International Women's Day: On Mothers, Michelle Obama, and growing up in Chicago

International Women's Day: On Mothers, Michelle Obama, and growing up in Chicago

For International Women’s Day 2021, I was intrigued by this year’s theme, Choose a Challenge.  As a writer, the challenge I found myself drawn to explore, in writing, was a subject matter about which I was unsettled. Here goes.  

On January 10, 2017, during Barack Obama’s Farewell Address to the nation, I first learned Mrs. Obama’s maiden name.  Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. I remember Mr. Obama pronouncing it in full and being surprised by how old fashioned it sounded. My name is Michelle too, and since 2008, whenever I met someone new I’d introduce myself by saying:  “Hi, my name is Michelle, spelled with two LLs, like the First Lady.”  Over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency, I became, and remain, a fan of his wife.  And like most fans, my interest in Mrs. Obama was based more upon what that interest said about me as an individual, rather than on anything about her in particular. In fact, I didn’t know much about Mrs. Obama at all, other than that she wore Maria Pinto designer dresses and launched “Let’s Move,” a program focusing on healthy eating habits for kids and gardening, neither of which I felt particularly drawn to. The first, because, until after the success of Let’s Move, I was ignorant of the childhood obesity epidemic that disproportionately affected BIPOC communities here in the US and the second because I did not, yet, have a garden of my own.   

During the turbulent times prior to the 2016 election, I took comfort in the speech where Mrs. Obama coined the phrase:  “When they go low, we go high.” But it wasn’t until Mr. Obama’s Farewell Address, when I heard him say Mrs. Obama’s full name, that my interest was piqued. She had a name that sounded like someone I could have grown up with. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. Hm, I thought, before she became a political and feminist icon, and international emblem for simple decency, had she just been an average American? I wasn’t sure, so over a year later when her autobiography Becoming was published, I read it. 


Michell Obama Becoming


The description of the home where Mrs. Obama grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and where she lived when she worked as a lawyer and met Mr. Obama, captivated me.  

“On Euclid Avenue, we were two households living under one not very big roof.  Judging from the layout, the second-floor space had probably been designed as an in-law apartment, meant for one or two people, but four of us found a way to fit inside. My parents slept in the lone bedroom, while Craig and I shared a bigger area that I assume was intended to be the living room. Later, as we grew, my grandfather...brought over some cheap wooden paneling and built a makeshift partition to divide the room into two semiprivate spaces.”  (Obama 6)

This living situation sounded familiar; in fact, it replicated almost exactly my mother’s experience growing up in an Italian neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, near Grand and Pulaski.  Here’s how my mother describes it:

“The inside of the basement apartment had a small bathroom, two small bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a small living room. Whenever I was in the house, I was only an arm’s length away from someone else. I slept in one of the small bedrooms with my mother, my father slept on a hideaway bed in the living room, and my brother slept in the other small bedroom. The emphasis on my place was, you guessed it, small.”

The likeness was so obvious, my immediate thought was: my mother should see herself in Mrs. Obama. My mother credits her upbringing with endowing her with her capabilities. And although my relationship with my mother is complex, one thing I know for certain is that she had the mental fortitude to create an enriched environment for me to grow up in. It astounded me to think that Barack Obama’s wife, the First Lady of the United States, had grown up in a tiny space almost identical to the one my mother grew up in. That would mean that her mental fortitude rivaled that of my mother, I realized.  

Politically, my mother and I are at odds, but fundamentally I revere my mother, I love her, and fear her, but in a good way. The unsettling thing about all this, for me, is that I did not see my mother in Mrs. Obama the minute she took the stage in Chicago, after Mr. Obama’s victory, in 2007. The encouraging thing, however, about all this, is that although my mother may not see herself in Mrs. Obama, I now do. And my daughter does too.  

Obama, Michelle.  Becoming.  Crown, 2018.