Domineering, aggressive, commando - like and bold. These were some of the words used to describe the former first lady, Michelle Obama. But as the Obama presidency unfolded; she inspired many women with her warmth, wit and intelligence.
I just read her biography ‘Becoming’ and found it inspiring. This is not a book review but a simple attempt to showcase how she made an impact in the world despite the limitations of her environment.
Her journey is very inspiring from humble beginnings in Chicago to becoming a Princeton educated lawyer and rising above the ranks in the law firm. Her achievements are many, but I wish to focus on how she started a small garden in the White House and how a ‘simple patch of dirt’ sparked public awareness on nutrition amongst schools and parents and had ripple effects over US Food industry. As she entered the White House; she was warned that First Ladies’ involvement in policy making is not perceived positively by Washington. She didn’t want to harm her husband’s Presidency, but she also didn’t want her role as First Lady to be limited to ribbon-cutting and organizing state lunches. After all, she was educated, a professional and had extensive management experience.
Her small garden garnered positive reviews from the press and inspired her to tackle bigger issues and push for larger solutions. She started working with policymakers to tackle the problem of obesity, unhealthy school lunches and rampant advertising of sugary foodstuffs. She had conversations with CEOs of soft drink companies, interviews with health magazines, started Let’s Move! convinced Disney, NBC and Warner Bros to invest in special programming encouraging healthy lifestyle in children. By 2010, she was successful in pushing a new child nutrition bill focused on healthy food in public schools and regulation over junk food sold in school vending machines.
So how does her story inspire women? What similarities does her story bear with other women; she seems to be poles apart from others. The similarity is the challenges that she faced in staying true to herself and creating an impact whilst still managing the role of a wife, mother, daughter and the demands of being FLOTUS and the discrimination that she faced vis-à-vis the US press and policymakers alike.
Women’s career paths are more vulnerable to changes compared to men’s; the birth of a child, the illness of parents or in-laws, change in career path of the other half, higher share of child-care giving and higher share in household chores; present limitations in a woman’s career as the majority of the responsibility of any life changing event will eventually rest upon her shoulders. Women are more nurturing than men and are naturally pre-disposed in taking up certain responsibilities. There are examples of women breaking the glass wall such as Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsi and the current Prime Minister of New Zealand also, Jacinda Arden. But this is not the case for all of us so how to embrace the life- changing events and still have the stamina to realise our inner potential?
What can we learn from Michelle Obama’s story?
- Every situation is an opportunity for growth - opening our minds to the situations that life throws us and introspecting what is to be learnt from those. From law books to gardening in the White House, this was a long shot for Michelle Obama.
- Educate oneself - Education allows us to address our limitations and gives us confidence to speak our mind but Education is not limited to a university degree; it comes by reading books, constantly upgrading one’s skills and seeking the association of people more intelligent than us ( seek female or male mentors).
- Stop apologizing- Women have a natural tendency to apologize compared to men. Oprah Winfrey explains that ‘Women have to overcome the disease to please. It happens when we are not raised to know our own value and our own worth’.
- Be honest- Women are crowd-pleasers. It is important to voice out fearlessly albeit with some restraint; we don’t need to sound like ‘drome vide’.
- Work-life balance- Remain focused, mark your priorities and stand firm. When her second child was born, Michelle Obama was presented with a lucrative job offer. She took her baby with her to the interview and negotiated a flexible schedule for herself. The Director was open-minded enough to accept her.
- Seek support; you can’t do it all- When they moved to the White House; Michelle Obama brought her mother to live with them to help her bring up her two daughters. As women, we juggle family, work and our own self; we need support to do so.
- Plant a seed and have faith- Nothing happens without hard work, grit, constant investment in oneself and unyielding belief in one’s own work. Michelle Obama’s story is adequate proof of that. When her husband entered his Presidency; she chose to sacrifice her job at the University of Chicago. But that doesn’t mean that she couldn’t make an impact without a job; the years of investing in herself and her confidence meant that she always found opportunities to make a difference.
- Power of Prayer- this is something I found surprising in the book. She explained how she would pray every night for courage and strength and thank God for her countless blessings. Let us not underestimate the power of being grateful and calling out to God. He is our ultimate saviour and is the invisible hand who is lovingly guiding us through life. Happy Women’s Day!
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