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I was given Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, by a beloved mentor and fellow bookworm for my birthday this year, and I’ve been reading it every spare moment I have—admittedly not only because it’s a fantastic read but because both my daughter and my mother are standing in line for it, one more patiently than the other.
The early sections of the book touch often on the South Side of Chicago, mentioning streets and stores and bus routes that were familiar to us in our almost 11 years in that city, where we lived only a few blocks north of her family home. I don’t recall ever running into Michelle Obama in Hyde Park, but I clearly remember having Barack Obama pointed out to me at a local playground with his two small girls.
What sticks in my mind is that the young state senator was not chatting up his constituents, nor was he pacing around talking or texting on his phone: he was laser focused on those two girls—catching them at the bottom of the slide, pushing them on the swings.
What leaps off every page of the book is Michelle Obama’s ability to articulate the dilemmas and paradoxes of being a woman in America:
- If we want it all, (how) can we have it all, “have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other?”
- Why do we consistently look for the approval of others when we know what does and doesn’t feel right deep down inside ourselves?
- Why do we even think that there is one “right” way to live our lives, and that it can be found by looking at others’ paths?
- (How much) Are we willing to put our own lives on hold for the sake of our spouse’s career? (Yes, and a lot, evidently.)
- Why is there such a code of silence about women’s experiences—such as miscarriages—that we don’t realize we have a secret sisterhood just waiting to embrace us? Why should something so dramatic and traumatic be the test that gets us into the club?
I’m sure a lot of the second half of the book may fly far away from my own experience as a woman in America, but I think I may have found the biggest “nugget” already—her wisdom about finding her way out of the expectations she’d set up for her husband and the story she was telling herself.
I began to see that there were ways I could be happier and that they didn’t necessarily need to come from Barack’s quitting politics in order to take some nine-to-six foundation job…. I began to see how I’d been stoking the most negative parts of myself, caught up in the notion that everything was unfair and then assiduously … 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’m reminded of an organizational development tool called the Ladder of Inference (closely related to Byron Katie’s “The Work”), which in its simplest form is a reminder to us that we have an extremely difficult time separating what actually happens from what we make it mean.
And the only meaning we can give something comes from our own experience to date—so we’re constantly looking for (and finding!) evidence that supports our meaning.
The next time a similar situation occurs, we think, “SEE?!? I knew I was right about this.”
If you want to test out this tool on your own, try looking at a situation as if your eyes were a camera and your ears a tape recorder, then ask yourself:
- What would a camera or recorder take down?
- What meaning are you layering on top of that reality?
- How does that affect or serve you (or not)?
- What would be possible if you separated the facts from the meaning you gave them?
In Obama’s situation, she was frustrated by her husband’s inability to get home from work on time for dinner.
- What actually happened? He was late for dinner.
- What did she make it mean? He didn’t care about their family.
- What was the result? Her happiness was negatively affected.
Once she decided that she was capable of creating her own happiness, she climbed right back down that ladder:
- What actually happened? He continued to be late for dinner.
- What did she do about it? Drew her boundaries—dinner time was 6:30, be there or don’t—and stuck to them.
- What was the result? Her happiness improved—it did not depend on him but on her own desire for routine and order in a home with small children (who, incidentally, learned that they did not need to accommodate “any form of old-school patriarchy.”)
The biggest lesson in this for Obama and for us is that we do have agency over our own story and our own happiness. Whether you’re married to the future POTUS or not, your happiness needn’t depend on anyone but yourself meeting your own needs.
Are you meeting your own needs? Or are you waiting (in vain) for someone else to meet them? And how is that working out for you?
Drop me a comment and let me know whether you’ve read Becoming and what your takeaways are.
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