How Michelle Obama will continue to inspire

By Veronica Chambers

Michelle Obama is still inspiring others after leaving The White House.
Michelle Obama is still inspiring others after leaving The White House.

It's only in recent decades that first ladies have been allowed to be imperfect. Until women like Eleanor Roosevelt, who on more than one occasion publicly disagreed with her husband's policies, and Betty Ford, who was transparent about her battle with alcoholism, the first lady represented the embodiment of feminine perfection: Stepford Wife-in-Chief. Michelle Obama is only the third to have a professional or graduate degree, public evidence of intellectual prowess and independence, and to have balanced her own high-profile career with her private role as wife and mother. She, along with Hillary Clinton, charted a path that allows future first ladies to do it their way. Her polarity inspires all of us to break the mould.

Michelle Obama is a wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend. She is a career woman, civic volunteer, gardener, rapper, dancer, pet owner and fitness ambassador. She is funny, honest, and down to earth. She has managed to pull off a nearly impossible feminine feat: she is both liked and respected.

The irony is that Michelle Obama makes it look easy precisely because she is complicated. Simultaneously flawless and imperfect, she brilliantly navigates opposing forces. And in the tension we can all see ourselves.

In Amy Cuddy's book, Presence, she defines presence as a "state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential". Michelle Obama has presence with a capital P in large part because she is comfortable with herself. The seeds of Michelle's self-assuredness were planted on the South Side of Chicago, where her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, instilled in her enormous confidence. Her brother, Craig, remembers their father saying: "You don't want to do things because you're worried about people thinking they're right; you want to do the right things". According to Craig, being raised in this kind of environment: "You grow up not worrying about what people think about you". The affirmation Michelle absorbed in her youth became the core of her current conviction about her identity. "I have never felt more confident in myself, more clear on who I am as a woman," she said a few months before she turned 50.

Michelle Obama isn't worried about what people think about her because she knows what she stands for. She put herself out there to achieve her goal in ways the public had never seen a first lady do. To build intimacy and goodwill she had hugged everyone - including the Queen, who apparently hadn't been hugged in 57 years. To promote healthy eating she planted a garden on the White House lawn, which resulted in numerous press photos of her literally getting her hands dirty. For the first time in our nation's history we saw a sweaty first lady. We've also seen one that rapped and danced. In an effort to raise awareness about the importance of getting a college education, Michelle teamed up with comedian Jay Pharoah to drop rhymes in a music video. To advocate healthy living and combat obesity, she challenged Ellen DeGeneres to an on-air dance-off.

Michelle Obama has convinced us that she's "real" even though she lives in an alternate reality from the rest of us. Though it's likely been a long time since she stayed up all night making lemon bars for the school bake sale or had to feed her kids fast food from the drive-through at the end of a long working mummy day, when asked whether she's ever had a mum crisis she unequivocally responds, yes. "There's not a minute that goes by that I'm not hoping and praying that I'm doing right by these girls . . . All we can do is do our best . . . You don't know until it's over."

Michelle Obama is also both disciplined and flexible. For someone who makes it all look so natural, Michelle Obama is very well rehearsed. She likes control and puts herself in positions where the risk of a mistake or a surprise is minimal. On the campaign trail she often spent hours researching and preparing for a speech. Just like her confidence, Michelle's work ethic was instilled early. Her father was the epitome of grit. His multiple sclerosis entitled him to disability benefits, yet he worked managing high-pressure water boilers at a water filtration plant his entire adult life, never retiring. Having a parent with a disability meant that Michelle learned the value of structure and the power of daily habits. As a student she would often stay up very late or get up early to study. Now that she's raising her own daughters, she is instilling in them a similar discipline. Though the Obamas were privileged with a staff to manage every household detail, Michelle insisted her daughters make their own beds each morning. She also picked one of their sports herself - to ensure the girls got regular practice doing something they didn't necessarily like. Her number one rule? No whining.

For Michelle, discipline is the key to excellence. It's also the key to championship. When initially exploring a presidential bid with political consultants, including David Axelrod, it was Michelle who insisted they develop a strategy that would be the safest path to the White House. She wasn't interested in pursuing Barack's candidacy unless that was the No.1 goal.

Michelle's commitment to discipline surprisingly gives way to flexibility. For her, achieving excellence requires adaptation. Michelle was furious on the campaign trail when campaign staffers were slow to give her feedback about her communication style, which was perceived in the media as too edgy. She wanted to be an asset to the campaign and insisted that she could adapt, which she did. Fast forward eight years; her speech at the 2016 Democratic convention turned the tide of party divisiveness, inspired the nation, and was heralded as one of the best speeches in political convention history. Talk about taking the edge off.

Like her discipline, Michelle Obama is passing along her flexibility to her daughters and to us. Her advice for her older daughter, Malia: "I just encourage her to breathe . . . to lower the perfection bar". Her advice to other women: "Be open. Give yourself a break. Stop thinking that there is an answer to that question. Just live your life and figure out what's in your heart. What you need will change every year. And you've got to be OK with that".

Michelle Obama is both traditional and disruptive. The self-proclaimed "mom-in-chief" embraces cultural norms about women's reign at home. Being a mother is her first priority. And she advances societal stereo types about men's lacklustre domestic performance, making public comments about Barack's untidiness and unwillingness to chip in: "He can cook, but he doesn't." In many ways they are a typical couple. She tries to get him to quit smoking. He tries to get her to take bigger risks.

Like many women, Michelle Obama's early impressions about women's roles were formed at home. Marian Robinson was one of the very few stay-at-home mothers in their neighbourhood, a privilege that allowed her to volunteer her time and imbed in her children a strong commitment to civic engagement. But she also learned traditional ideals from society at large. Like many young girls of her era, Michelle had an Easy Bake Oven and plenty of Barbie dolls. "Barbie seemed to be the standard for perfection," she said later. "That was what the world told me to aspire to."

Michelle watched the same "choosy mums choose Jif" commercials that we all did, and she too was indoctrinated with the message that a woman's most important job is caregiver.

It was only later that Michelle Robinson came to believe her adult life would involve more than cooking for Ken in their dream house. For Michelle, to forgo pursuing a career would be to squander the education she and her parents worked so hard for her to attain. It also represented a financial risk, since her husband's career as an activist and politician was hardly a guarantee of economic freedom.

After her marriage in 1992 she refused to conform to the domestic model of stay-at-home mum or socialite, always having a career separate from her husband that was stable. But the demands of working full-time outside the home and being the boss inside the home took its toll. Soon she would discover, like so many of us, that our favourite TV mum sold us a bill of goods. The Cosby Show's Claire Huxtable couldn't possibly have cooked, cleaned, looked fabulous, had a delightful marriage, birthed and raised five perfectly well-behaved children . . . and made partner at a law firm.

Eventually, the reality of doing it all began to create a rift in Michelle and Barack's relationship. Early in their marriage it bothered Michelle that Barack's career took priority over hers and tension between them mounted, but instead of stewing in resentment indefinitely, she decided to be the change agent in her own life, the way she had been taught. She decided to shape what was in her control. Eventually she came to realise that "I needed support. I didn't necessarily need it from Barack".

Michelle refused to be the working mummy martyr and began doing one of the most difficult things for working mothers: she prioritised herself. She started leaving the house at dawn for a workout, which forced her husband to take care of the girls in the morning. She built a village of friends, family and babysitters so that support would always be a text away.

She learned to ask for help and no longer considered her success a solo endeavour. The combination of her traditional and disruptive personas represents a modern mantra: a good woman sacrifices, but not at her own expense.

Her complexity is her dichotomy. That is why she resonates. American society has a knack for punishing complex women. We like them to fit one mould. But because Michelle lives in the middle, no matter who you are when you look at her, you see yourself.

Edited extract from The Meaning of Michelle edited by Veronica Chambers, St Martin's Press, $40.

- Canvas

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