Michelle Obama is a surprise textbook example of how women thrive and grow through adulthood

The individual story told in the former first lady’s bestselling memoir is emblematic of the best-case version of women’s development and fulfillment. Penguin Random House
Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” can be read in many ways: as a political memoir, as a story of being black and aspiring in America or as a Cinderella story that transports an ambitious black girl from a 900-square-foot apartment to a home with “132 rooms, 35 bathrooms and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors, and a staff of ushers, florists, housekeepers, butlers and attendants for her every need.”

As a psychologist who tries to better understand the course of women’s growth throughout adulthood, I was surprised to see that it can also be read as an illustration of how women ideally evolve. For decades, psychologists have relied on psychologist Erik Erikson’s theoretical model of the stages of life, a model based on how men develop that largely overlooks women.

I’ve spent 45 years studying women’s lives to remedy this gap, most recently publishing “Paths to Fulfillment: Women’s Search for Meaning and Identity.” I followed 26 randomly chosen college-educated women from ages 21 to 58. They came from large cities, small towns and rural areas. Some were the first of their families to go to college, and many struggled with early poverty and abuse. All married at some point in their lives, and just over half of them had children. Most cultivated some kind of profession; others simply “worked.” In analyzing their lives, I offer a way of thinking about women’s life journeys that depicts the stages of adulthood for those who surmount the challenges they encounter.

Michelle Robinson Obama, despite living an extraordinary life, exemplifies the optimal path of development I found among my “ordinary” women. In contrast to Erikson’s male life stages, I learned that relationships to others are central for women’s development in adulthood. Candid about her inner life, Michelle titles her life chapters “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us” and “Becoming More,” which map perfectly with the psychological stages of identity, intimacy and care – the eras I identified in women’s lives. In that sense, Michelle Obama represents “Everywoman.”

‘Becoming Me’ – the challenge of identity

Like the women I followed, Michelle found her fulfillment in ways very different from what she had expected. As a young girl, she had modest aspirations: a family, a dog and “a house that had stairs in it – two floors for one family.”

Optimal identity formation involves exploring possibilities, reworking the goals of childhood and forging one’s own path. Michelle Robinson set her sights on becoming a successful lawyer, emulating the people she had observed in downtown Chicago, “in smart outfits” and moving with purpose. Dogged through her adolescence and early adulthood by the question “Am I good enough?,” becoming a Harvard-degreed corporate lawyer showed her that she was.

Her identity crisis came when she recognized she didn’t really want the life she’d achieved. She felt empty practicing law. Taking a big occupational risk, she found that working in public service or for nonprofit organizations felt like doing something for a larger good. Identity – “becoming me” – came from achieving her goals and then taking on what she expressed as the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”

Like Michelle Obama, women in my study often realized, in their 30s, that their initial choices were not what fit them. Generationally, they were among the first to penetrate meaningfully into the work world where opportunities for self-realization were opening. They could become judges or take on management roles. They could leave social work and become teachers for more family-friendly hours. They could, like Michelle, think seriously about what suited them and change course. They could create their own identity.

Part of moving toward fulfillment was finding a true partner. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

‘Becoming us’ – intimacy

The quest for intimacy, which became central in their 20s, led many women in my study to modify their own occupational goals in light of their partners’.

Like many of them, Michelle chose her mate after a period of developing friendship rather than initial passion. Once married, she then had the challenge of aligning her goals with his – which were far from her dream of recreating the close, warm family she’d grown up in. Michelle disdained politics and resented Barack’s time away from the family. She refused to uproot her children and move to Washington when he was a senator. Out of love, she supported Barack’s presidential run, but didn’t think he would win and, in some ways, hoped he wouldn’t. Intimacy was leading her on a path she would never have chosen.