Michelle Obama’s Family: Growing Up in Chicago

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What was Michelle Obama’s family life like growing up? What influences did Michelle’s parents have on her education?

Michelle Obama’s first stage of Becoming starts with her family life in Chicago. She grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother and she credits her mother, Marian, for teaching her to value education.

Keep reading to learn more about Michelle Obama’s family and childhood.

Michelle Obama’s Childhood and Family Life (1964-1976) 

These chapters from Becoming focus on Michelle Obama’s family, youth in urban Chicago, and her introduction to her own natural ambition. This is young Michelle’s first stage of “becoming,” in which she learns that she can dictate much about her own future through hard work and striving. 

Early Years 

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in January 1964. She grew up in Chicago in one of the poorer blocks of a racially mixed, working-class neighborhood called South Shore. Michelle’s parents rented a small apartment on the second floor of a house owned by Michelle’s great-aunt Robbie. Her parents slept in the single bedroom; Michelle and her older brother Craig shared the living room. 

Michelle and Craig were surrounded by extended family members throughout their early years. Great-aunt Robbie and her husband lived on the first floor, and Michelle’s grandparents and cousins lived only a few blocks away. 

Michelle’s Childhood Dreams

Young Michelle’s aspirations were uncomplicated. She wanted a dog. She wanted her family to live in a house with two floors—upstairs and downstairs—and have a four-door station wagon parked in the driveway. In elementary school, she was naturally ambitious and worked hard to earn straight A’s. When adults asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said “pediatrician” because she liked the idea of working with children. She quickly learned that adults were pleased by that answer, so she stuck with it. 

Michelle’s Family Members

Part of a close-knit family, Michelle’s relatives played a big part in her life. Here are some of the Robinson family members to know.

Michelle’s Father 

Michelle credits her father, Fraser, for teaching her to work hard and keep her promises. Fraser worked for the city as a pump operator for the Chicago Water Department. He put on a uniform every day and showed up for work despite having multiple sclerosis (MS) since his 30s. Initially, the disease caused him to walk with a limp, but during Michelle’s childhood, the MS progressed. By the time Michelle finished elementary school, Fraser could only walk by using crutches; later, he used a wheelchair. 

But Fraser never complained about his disability; he simply accepted it and did his best to ignore it. As Michelle writes, her family had a “long-standing habit of blocking out bad news.”  

Fraser’s Buick Electra was his pride and joy; he loved to take the family for Sunday drives. (Michelle reflects that it would be many years before she understood her father’s attachment to that car: When he was driving, he was free from his disability.)  

Fraser’s passions were jazz and art. As a young man, he had briefly attended art school before he ran out of money and joined the Army. For much of Michelle’s childhood, Fraser volunteered as a precinct captain for the city’s Democratic Party. He spent Saturdays visiting his constituents to hear their complaints about garbage pickup or street potholes. 

Michelle’s Mother 

Michelle credits her mother, Marian, for teaching her to value education. Marian taught Michelle how to read before she attended kindergarten and often took her to visit the public library. Up until Michelle entered high school, Marian did not have a job, so she was always at home and actively involved in Michelle’s life and schooling. She kept to a strict budget while always taking care of her family’s needs. She cooked healthy meals, sewed some of Michelle’s clothes, chaperoned school field trips, and served in the parent-teacher association. Michelle and her friends liked to run home to Michelle’s house at lunchtime to hang out with Marian.   

Michelle also credits Marian for teaching her the value of speaking up with her own powerful voice. In the Robinson family, dinner discussions were always lively. No topics were off-limits, and the children were taught to think and speak like adults and clearly articulate their thoughts and opinions. 

As a young child, Michelle discovered the power of rhetoric when her mother tried to make her eat eggs for breakfast, which Michelle disliked. Michelle argued that peanut butter was equivalent to eggs as a source of protein for breakfast—and she never ate eggs again. 

Michelle’s Brother  

Michelle’s brother Craig, two years older, was her best friend. The siblings enjoyed playing board games, boxing, listening to music, and talking about everything. As young children, they shared a bedroom. As they got older, Michelle’s grandfather built a partition so Michelle and Craig each had their own tiny rooms. Even so, they slept only a few feet from each other and would often talk through the partition late into the night. 

Music and Other Family Pleasures     

The Robinson family didn’t have money for luxuries, but they enjoyed the simple joys of shared activities. They savored small pleasures like ordering pizza for birthday celebrations, sharing pints of ice cream on hot summer days, going for picnics by Lake Michigan, and attending drive-in movies. 

The entire family shared an interest in music. Great-aunt Robbie was a piano teacher who taught lessons in the house they lived in. Michelle started taking lessons from her when she was four. Robbie was a prim and strict teacher, and Michelle was a rather impatient student who often skipped ahead in the lesson book. Her ambition didn’t match up with her skill. To Robbie’s chagrin, Michelle wanted to play more advanced songs rather than practicing the basics. 

Michelle and Robbie argued often, and in little Michelle’s mind, Robbie was the enemy. At Michelle’s first piano recital, Michelle came on stage and froze with fear at the hall filled with people and the fancy baby grand piano in front of her, which was so different from the aging upright piano she practiced on. Robbie saw Michelle’s fear and joined her on the stage, showing her the first note and giving her the courage to play her song. Michelle finally saw that Robbie was looking out for her. 

Michelle’s maternal grandfather was also a huge music fan and introduced Michelle and her brother to Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. To this day, music is one of Michelle’s greatest joys. 

Michelle Obama’s Family: Growing Up in Chicago

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary:

  • How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
  • Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
  • How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities

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