Becoming 8.3分
读书笔记 becoming me/us/more
JJ酱

KINDLE 笔记:

For one thing, I’d picked up on the simple, encouraging correlation between how long I practiced and how much I achieved. And I sensed something in Robbie as well—too deeply buried to be outright pleasure, but still, a pulse of something lighter and happier coming from her when I made it through a song without messing up, when my right hand picked out a melody while my left touched down on a chord.

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Looking back on it now, I think my parents appreciated my feistiness and I’m glad for it. It was a flame inside me they wanted to keep lit.

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In my family, we have a long-standing habit of blocking out bad news, of trying to forget about it almost the moment it arrives.

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My father was the sort of person who accepted what came and just kept moving forward.

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My father would often pick a lot as close to our destination as possible, shelling out more money for parking to minimize how far he’d have to walk on his unsteady legs.

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This, of course, was 1969, in a public school on the South Side of Chicago. Nobody was talking about selfesteem or growth mind-sets. If you’d had a head start at home, you were rewarded for it at school, deemed “bright” or “gifted,” which in turn only compounded your confidence. The advantages aggregated quickly.

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Without telling me, she went over to the school and began a weeks-long process of behind-the-scenes lobbying, which led to me and a couple of other high-performing kids getting quietly pulled out of class, given a battery of tests, and about a week later reinstalled permanently into a bright and orderly third-grade class upstairs, governed by a smiling, no-nonsense teacher who knew her stuff.

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Now that I’m an adult, I realize that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness. It’s hardly their fault. They aren’t “bad kids.” They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances.

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The next time DeeDee made one of her remarks, I lunged for her, summoning everything my dad had taught me about how to throw a punch.

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“You never want to end up house poor,” he’d tell us, explaining how some people handed over their savings and borrowed too much, ending up with a nice home but no freedom at all.

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They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience. Our talks could go on for hours, often because Craig and I took every opportunity to grill my parents about things we didn’t understand.

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Whatever was eroding inside my father, withering his muscles and stripping his nerves, he viewed it as his own private challenge, as something to silently withstand.

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But the gash in his chrome didn’t stay for long. As soon as there was time, he took the car over to the body shop at Sears and had it erased.

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Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people.

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Slowly, I was becoming more outward and social, more willing to open myself up to the messes of the wider world. My natural resistance to chaos and spontaneity had been worn down somewhat through all the hours I’d spent trailing my father through his precinct visits, plus all the other weekend outings we made, dropping in on our dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, sitting in thick clouds of barbecue smoke in someone’s backyard or running around with neighborhood kids in a neighborhood that wasn’t ours.

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The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it. They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness—to inhabit it with pride—and this filtered down to how we spoke.

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Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.

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My mother maintained the sort of parental mind-set that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate—a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality. I had friends whose mothers rode their highs and lows as if they were their own, and I knew plenty of other kids whose parents were too overwhelmed by their own challenges to be much of a presence at all. My mom was simply even-keeled.

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She wasn’t quick to judge and she wasn’t quick to meddle. Instead, she monitored our moods and bore benevolent witness to whatever travails or triumphs a day might bring. When things were bad, she gave us only a small amount of pity. When we’d done something great, we received just enough praise to know she was happy with us, but never so much that it became the reason we did what we did.

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I understand now that even a happy marriage can be a vexation, that it’s a contract best renewed and renewed again, even quietly and privately—even alone.

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If you’ve never passed a winter in Chicago, let me describe it: You can live for a hundred straight days beneath an iron-gray sky that claps itself like a lid over the city. Frigid, biting winds blow in off the lake. Snow falls in dozens of ways, in heavy overnight dumps and daytime, sideways squalls, in demoralizing sloppy sleet and fairytale billows of fluff. There’s ice, usually, lots of it, that shellacs the sidewalks and windshields that then need to be scraped. There’s the sound of that scraping in the early mornings—the hack hack hack of it—as people clear their cars to go to work. Your neighbors, unrecognizable in the thick layers they wear against the cold, keep their faces down to avoid the wind. City snowplows thunder through the streets as the white snow gets piled up and sooty, until nothing is pristine.

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Eventually, however, something happens. A slow reversal begins. It can be subtle, a whiff of humidity in the air, a slight lifting of the sky. You feel it first in your heart, the possibility that winter might have passed. You may not trust it at the beginning, but then you do. Because now the sun is out and there are little nubby buds on the trees and your neighbors have taken off their heavy coats. And maybe there’s a new airiness to your thoughts on the morning you decide to pull out every window in your apartment so you can spray the glass and wipe down the sills. It allows you to think, to wonder if you’ve missed out on other possibilities by becoming a wife to this man in this house with these children. Maybe you spend the whole day considering new ways to live before finally you fit every window back into its frame and empty your bucket of Pine-Sol into the sink. And maybe now all your certainty returns, because yes, truly, it’s spring and once again you’ve made the choice to stay.

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But my first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible—the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.

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By nature of my long commute to Whitney Young, I saw less of my parents, and looking back at it, I’d guess that it was a lonely time for them, or at least required some adjustment.

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As the plane pulled away from its gate that day, I looked out my window and back at the airport, knowing that my mother stood somewhere behind its black-glass windows, dressed in her winter coat and waving me on.

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Sometimes we’d hitch rides with the various staff members or visitors who buzzed in and out. What we sacrificed was control. This would become one of my early, unwitting lessons about life in politics: Schedules and plans never seemed to stick.

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Running for president, I understand now, is an all-consuming, full-body effort for every person involved, and good campaigns tend to involve a stage-setting, groundwork-laying preamble, which can add whole years to the effort.

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And for me, it felt like that’s exactly what she was planting—a suggestion of failure long before I’d even tried to succeed. She was telling me to lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me.

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Some were born poor or have lived lives that to many of us would appear to have been unfairly heaped with adversity, and yet still they seem to operate as if they’ve had every advantage in the world.

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The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

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I knew that teenage affairs were sometimes real and lasting. I wanted to believe that there was a guy who’d materialize and become everything to me, who’d be sexy and solid and whose effect would be so immediate and deep that I’d be willing to rearrange my priorities.

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I understand that when it comes to campus diversity, the ideal would be to achieve something resembling what’s often shown on college brochures—smiling students working and socializing in neat, ethnically blended groups.

But even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of color on college campuses, the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it’s a lot to ask.

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It’s hard to put into words what sometimes you pick up in the ether, the quiet, cruel nuances of not belonging—the subtle cues that tell you to not risk anything, to find your people and just stay put.

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There were so few of us minority kids at Princeton, I suppose, that our presence was always conspicuous. I mainly took this as a mandate to overperform, to do everything I possibly could to keep up with or even plow past the more privileged people around me. Just as it had been at Whitney Young, my intensity was spawned at least in part by a feeling of I’ll show you. If in high school I’d felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race. Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point.

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Once a week or so, if I found a quiet moment, I’d pick up the phone and dial the number for our apartment on Euclid. If my father was working early shifts, I could catch him in the late afternoon, sitting—or so I imagined—with his legs up in his reclining chair in our living room, watching TV, and waiting for my mom to get home from work. In the evenings, it was usually my mother who picked up the phone. I narrated my college life in exacting detail to both my parents like a homesteader dutifully providing dispatches from the frontier. I spilled every observation I had—from how I didn’t like my French professor to the antics of the little kids in my afterschool program to the fact that Suzanne and I had a dedicated, mutual crush on an African American engineering student with transfixing green eyes who, even though we doggedly shadowed his every move, seemed to barely know we were alive. My dad chuckled at my stories. “Is that right?” he’d say. And, “How about that?” And, “Maybe that engineer-boy doesn’t deserve either one of you girls.” When I was done talking, he ran through the news from home. Dandy and Grandma had moved back to Dandy’s hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina, and Grandma, he reported, was finding herself a bit lonely. He described how my mother was working overtime trying to care for Robbie, who was now in her seventies, widowed, and struggling with an array of health issues. He never mentioned his own struggles, but I knew they were there. At one point when Craig had a home basketball game on a Saturday, my parents drove all the way to Princeton to see it, and I got my first look at their shifting reality—at what never got said on the phone. After pulling into the vast parking lot outside Jadwin Gym, my father reluctantly slid into a wheelchair and allowed my mother to push him inside. I almost didn’t want to see what was happening to my father. I couldn’t bear it. I’d done some research on multiple sclerosis in the Princeton library, photocopying medical journal articles to send to my parents. I’d tried to insist that they call a specialist or sign Dad up for some physical therapy, but they—my dad, primarily—didn’t want to hear any of it. For all the hours we spent talking on the phone while I was at college, his health was the one topic he wouldn’t touch. If I asked how he was feeling, the answer was always “I feel good.” And that would be that. I let his voice be my comfort. It bore no trace of pain or self-pity, carrying only good humor and softness and just the tiniest hint of jazz. I lived on it as if it were oxygen. It was sustaining, and it was always enough. Before hanging up, he always asked if I needed anything—money, for instance—but I never said yes.

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Somewhere in the background was another more-than-decent likelihood—that they, like me, were descended from slaves.

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We were young, focused only on the future—though of course we knew nothing of what lay ahead.

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He’s halted alongside a wide field, its high grass stunted and straw-like after the winter but shot through with tiny early-blooming wildflowers.

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At the time—and unfairly, I think now—I judged him for the swerve. I had no capacity to understand why someone would take an expensive Princeton education and not immediately convert it into the kind of leg up in the world that such a degree was meant to yield. Why, when you could be in medical school, would you be a dog who does handsprings?

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But that was me. And as I’ve said, I was a box checker—marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result—a devoted follower of the established path, if only because nobody in my family (aside from Craig) had ever set foot on the path before. I wasn’t particularly imaginative in how I thought about the future, which is another way of saying I was already thinking about law school.

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This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.

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Maybe during those three years you make friends you’ll love and respect forever, people who seem genuinely called to the bloodless intricacies of the law, but you yourself are not called.

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Your passion stays low, yet under no circumstance will you underperform. You live, as you always have, by the code of effort/result, and with it you keep achieving until you think you know the answers to all the questions—including the most important one. Am I good enough? Yes, in fact I am.

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A senior partner asks if you’ll mentor an incoming summer associate, and the answer is easy: Of course you will. You have yet to understand the altering force of a simple yes. You don’t know that when a memo arrives to confirm the assignment, some deep and unseen fault line in your life has begun to tremble, that some hold is already starting to slip. Next to your name is another name, that of some hotshot law student who’s busy climbing his own ladder. Like you, he’s black and from Harvard. Other than that, you know nothing—just the name, and it’s an odd one.

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He was breezy in his manner but powerful in his mind.

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We gave each other sideways glances when people around us got stressed to the point of mania, when partners made comments that seemed condescending or out of touch.

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Barack bore no resemblance to the typical eager-beaver summer associate (as I myself had been two years

earlier at Sidley), networking furiously and anxiously wondering whether a golden-ticket job offer was coming.

He sauntered around with calm detachment, which seemed only to increase his appeal.

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Whether I was going to admit it or not, though, something between us had started to change. On days when we

were too busy to check in face-to-face, I found myself wondering what he’d been up to. I talked myself out of

being disappointed when he didn’t surface in my office doorway. I talked myself out of being too excited when

he did. I had feelings for the guy, but they were latent, buried deep beneath my resolve to keep my life and

career tidy and forward focused—free from any drama. My annual reviews at work were solid. I was on track to

become an equity partner at Sidley & Austin, probably before I hit thirty-two. It was everything I wanted—or so

I was trying to convince myself.

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More than once in the coming days, he laid out the evidence for why we should be going out. We were

compatible. We made each other laugh. We were both available, and furthermore we confessed to being almost

immediately uninterested in anyone else we met. Nobody at the firm, he argued, would care if we dated. In fact,

maybe it would be seen as a positive. He presumed that the partners wanted him to come work for them,

eventually. If he and I were an item, it would improve the odds of his committing. “You mean I’m like some sort

of bait?” I said, laughing. “You flatter yourself.”

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Until now, I’d constructed my existence carefully, tucking and folding every loose and disorderly bit of it, as if

building some tight and airless piece of origami. I had labored over its creation. I was proud of how it looked.

But it was delicate. If one corner came untucked, I might discover that I was restless. If another popped loose, it

might reveal I was uncertain about the professional path I’d so deliberately put myself on, about all the things I

told myself I wanted. I think now it’s why I guarded myself so carefully, why I still wasn’t ready to let him in.

He was like a wind that threatened to unsettle everything.

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The weather, as I remember it, was clear that day, the lake sparkling at the edge of a well-tended lawn. A caterer

served food as music blared over stereo speakers and people remarked on the tasteful grandeur of the house. The

whole milieu was a portrait of affluence and ease, a less-than-subtle reminder of the payoff that came when you

committed yourself wholeheartedly to the grind.

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Until now, I’d hung around with good people who cared about important enough things but who were focused

primarily on building their careers and providing for their families. Barack was just different. He was dialed into

the day-to-day demands of his life, but at the same time, especially at night, his thoughts seemed to roam a much

wider plane.

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The fact he’d navigated his unusual upbringing so successfully seemed only to reinforce the idea that he was

ready to take on more.

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Barack had told me, he’d contended most often with a deep weariness in people—especially black people—a

cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time. I understood it. I’d seen it in my own

neighborhood, in my own family. A bitterness, a lapse in faith. It lived in both of my grandfathers, spawned by

every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make. It was inside the harried second-grade

teacher who’d basically given up trying to teach us at Bryn Mawr. It was inside the neighbor who’d stopped

mowing her lawn or keeping track of where her kids went after school. It lived in every piece of trash tossed

carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last

thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.

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It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the

place itself unstuck.

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“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”

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It was an honor to be picked for the editorial team, but it was also like tacking a full-time job onto the alreadyheavy

load of being a law student.

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If we were serious about bringing in minority lawyers, I asserted, we’d have to look more holistically at

candidates. We’d need to think about how they’d used whatever opportunities life had afforded them rather than

measuring them simply by how far they’d made it up an elitist academic ladder. The point wasn’t to lower the

firm’s high standards: It was to realize that by sticking with the most rigid and old-school way of evaluating a

new lawyer’s potential, we were overlooking all sorts of people who could contribute to the firm’s success.

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Before hanging up, she told me that in a cruel twist of fate her mother had fallen gravely ill as well.

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He could have landed any number of fat-salaried law firm jobs at that point, but instead he was thinking about

practicing civil rights law once he got his degree, even if it would then take twice as long to pay off his student

loans.

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The first thing was that I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was

plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my

blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road.

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This meant finding a new profession, and what shook me most was that I had no concrete ideas about what I

wanted to do. Somehow, in all my years of schooling, I hadn’t managed to think through my own passions and

how they might match up with work I found meaningful. As a young person, I’d explored exactly nothing.

Barack’s maturity, I realized, came in part from the years he’d logged as a community organizer and even, prior

to that, a decidedly unfulfilling year he’d spent as a researcher at a Manhattan business consulting firm

immediately after college. He’d tried out some things, gotten to know all sorts of people, and learned his own

priorities along the way. I, meanwhile, had been so afraid of floundering, so eager for respectability and a way to

pay the bills, that I’d marched myself unthinkingly into the law.

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I wondered if I could find a job that engaged my mind and still left me enough time to do volunteer work, or

appreciate art, or have children. I wanted a life, basically. I wanted to feel whole. I made a list of issues that

interested me: education, teen pregnancy, black self-esteem.

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A more virtuous job, I knew, would inevitably involve a pay cut. More sobering was my next list, this one of my

essential expenses—what was left after I let go of the luxuries I’d allowed myself on a Sidley salary, things like

my subscription wine service and health-club membership. I had a $600 monthly payment on my student loans,

a $407 car payment, money spent on food, gas, and insurance, plus the roughly $500 a month I’d need for rent if

I ever moved out of my parents’ house.

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Nothing was impossible, but nothing looked simple, either. I started asking around about opportunities in

entertainment law, thinking perhaps that it might be interesting and would also spare me the sting of a lower

salary. But in my heart, I felt a slow-growing certainty of my own: I wasn’t built to practice law. One day I made

note of a New York Times article I’d read that reported widespread fatigue, stress, and unhappiness among

American lawyers—most especially female ones. “How depressing,” I wrote in my journal.

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I see now how this must have come across to my mother, who was then in the ninth year of a job she’d taken

primarily so she could help finance my college education, after years of not having a job so that she’d be free to

sew my school clothes, cook my meals, and do laundry for my dad, who for the sake of our family spent eight

hours a day watching gauges on a boiler at the filtration plant. My mom, who’d just driven an hour to fetch me

from the airport, who was letting me live rent-free in the upstairs of her house, and who would have to get

herself up at dawn the next morning in order to help my disabled dad get ready for work, was hardly ready to

indulge my angst about fulfillment.

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Craig was never one to be the bad cop, and my mother stuck to her self-imposed cease-fire on matters of my

father’s health. In a conversation like this, the role of tough talker almost always fell to me.

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His stubbornness was packed beneath so many layers of pride that it was impossible for me to be angry.

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We were both, of course, products of how we’d been raised. Barack had experienced marriage as ephemeral: His

mother had married twice, divorced twice, and in each instance managed to move on with her life, career, and

young children intact. My parents, meanwhile, had locked in early and for life. For them, every decision was a

joint decision, every endeavor a joint endeavor. In thirty years, they’d hardly spent a night apart.

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What did Barack and I want? We wanted a modern partnership that suited us both. He saw marriage as the

loving alignment of two people who could lead parallel lives but without forgoing any independent dreams or

ambitions. For me, marriage was more like a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the wellbeing

of a family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal.

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One evening I stopped by and found my father alone, my mother having gone home for the night, the nurses

clustered outside at their hallway station. The room was quiet. The whole floor of the hospital was quiet. It was

the first week of March, the winter snow having just melted, leaving the city in what felt like a perpetual state of

dampness. My dad had been in the hospital about ten days then. He was fifty-five years old, but he looked like

an old man, with yellowed eyes and arms too heavy to move. He was awake but unable to speak, whether due to

the swelling or due to emotion, I’ll never know. I sat in a chair next to his bed and watched him laboring to

breathe. When I put my hand in his, he gave it a comforting squeeze. We looked at each other silently. There

was too much to say, and at the same time it felt as if we’d said everything. What was left was only one truth.

We were reaching the end. He would not recover. He was going to miss the whole rest of my life. I was losing

his steadiness, his comfort, his everyday joy. I felt tears spilling down my cheeks.

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We were alone in the house now, just me and my mom and whatever future we were now meant to have.

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It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts

to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colors go flat. Music hurts, and so do

memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful—a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of

kids—and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.

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The practical, pragmatic part of our upbringing wouldn’t allow me to put much stock in the gentle, wellintentioned

platitudes people would heap on us a few days later at the funeral.

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“Look at us,” she said, a little ruefully. And yet there was a touch of lightness in how she said it. She was

pointing out that we Robinsons had been reduced to a true and ridiculous mess—unrecognizable with our

swollen eyelids and dripping noses, our hurt and strange helplessness here in our own kitchen. Who were we?

Didn’t we know? Hadn’t he shown us? She was calling us back from our loneliness with three blunt words, as

only our mom could do.

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The point was less to find a new job than to widen my understanding of what was possible and how others had

gone about it. I was realizing that the next phase of my journey would not simply unfold on its own, that my

fancy academic degrees weren’t going to automatically lead me to fulfilling work. Finding a career as opposed

to a job wouldn’t just come from perusing the contact pages of an alumni directory; it required deeper thought

and effort. I would need to hustle and learn. And so, again and again, I laid out my professional dilemma for the

people I met, quizzing them on what they did and whom they knew. I asked earnest questions about what kind of

work might be available to a lawyer who didn’t, in fact, want to practice law.

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She described to me how her transition from corporate law into government felt like a relief, an energizing leap

out of the super-groomed unreality of high-class law being practiced on the top floors of skyscrapers and into the

real world—the very real world.

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Looking back on it, I’m sure I was only capitalizing on what felt like a rare opportunity to speak with a woman

whose background mirrored mine but who was a few years ahead of me in her career trajectory.

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There’s something innately bolstering about a person who sees his opportunities as endless, who doesn’t waste

time or energy questioning whether they will ever dry up.

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He seemed, at times, beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life and all the material things a

thirtysomething lawyer was supposed to be going after, from a car that wasn’t embarrassing to a house with a

yard in the suburbs or a swank condo in the Loop.

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I’d had so many careful, sensible conversations at this point, with so many people, about how to extract myself

from a career in which, by all outward measures, I was flourishing.

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Compounding my anxiety was the one deep longing that far outmatched any material wish: I knew I wanted to

have children, sooner rather than later.

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We didn’t fight often, and when we did, it was typically over petty things, a string of pent-up aggravations that

surfaced usually when one or both of us got overly fatigued or stressed.

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It’s taken us time—years—to understand that this is just how each of us is built, that we are each the sum total of

our respective genetic codes as well as everything installed in us by our parents and their parents before them.

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Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight

now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained,

still in sight.

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I watched them closely in this regard as well, knowing that I wanted someday to be one myself. Valerie never

hesitated to step out of a big meeting when a call came in from her daughter’s school. Susan, likewise, dashed

out in the middle of the day if one of her sons spiked a fever or was performing in a preschool music show. They

were unapologetic about prioritizing the needs of their children, even if it meant occasionally disrupting the flow

at work, and didn’t try to compartmentalize work and home the way I’d noticed male partners at Sidley seemed

to do.

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blown his book deadline,

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If I’d learned anything from Barack’s obsessive involvement with Project VOTE!, anyway, it was that it wasn’t

helpful for me to worry about his worries—in part because I seemed to find them more overwhelming than he

ever did. Chaos agitated me, but it seemed to invigorate Barack.

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He was like a circus performer who liked to set plates spinning: If things got too calm, he took it as a sign that

there was more to do. He was a serial over-committer, I was coming to understand, taking on new projects

without much regard for limits of time and energy.

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He’d said yes, for example, to serving on the boards of a couple of nonprofits while also saying yes to a parttime

teaching job at the University of Chicago for the coming spring semester while also planning to work fulltime

at the law firm.

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What happens when a solitude-loving individualist marries an outgoing family woman who does not love

solitude one bit?

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The answer, I’m guessing, is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising

inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: You find ways to adapt. If you’re in it forever,

there’s really no choice.

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I’d married an outside-the-box thinker, I had to remind myself. He was handling his business in what struck him

as the most sensible and efficient manner, even if outwardly it appeared to be a beach vacation—a honeymoon

with himself (I couldn’t help but think in my lonelier moments) to follow his honeymoon with me.

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I had so much—an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition—and I was wise enough to

credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me.

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The point was, she’d given diligently and she’d given everything. She’d let our family define her. I was old

enough now to realize that all the hours she gave to me and Craig were hours she didn’t spend on herself.

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My considerable blessings in life were now causing a kind of psychic whiplash. I’d been raised to be confident

and see no limits, to believe I could go after and get absolutely anything I wanted. And I wanted everything.

Because, as Suzanne would say, why not? I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest

of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland

normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that

one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing

like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder. Could I have everything? Would I have

everything? I had no idea.

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There was still plenty I hadn’t figured out about my life—the riddle of how to be both a Mary and a Marian

remained unsolved—but for now all those deeper questions drifted out to the margins of my mind, where they’d

sit dormant and unattended for the time being. Any worries could wait, I figured, because we were an us now,

and we were happy. And happy seemed like a starting place for everything.

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My new job made me nervous.

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Public Allies recruited talented young people, gave them intensive training and committed mentorship, and

placed them in paid ten-month apprentice positions inside community organizations and public agencies, the

hope being that they’d flourish and contribute in meaningful ways.

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But as my luck in life seemed only to snowball from there, I thought more about the twenty or so kids who’d

been marooned in that classroom, stuck with an uncaring and unmotivated teacher. I knew I was no smarter than

any of them. I just had the advantage of an advocate. I thought about this more often now that I was an adult,

especially when people applauded me for my achievements, as if there weren’t a strange and cruel randomness

to it all. Through no fault of their own, those second graders had lost a year of learning. I’d seen enough at this

point to understand how quickly even small deficits can snowball, too.

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Barack, I’ve come to understand, is the sort of person who needs a hole, a closed-off little warren where he can

read and write undisturbed. It’s like a hatch that opens directly onto the spacious skies of his brain. Time spent

there seems to fuel him. In deference to this, we’ve managed to create some version of a hole inside every home

we’ve ever lived in—any quiet corner or alcove will do. To this day, when we arrive at a rental house in Hawaii

or on Martha’s Vineyard, Barack goes off looking for an empty room that can serve as the vacation hole. There,

he can flip between the six or seven books he’s reading simultaneously and toss his newspapers on the floor. For

him, the Hole is a kind of sacred high place, where insights are birthed and clarity comes to visit. For me, it’s an

off-putting and disorderly mess. One requirement has always been that the Hole, wherever it is, have a door so

that I can shut it. For obvious reasons.

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Barack was too earnest, too full of valiant plans, in my opinion, to abide by the hardscrabble, drag-it-out rancor

that went on inside the domed capitol downstate in Springfield.

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I remember these nights with a deep fondness now, for the low, warm lights of the restaurant and how it had

become predictable that with my devotion to punctuality I’d always be the first to show up.

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Rather maddeningly, there’s no straight line between effort and reward.

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If I were to start a file on things nobody tells you about until you’re right in the thick of them, I might begin with

miscarriages.

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I wanted a family and Barack wanted a family, too, and now here I was alone in the bathroom of our apartment,

trying, in the name of all that want, to screw up the courage to plunge a syringe into my thigh.

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It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakable commitment

to the work. Or maybe I was just feeling the acute burden of being female.

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I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his. In the weeks to come, he’d go about his regular

business while I went in for daily ultrasounds to monitor my eggs. He wouldn’t have his blood drawn. He

wouldn’t have to cancel any meetings to have a cervix inspection. He was doting and invested, my husband,

doing what he could do. He read all the IVF literature and would talk to me all night about it, but his only actual

duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm. And then, if he chose, he could go have a

martini afterward. None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the

mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing. It was me who’d alter everything, putting my

passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of

reckoning. Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.

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We were pregnant. It was for real. Suddenly the responsibility and relative sacrifice meant something completely

different, like a landscape taking on new colors, or all the furniture in a house being rearranged so that now

everything appeared perfectly in place. I walked around with a secret inside me. This was my privilege, the gift

of being female. I felt bright with the promise of what I carried.

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first-trimester fatigue left me drained,

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It was still hours before the barbecue coals would start to blaze across the city and people would spread their

blankets on the grass along the lakeshore, waving flags and waiting for the spectacle of the city fireworks to

bloom over the water. We’d miss all of it that year anyway, lost in a whole new blaze and bloom. We were

thinking not about country but about family as Malia Ann Obama, one of the two most perfect babies ever to be

born to anyone, anywhere, dropped into our world.

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When there’s a baby in the house, time stretches and contracts, abiding by none of the regular rules.

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If a meeting ran late, I’d end up tearing home at breakneck speed to fetch Malia so that we could arrive on time

(Malia eager and happy, me sweaty and hyperventilating) to the afternoon Wiggleworms class at a music studio

on the North Side. To me, it felt like a sanity-warping double bind. I battled guilt when I had to take work calls

at home. I battled a different sort of guilt when I sat at my office distracted by the idea that Malia might be

allergic to peanuts.

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Part-time work was meant to give me more freedom, but mostly it left me feeling as if I were only half doing

everything, that all the lines in my life had been blurred.

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I was enough of a veteran now to try to keep myself largely disengaged from the daily ups and downs of the

race. I’d given Barack’s decision to run a wan blessing, adopting a let’s-just-get-this-out-of-the-way attitude

about the whole thing. I thought maybe he’d try and fail to get into national politics and that this would then

motivate him to want to try something entirely different. In an ideal world (my ideal world, anyway), Barack

would do something like become the head of a foundation, where he could have an impact on issues that

mattered and also make it home for dinner at night.

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As it always had, Oahu’s languid green waters and cheery populace helped unhitch us from our everyday

concerns, leaving us blissful and caught up in little more than the feeling of warm air on our skin and our

daughter’s delight at absolutely everything.

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He could walk out the door and catch a cab to the airport and still make it to Springfield in time to vote. He

could leave his sick daughter and fretting wife halfway across the Pacific and go join his colleagues. It was an

option. But I wasn’t going to martyr myself by suggesting it. I was vulnerable, I’ll admit, swimming in the

uncertainty of what was going on with Malia.

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Sasha, we planned to call her. I’d chosen the name because I thought it had a sassy ring. A girl named Sasha

would brook no fools.

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My stint at the university had left me feeling worn out, putting me in a far-from-perfect juggle while also

straining our finances with the expense of child care.

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losing Glo rearranged everything in my working mother’s heart. Her investment in my family had allowed me to

maintain my investment in my job. She loved our kids as if they were her own. I’d wept and wept the night she

gave her notice, knowing how hard it would be for us to balance without her.

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I knew how fortunate we were to have the resources to hire her in the first place. But now that she was gone, it

felt like losing an arm.

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I liked the idea of being in charge of one thing rather than two, of not having my brain scrambled by the

competing narratives of home and work.

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And it did seem that we could swing it financially.

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In any event, this was not a moment of high glamour for me, not a time I could really imagine blow-drying my

hair and putting on a business suit. I was up several times a night to nurse Sasha, which put me behind on sleep

and therefore sanity. Even as I was still rather fanatically devoted to neatness, I was losing the battle. Our condo

was strewn with baby toys, toddler books, and packages of diaper wipes. Any trip outside the house involved a

giant stroller and an unfashionable diaper bag full of the essentials: a Ziploc of Cheerios, a few everyday toys,

and an extra change of clothes—for everyone.

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there was no formula for motherhood.

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After talking it through with both Barack and my friends, I decided to interview for the university hospital job,

to at least see what it was about. My feeling was I’d be perfect for the job. I knew I had the right skills and

plenty of passion. But if I were to take it, I’d also need to operate from a position of strength, on terms that

worked for my family. I could nail it, I thought, if I wasn’t overburdened with superfluous meetings and could

be given the leeway to manage my own time, working from home when I needed to, dashing out of the office for

day-care pickup or a pediatrician’s visit when necessary. Also, I didn’t want to work part-time anymore. I was

done with that. I wanted a full-time job, with a competitive salary to match so that we could better afford child

care and housekeeping help—so that I could lay off the Pine-Sol and spend my free time playing with the girls.

In the meantime, I wasn’t going to try to hide the messiness of my existence, from the breast-feeding baby and

the three-year-old in preschool to the fact that with my husband’s topsy-turvy political schedule I was in charge

of more or less every aspect of life at home. Somewhat brazenly, I suppose, I laid all this out in my interview

with Michael Riordan, the hospital’s new president. I even brought three-month-old Sasha along with me, too. I

can’t remember the circumstances exactly, whether I couldn’t find a babysitter that day or whether I’d even

bothered to try. Sasha was little, though, and still needed a lot from me. She was a fact of my life—a cute,

burbling, impossible-to-ignore fact—and something compelled me almost literally to put her on the table for this

discussion. Here is me, I was saying, and here also is my baby. It seemed a miracle that my would-be boss

appeared to get it. If he had any reservations listening to me explain how flextime was a necessity while I

bounced Sasha on my lap, hoping all the while that her diaper wouldn’t leak, he didn’t express them. I walked

out of the interview feeling pleased and fairly certain I’d be offered the job. But no matter how it panned out, I

knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in

just saying it out loud. With a clear mind and a baby who was starting to fuss, I rushed us both back home.

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My distaste for politics was only intensifying, less because of what went on in either Springfield or D.C. and

more because five years into his tenure as state senator Barack’s overloaded schedule was starting to really grate

on me.

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As Sasha and Malia grew, I found that the pace only quickened and the to-do lists only got longer, leaving me

operating in what felt like a never-ending state of overdrive.

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If Barack’s disregard for punctuality had once been something I’d gently teased him about, it was now a straightup

aggravation.

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In our life before children, such frustrations might have seemed petty, but as a working full-time mother with a

half-time spouse and a predawn wake-up time, I felt my patience slipping away until finally, at some point, it

just fell off a cliff.

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When Barack made it home, he’d either find me raging or unavailable, having flipped off every light in the

house and gone sullenly to sleep.

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Sometimes, watching the news or reading the paper, I found myself staring at images of the people who’d given

themselves over to political life—the Clintons, the Gores, the Bushes, old photos of the Kennedys—and

wondering what the backstories were. Was everyone normal? Happy? Were those smiles real?

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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. (If anything, our counseling sessions

had shown me that this was an unrealistic expectation.) 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, like a Harvard-trained

lawyer, collecting evidence to feed that hypothesis.

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The balance of my life was elegant only from a distance, and only if you squinted, but there was at least

something there that resembled balance.

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I’d spent most of my life living alongside those barriers—noting the nervousness of white people in my

neighborhood, registering all the subtle ways people with any sort of influence seemed to gravitate away from

my home community and into clusters of affluence that seemed increasingly far removed.

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My work was interesting and rewarding, but still I had to be careful not to let it consume me. I felt I owed that to

my girls. Our decision to let Barack’s career proceed as it had—to give him the freedom to shape and pursue his

dreams—led me to tamp down my own efforts at work. Almost deliberately, I’d numbed myself somewhat to

my ambition, stepping back in moments when I’d normally step forward. I’m not sure anyone around me would

have said I wasn’t doing enough, but I was always aware of everything I could have followed through on and

didn’t. There were certain small-scale projects I chose not to take on. There were young employees whom I

could have mentored better than I did. You hear all the time about the trade-offs of being a working mother.

These were mine. If I’d once been someone who threw herself completely into every task, I was now more

cautious, protective of my time, knowing I had to maintain enough energy for life at home.

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My goals mostly involved maintaining normalcy and stability, but those would never be Barack’s. We’d grown

better about recognizing this and letting it be.

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I craved routine and order, and he did not. He could live in the ocean; I needed the boat.

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Barack could happily end a day in a faraway hotel with all sorts of political battles brewing and loose ends

floating. I, meanwhile, lived for the shelter of home—for the sense of completeness I felt each night with Sasha

and Malia tucked into their beds and the dishwasher humming in the kitchen.

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A number of our friends agreed to donate time and money to the effort. I signed off on all of it, with one

important caveat, repeated out loud so that everyone could hear it: If he lost, he’d move on from politics

altogether and find a different sort of job. If it didn’t work out on Election Day, this would be the end.

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And yet, in his curious and roundabout way, he seemed destined for exactly this moment. I knew because I’d

seen up close how his mind churned nonstop. Over years, I’d watched him inhale books, newspapers, and ideas,

sparking to life anytime he spoke with someone who offered a shard of new experience or knowledge. He’d

stowed every piece of it. What he was building, I see now, was a vision—and not a small one, either. It was the

very thing I’d had to create room for in our shared life, to coexist with, even if reluctantly.

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This was the guy I’d married. I’d known his capabilities all along. Looking back, I think it was then that I

quietly began to let go of the idea that there was any reversing his course, that he’d ever belong solely to me and

the girls. I could hear it almost in the pulse of the applause.

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when nine years after publication the formerly obscure Dreams from My Father got a paperback reissue and

landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

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I didn’t mention that we were so committed to Chicago that we were looking to buy a new house, thanks to the

royalty money that was starting to come in from the renewed sales of his book and the fact that he now had a

generous offer on a second book—the surprise harvest of Barack’s magic beans.

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felt her judgment then. She herself had been in Washington for many years. The implication was she’d seen

things go poorly when a spouse stayed back. The implication was that I was making a dangerous choice, that

there was only one correct way to be a senator’s wife and I was choosing wrong.

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I thanked her again, hung up, and sighed. None of this had been my choice in the first place. None of this was

my choice at all. I was now, like her, the wife of a U.S. senator—Mrs. Obama, she’d called me throughout the

conversation—but that didn’t mean I had to drop everything to support him. Truly, I didn’t want to drop a thing.

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As a lifelong pragmatist, I would always counsel a slow approach, the methodical checking of boxes. I was a

natural-born fan of the long and judicious wait. In this regard, I felt better anytime I heard Barack pushing back

at his inquisitors with an aw-shucks kind of modesty, batting away questions about the presidency, saying that

the only thing he was planning was to put his head down and work hard in the Senate. He

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Barack and I had been through five campaigns in eleven years already, and each one had forced me to fight a bit

harder to hang on to my own priorities.

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Anytime a reporter asked whether he’d join the race for president, Barack would demur, saying simply, “I’m

still thinking about it. It’s a family decision.” Which was code for “Only if Michelle says I can.”

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I’d been raised, after all, in a family that believed in forethought—that ran fire drills at home and showed up

early to everything. Growing up in a working-class community and with a disabled parent, I’d learned that

planning and vigilance mattered a lot. It could mean the difference between stability and poverty. The margins

always felt narrow. One missed paycheck could leave you without electricity; one missed homework assignment

could put you behind and possibly out of college.

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the world could be brutal and random, that hard work didn’t always assure positive outcomes.

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Barack, for his part, had spent plenty of time listening to laid-off factory workers, young military veterans trying

to manage lifelong disabilities, mothers fed up with sending their kids to poorly functioning schools. We

understood, in other words, how ridiculously fortunate we were, and we both felt an obligation not to be

complacent.

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In all, a total of nine Democrats would throw their hats into the ring.

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I knew the stereotype I was meant to inhabit, the immaculately groomed doll-wife with the painted-on smile,

gazing bright-eyed at her husband, as if hanging on every word. This was not me and never would be. I could be

supportive, but I couldn’t be a robot. Following the briefing and

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I’d never been one who’d choose to spend a Saturday at a political rally. The appeal of standing in an open gym

or high school auditorium to hear lofty promises and platitudes never made much sense to me.

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The more I told my story, the more my voice settled into itself.

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Clearly, something had to change, but I was at a loss about how to make that happen. Every solution seemed to

demand more time—time at the grocery store, time in the kitchen, time spent chopping vegetables or slicing the

skin off a chicken breast—all this coming right when time felt as if it were already on the verge of extinction in

my world.

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I’d decided to scale back to part-time hours, knowing it was the only sustainable way to keep going.

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Something was changing, so gradually that at first it was hard to register. I sometimes felt as if I were floating

through a strange universe, waving at strangers who acted as if they knew me, boarding planes that lifted me out

of my normal world. I was becoming known. And I was becoming known for being someone’s wife and as

someone involved with politics, which made it doubly and triply weird.

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I had little time to think much about it, but quietly I worried that as my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose,

the other parts of me were dissolving from view.

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painted-on smile and the adoring gaze. I found it odd and sad that such a harsh critique would come from

another professional woman, someone who had not bothered to get to know me but was now trying to shape my

story in a cynical way.

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The falsehoods were routinely debunked by reputable news sources but still blazed through anonymous email

chains, forwarded not just by basement conspiracy theorists but also by uncles and colleagues and neighbors

who couldn’t separate fact from fiction online.

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At the end of a busy day, I will tell you, there is nothing better than watching a young couple find their dream

home in Nashville or some young bride-to-be saying yes to the dress.

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Barack was the last to speak that night, delivering a rousing defense of his central message—that our country

had arrived at a defining moment, a chance to step beyond not just the fear and failures of the Bush

administration but the polarized way politics had been waged long before, including, of course, during the

Clinton administration.

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As a full-time working mom with a spouse who was often away from home, I became well acquainted with the

juggle many women know—trying to balance the needs of my family with the demands of my job.

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Barack announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, Illinois, on a freezing-cold day in February 2007.

I’d bought Sasha a too-big pink hat for the occasion and kept worrying it was going to slip off her head, but

miraculously she managed to keep it on.

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I liked campaigning, energized by the connections I made with voters across America. And yet the pace could be

grueling. I stole moments of rest when I could.

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was wiped out after the day’s festivities, but this gorgeous gown designed by Jason Wu gave me fresh energy,

and my husband—my best friend, my partner in all things—has a way of making every moment we have

together feel intimate.

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Barack and I developed a special fondness for Queen Elizabeth, who reminded Barack of his no-nonsense

grandmother. Over the course of many visits she showed me that humanity is more important than protocol or

formality.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s the power of using your voice. I tried my best to speak the truth and

shed light on the stories of people who are often brushed aside.

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Bullies were scared people hiding inside scary people. I’d see it in DeeDee, the tough girl on my neighborhood

block, and even in Dandy, my own grandfather, who could be rude and pushy even with his own wife. They

lashed out because they felt overwhelmed. You avoided them if you could and stood up to them if you had to.

According to my mother, who would probably want some sort of live-and-let-live slogan carved on her

headstone, the key was never to let a bully’s insults or aggression get to you personally.

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was struck that day by the gobsmacked tenderness that comes with being a parent, the weird telescoping of time

that happens when you notice suddenly that your babies are half-grown, their limbs going from pudgy to lean,

their eyes getting wise.

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So much of the last decade had been about trying to strike a balance between my family and my work, figuring

out how to be loving and present for Malia and Sasha while also trying to be decent at my job.

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I was a full-time mother and wife now, albeit a wife with a cause and a mother who wanted to guard her kids

against getting swallowed by that cause.

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It had been painful to step away from my work, but there was no choice: My family needed me, and that

mattered more.

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Over the course of the campaign, our days had become so programmed that we’d watched our privacy and

autonomy slowly slip away, both Barack and I handing nearly every aspect of our lives over to a bunch of

twentysomethings who were highly intelligent and capable but still couldn’t know how painful it could feel to

give up control over my own life.

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We are built differently, my husband and I, which is why one of us chose politics and the other did not. He was

aware of rumors and misperceptions that got pumped like toxic vapor into the campaign, but rarely did any of it

bother him. Barack had lived through other campaigns. He’d studied political history and girded himself with

the context it provided. And in general, he’s just not someone who’s easily rattled or thrown off course by

anything as abstract as doubt or hurt. I, on the other hand, was still learning about public life. I considered

myself a confident, successful woman, but I was also the same kid who used to tell people she planned to be a

pediatrician and devoted herself to setting perfect attendance records at school. In other words, I cared what

people thought. I’d spent my young life seeking approval, dutifully collecting gold stars and avoiding messy

social situations. Over time, I’d gotten better about not measuring my self-worth strictly in terms of standard, bythe-

book achievement, but I did tend to believe that if I worked diligently and honestly, I’d avoid the bullies and

always be seen as myself.

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“Hope is making a comeback!”

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This wasn’t helped by the fact that ABC News had combed through twenty-nine hours of the Reverend Jeremiah

Wright’s sermons, splicing together a jarring highlight reel that showed the preacher careening through callous

and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe.

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I was getting worn out, not physically, but emotionally. The punches hurt, even if I understood that they had

little to do with who I really was as a person.

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In general, I felt as if I couldn’t win, that no amount of faith or hard work would push me past my detractors and

their attempts to invalidate me.

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Anytime my spirits started to dip, I’d punish myself further with a slew of disparaging thoughts: I hadn’t chosen

this. I’d never liked politics. I’d left my job and given my identity over to this campaign and now I was a

liability? Where had my power gone?

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And yet, if there was any question about how women in general fared on Planet Politics, one needed only to look

at how Nancy Pelosi, the smart and hard-driving Speaker of the House of Representatives, was often depicted as

a shrew or what Hillary Clinton was enduring as cable pundits and opinion writers hashed and rehashed each

development in the campaign. Hillary’s gender was used against her relentlessly, drawing from all the worst

stereotypes. She was called domineering, a nag, a bitch. Her voice was interpreted as screechy; her laugh was a

cackle. Hillary was Barack’s opponent, which meant that I wasn’t inclined to feel especially warmly toward her

just then, but I couldn’t help but admire her ability to stand up and keep fighting amid the misogyny.

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I felt tears pricking at my eyes.

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That night, my brother, Craig, introduced me. My mother sat in the front row of a skybox, looking a little

stunned by how giant the platform for our lives had become. I spoke of my father—his humility, his resilience,

and how all that had shaped me and Craig. I tried to give Americans the most intimate view possible of Barack

and his noble heart. When I finished, people applauded and applauded, and I felt a powerful blast of relief,

knowing that maybe I’d done something, finally, to change people’s perception of me.

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Were it not for the anxiety, an Election Day might qualify as a kind of mini-vacation, a surreal pause between

everything that’s happened and whatever lies ahead. You’ve leaped but you haven’t landed. You can’t know yet

how the future’s going to feel. After months of everything going too fast, time slows to an agonizing crawl.

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felt as if I’d been lifted out of my own body, only watching myself react.

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Here is where I felt like our family got launched out of a cannon and into some strange underwater universe.

Things felt slow and aqueous and slightly distorted, even if we were moving quickly and with precise guidance,

waved by Secret Service agents into a freight elevator, hustled out a back exit at the hotel and into a waiting

SUV. Did I breathe the air as we stepped outside? Did I thank the person who held open the door as we passed

by? Was I smiling? I don’t know. It was as if I were still trying to frog-kick my way back to reality. Some of

this, I assumed, had to be fatigue. It had been, as predicted, a very long day. I could see the grogginess in the

girls’ faces. I’d prepared them for this next part of the night, explaining that whether Dad won or lost, we were

going to have a big noisy celebration in a park.

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For me, it revived an old internal call-and-response, one that tracked all the way back to high school, when I’d

shown up at Whitney Young and found myself suddenly gripped by doubt. Confidence, I’d learned then,

sometimes needs to be called from within. I’ve repeated the same words to myself many times now, through

many climbs. Am I good enough? Yes I am.

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me. If I’d learned anything from the ugliness of the campaign, from the myriad ways people had sought to write

me off as angry or unbecoming, it was that public judgment sweeps in to fill any void.

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If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.

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Exactly on cue, something massive came around the corner: a snaking, vehicular army that included a phalanx of

police cars and motorcycles, a number of black SUVs, two armored limousines with American flags mounted on

their hoods, a hazmat mitigation truck, a counterassault team riding with machine guns visible, an ambulance, a

signals truck equipped to detect incoming projectiles, several passenger vans, and another group of police

escorts. The presidential motorcade. It was at least twenty vehicles long, moving in orchestrated formation, car

after car after car, before finally the whole fleet rolled to a quiet halt, and the limos stopped directly in front of

Barack’s parked plane.

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I took in the spectacle: thousands and thousands of pounds of metal, a squad of commandos, bulletproof

everything. I had yet to grasp that Barack’s protection was still only half-visible. I didn’t know that he’d also, at

all times, have a nearby helicopter ready to evacuate him, that sharpshooters would position themselves on

rooftops along the routes he traveled, that a personal physician would always be with him in case of a medical

problem, or that the vehicle he rode in contained a store of blood of the appropriate type in case he ever needed a

transfusion. In a matter of weeks, just ahead of Barack’s inauguration, the presidential limo would be upgraded

to a newer model—aptly named the Beast—a seven-ton tank disguised as a luxury vehicle, tricked out with

hidden tear-gas cannons, rupture-proof tires, and a sealed ventilation system meant to get him through a

biological or chemical attack.

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I was now married to one of the most heavily guarded human beings on earth. It was simultaneously relieving

and distressing.

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It’s a huge place, the White House, with 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors,

all of it stuffed with more history than any single tour could begin to cover. It was frankly hard to imagine real

life happening there. Somewhere on the level below, government employees flowed in and out of the building,

while somewhere above, the president and First Lady lived with their Scottish terriers in the family residence.

But we were standing then in a different area of the house, the frozen-in-time, museum-like part of the place,

where symbolism lived and mattered, where the country’s old bones were on display.

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We lived in a kind of bubble now, sealed off at least partially from the everyday world. I couldn’t remember the

last time I’d run an errand by myself or walked in a park just for fun.

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You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far.

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For me, the ceremony itself would become another one of those strange, slowed-down experiences where the

scope was so enormous I couldn’t fully process what was going on.

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“On this day,” he said, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and

discord.”

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I saw friends from nearly every phase of my life—Princeton friends, Harvard friends, Chicago friends,

Robinsons and Shieldses galore. These were the people I wanted to laugh with, to say, How in holy hell did we

all get here?

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I’d hit a final fence line.

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“And you get no credit for any of it.”

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Just as I always had in Chicago, I made a point of trying to get to know the parents of the girls’ new friends,

inviting a few moms over for lunch and introducing myself to others during school events.

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I knew what mattered to me. I didn’t want to be some sort of well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties

and ribbon cuttings. I wanted to do things that were purposeful and lasting.

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I would never take our good fortune or comfort for granted, though what I began to appreciate more was the

humanity of the place.

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My mom relished being a grandmother, most especially the part where she got to throw over all my rigidity in

favor of her own looser and lighter style, which was markedly more lax than when Craig and I had been the kids

under her care. The girls were always thrilled to have Grandma in charge.

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You had only to look around at the faces in the room to know that despite their strengths these girls would need

to work hard to be seen. There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose

skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put

on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves. They’d need to fight

the invisibility that comes with being poor, female, and of color. They’d have to work to find their voices and

not be diminished, to keep themselves from getting beaten down. They would have to work just to learn.

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Looking up at the girls, I just began to talk, explaining that though I had come from far away, carrying this

strange title of First Lady of the United States, I was more like them than they knew. That I, too, was from a

working-class neighborhood, raised by a family of modest means and loving spirit, that I’d realized early on that

school was where I could start defining myself—that an education was a thing worth working for, that it would

help spring them forward in the world.

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At this point, I’d been First Lady for just over two months. In different moments, I’d felt overwhelmed by the

pace, unworthy of the glamour, anxious about our children, and uncertain of my purpose. There are pieces of

public life, of giving up one’s privacy to become a walking, talking symbol of a nation, that can seem

specifically designed to strip away part of your identity. But here, finally, speaking to those girls, I felt

something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good

enough? Yes, you are, all of you.

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I loved being with children. It was, and would be throughout the entirety of my time in the White House, a balm

for my spirit, a way to momentarily escape my First Lady worries, my self-consciousness about constantly being

judged. Kids made me feel like myself again. To them, I wasn’t a spectacle. I was just a nice, kinda-tall lady.

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We planted berry bushes and a lot of herbs. What would come from it? I didn’t know, the same way I didn’t

know what lay ahead for us in the White House, nor what lay ahead for the country or for any of these sweet

children surrounding me. All we could do then was put our faith into the effort, trusting that with sun and rain

and time, something half-decent would push up through the dirt.

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Having a drink and an unrushed meal together has always been our pathway back to the start, to that first hot

summer when everything between us carried an electric charge.

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As we motorcaded the last stretch of the journey from the helipad in lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village, I

noted the lights of the cop cars being used to barricade the cross streets, feeling a twinge of guilt at how our

mere presence in the city was mucking up the Saturday evening flow. New York always awakened a sense of

awe in me, big and busy enough to dwarf anyone’s ego.

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Anytime old friends came to visit us at the White House, they were amused by the intensity with which both

Barack and I quizzed them about their jobs, their kids, their hobbies, anything. The two of us were always less

interested in talking about the intricacies of our new existence and more interested in sponging up bits of gossip

and everyday news from home. Both of us, it seemed, craved glimpses of regular life.

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I felt sometimes like a swan on a lake, knowing that my job was in part to glide and appear serene, while

underwater I never stopped pedaling my legs. The

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off-the-rack

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For me, my choices were simply a way to use my curious relationship with the public gaze to boost a diverse set

of up-and-comers.

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I was beginning to realize that all the things that felt odd to me about my new existence—the strangeness of

fame, the hawkeyed attention paid to my image, the vagueness of my job description—could be marshaled in

service of real goals. I was energized. Here, finally, was a way to show my full self.

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I’d had no exposure to the orderly bustle of an Army base or the modest tract homes that housed service

members with families. War, for me, had always been terrifying but also abstract, involving landscapes I

couldn’t imagine and people I didn’t know. To view it this way, I see now, had been a luxury.

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The important parts of my story, I was realizing, lay less in the surface value of my accomplishments and more

in what undergirded them—the many small ways I’d been buttressed over the years, and the people who’d

helped build my confidence over time. I remembered them all, every person who’d ever waved me forward,

doing his or her best to inoculate me against the slights and indignities I was certain to encounter in the places I

was headed—all those environments built primarily for and by people who were neither black nor female.

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These were people who mostly didn’t know one another and would never have occasion to meet, many of whom

I’d fallen out of touch with myself. But for me, they formed a meaningful constellation. These were my

boosters, my believers, my own personal gospel choir, singing, Yes, kid, you got this! all the way through.

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We also added celebrations of dance and other arts to the mix, bringing in emerging artists to showcase new

work. In 2009, we’d put on the first-ever White House poetry and spoken-word event, listening as a young

composer named Lin-Manuel Miranda stood up and astonished everyone with a piece from a project he was just

beginning to put together, describing it as a “concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hiphop…

Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.”

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We were all so used to sacrificing for our kids, our spouses, and our work. I had learned through my years of

trying to find balance in my life that it was okay to flip those priorities and care only for ourselves once in a

while.

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My friends made me whole, as they always have and always will. They gave me a lift anytime I felt down or

frustrated or had less access to Barack. They grounded me when I felt the pressures of being judged, having

everything from my choice of nail-polish color to the size of my hips dissected and discussed publicly. And they

helped me ride out the big, unsettling waves that sometimes hit without notice.

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Time seemed to loop and leap, making it feel impossible to measure or track.

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The velocity was too great, the time for reflection too limited.

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I flew home propelled by that spirit. Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two

years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see.

We had to be patient.

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I had influence in the form of being something of a curiosity—a black First Lady, a professional woman, a

mother of young kids. People seemed to want to dial into my clothes, my shoes, and my hairstyles, but they also

had to see me in the context of where I was and why. I was learning how to connect my message to my image,

and in this way I could direct the American gaze. I could put on an interesting outfit, crack a joke, and talk about

sodium content in kids’ meals without being totally boring. I could publicly applaud a company that was

actively hiring members of the military community, or drop to the floor for an on-air push-up contest with Ellen

DeGeneres (and win it, earning gloating rights forever) in the name of Let’s Move!

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As more time passed, my head started to throb. I felt my equilibrium beginning to slip. I didn’t dare turn on the

news, assuming suddenly that it was bad. I was accustomed at this point to fighting off negative thoughts,

sticking to the good until I was absolutely forced to contend with something unpleasant. I kept my confidence in

a little citadel, high on a hill inside my own heart. But for every minute my BlackBerry lay dormant in my lap, I

felt the walls starting to breach, the doubts beginning to rampage. Maybe we hadn’t worked hard enough. Maybe

we didn’t deserve another term. My hands had started to shake.

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His shock and grief would never compare with that of the first responders who’d rushed in to secure the building

and evacuate survivors from the carnage. It was nothing next to that of the parents who endured an interminable

wait in the chilly air outside the building, praying that they’d see their child’s face again. And it was nothing at

all next to those whose wait would be in vain.

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I was determined to be someone who told the truth, using my voice to lift up the voiceless when I could, and to

not disappear on people in need. I understood that when I showed up somewhere, it appeared dramatic from the

outside—a sudden and swift-descending storm kicked up by the motorcade, the agents, the aides, and the media,

with me at the center. We were there and then gone. I didn’t like what this did to my interactions, the way my

presence sometimes caused people to stammer or go silent, unsure of how to be themselves. It’s why I often

tried to introduce myself with a hug, to slow down the moment and shuck some of the pretense, landing us all in

the flesh.

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I felt it was important to reach out to kids multiple times and in multiple ways in order for them to feel that it

was all real. My early successes in life were, I knew, a product of the consistent love and high expectations with

which I was surrounded as a child, both at home and at school.

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You belong. You matter. I think highly of you.

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America is not a simple place. Its contradictions set me spinning. I’d found myself at Democratic fund-raisers

held in vast Manhattan penthouses, sipping wine with wealthy women who would claim to be passionate about

education and children’s issues and then lean in conspiratorially to tell me that their Wall Street husbands would

never vote for anyone who even thought about raising their taxes.

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And now I was at Harper, listening to children talking about how to stay alive. I admired their resilience, and I

wished desperately that they didn’t need it so much.

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a collector of details

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I felt a kind of loneliness that probably had less to do with the fact that I was by myself killing time in a

windowless room and more to do with the idea that, like it or not, the future was coming, that our first baby was

going to grow up and leave.

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I tried to think back and remember how it was that my life had forked away from the predictable, control-freak

fantasy existence I’d envisioned for myself—the one with the steady salary, a house to live in forever, a routine

to my days. At what point had I chosen away from that? When had I allowed the chaos inside? Had it been on

the summer night when I lowered my ice cream cone and leaned in to kiss Barack for the first time? Was it the

day I’d finally walked away from my orderly piles of documents and my partner-track career in law, convinced

I’d find something more fulfilling?

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It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once—to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the

direction of progress. It was what I’d done as a kid on Euclid Avenue, what my family—and marginalized

people more generally—had always done. You got somewhere by building that better reality, if at first only in

your own mind. Or as Barack had put it that night, you may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to

create the world as it should be.

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The deeper I got into the experience of being First Lady, the more emboldened I felt to speak honestly and

directly about what it meant to be marginalized by race and gender. My intention was to give younger people a

context for the hate surfacing in the news and in political discourse and to give them a reason to hope.

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I was proud, too, of my mother, who sat nearby in the sunshine, wearing a black dress and heels, having

managed to live in the White House and travel the world with us while staying utterly and completely herself.

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to be clear, we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed

contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance.

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I took heart in the optimism Hillary projected that night, and in the many polls that showed her with a

comfortable lead. I took heart in what I thought I understood about the qualities Americans would and wouldn’t

tolerate in a leader. I presumed nothing, but I felt good about the odds.

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I felt something leaden take hold in my stomach just then, my anxiety hardening into dread.

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And I will always wonder about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified

female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president. But the result was now ours to live with.

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Hamilton was a musical celebration of America’s history and diversity, recasting our understanding of the roles

minorities play in our national story, highlighting the importance of women who’d long been overshadowed by

powerful men. I’d seen it off-Broadway and loved it so much that I went to see it again when it hit the big stage.

It was catchy and funny, heart swelling and heartbreaking—the best piece of art in any form that I’d ever

encountered.

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I loved my country for all the ways its story could be told. For almost a decade, I’d been privileged to move

through it, experiencing its bracing contradictions and bitter conflicts, its pain and persistent idealism, and above

all else its resilience.

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For the first time in many years, I’m unhooked from any obligation as a political spouse, unencumbered by other

people’s expectations. I have two nearly grown daughters who need me less than they once did. I have a husband

who no longer carries the weight of the nation on his shoulders. The responsibilities I’ve felt—to Sasha and

Malia, to Barack, to my career and my country—have shifted in ways that allow me to think differently about

what comes next. I’ve had more time to reflect, to simply be myself. At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I

hope that I always will be.

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For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion,

a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.

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