the time, particularly young women. What I’ve learned is that you can have it all, but you usually can’t have it all at the same time.”
Eventually, Obama said, caring for her family helped her realize her value—and gave her confidence. “What I learned is that as women, as individuals, you have to ask for what you need. And that taught me that I can define the terms of my professional life,” she said. “It’s hard, especially for women, to say I know my worth and I can put a monetary number on it. Those are the kinds of things I’m exploring in the book as well.”
Obama also stressed the need for women to consider themselves first, and to maintain strong friendships. “You can’t save someone else if you’re dying inside,” she said. “It could be our sense of self-worth, our physical health, our mental well-being. If we let that go, if we don’t nurture that, as women, we are no good to anybody else. And that is something you have to practice, and that’s something I had to learn. I grew up with women who didn’t think of themselves first, and I thought, I want to show my girls something else…I thought it was important for my girls to see me having strong friendships with women in my life.”
In the wide-ranging conversation, Obama spoke of her family’s love of reading and books (she reads print; and recently read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth; Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale; Moshin Hamid’s Exit West; and Chimimanda Adichie’s Americanah). And that every value she has came from her blue collar, hardworking parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson.
“How I carry myself in the world," she said, "is I do what I think Marian and Fraser would expect me to do."
And while there wasn’t a hint of politics from the stage, despite the crisis playing out on the Mexican border where families are being separated, Obama spoke frequently about children, both about trying to raise her own girls with some sense of normalcy despite their secret service details and the need for security sweeps before a simple sleepover, as well as her numerous initiatives with children in her role as First Lady.
“We wanted the White House to be a place of fun, particularly in tough times,” Obama said, adding that the country needs moments to celebrate and feel good. So, the Obama White House had Halloween parties where kids could trick-or-treat in the White House. They had kids in or around virtually every event, including state dinners. They sponsored a mentoring program for local kids. And then, Obama recalled, there was their first cultural event in the White House, back in November of 2009, where they met an up-and-coming young composer named Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“It was a spoken word event—rap for those of you who don’t know, poetry, sort of cool poetry, which had never been done in the White House, in the East Room, with George and Martha standing there,” she said. “So we’re in a rope line and this young kid Lin-Manuel came up, and Barack and I are like, ‘what are you going to perform young man?’ And he said 'I’m gonna do a rap about Alexander Hamilton.' And we were like pfff! Remember, you’re the president and the first lady—you cannot laugh in the face of your guests—but are you kidding? And then he went on to perform the first number he prepared, and it was obviously amazing. So after, we were like 'that’s really good!' And he said, 'yeah, I’m going to do a whole Broadway show on it.' And we were like, ha! Good luck with that kid!”
Of course, Miranda’s Hamilton has become an epic success—and Obama warmly recalled having the entire Hamilton cast back to the White House, where they performed and held workshops all day with kids.
“I wanted to involve kids because kids are good,” Obama explained. “They make everything better. And we wanted to make sure that kids felt like the White House belonged to them. That when they walked in, kids of all backgrounds, they felt like this is a place that kids were supposed to be. Not peering through the front gates, but that they were supposed to walk in the doors, and experience everything that was going on there. And I think of all the things we did, the work we were able to do with young people was the most fulfilling.”
Becoming is set for November 13 release from Crown. The ALA Annual Conference runs through June 26.