15 January 2009

Grandma in the White House: rebirth of the extended family?

Barack Obama's mother-in-law will move to White House for trial visit
'First Granny' Marian Robinson will help young girls adjust to their new lives

By Stacy St. Clair
January 12, 2009

Marian Robinson doesn't like a lot of fuss. She doesn't like a lot of attention, either.

But as the country's unofficial First Granny and a future White House occupant, she'll soon be facing plenty of both.

The Obama transition team announced late last week that Robinson, 71, the mother of Michelle Obama and a retired secretary from the South Shore, would be going to Washington to help the family settle into a routine. Aides describe her extended stay as a trial visit, a chance for Robinson to see if she's ready to trade her classic Chicago bungalow for the nation's most famous mansion.

However temporary, the living arrangement thrills senior advocates, who say Robinson will serve as a role model for the growing number of U.S. retirees who are moving in with their children and grandchildren. More than 3.6 million parents lived with adult children in 2007, according to census data. That number is up 67 percent from 2000.

And at least 24 percent of Baby Boomers expect their parents or in-laws to move in with them eventually, according to the AARP.

Senior advocates say Robinson could show that moving into a grown child's home does not mean surrendering one's independence or usefulness.

They expect Robinson to continue her busy lifestyle, which until a few years ago included both a job and competing in the 100- and 50-yard dashes at the Illinois Senior Olympics.

"She is the kind of role model you want," AARP spokeswoman Nancy Thompson said. "She's an active retiree with her own life."

Robinson, who gave only a few interviews during the campaign, already has media and special interest groups lining up to speak with her. Generations United, a group that aims to increase interaction between children and seniors, has asked her to be the keynote speaker at its international conference this summer.

Robinson hasn't responded to the invitation yet, but organizers believe she already has done a tremendous amount to help their cause by taking an active role in her granddaughters' lives.

"It's such a nice example of so many generations working together to raise a family," said Donna Butts, Generations United's executive director. "We believe the Obamas will show Americans the valuable role each generation can play."

Multigenerational White Houses, however, have not always been harmonious. Harry Truman's mother-in-law belittled him constantly while living there, questioning both his policies and ability to govern. Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother-in-law often wintered at the president's mansion, where she lounged in bed and bossed around the staff and her daughter, Mamie.

Robinson, whose close relationship with her son-in-law was documented in Election Night photographs of her holding his hand as they watched returns, will play a much different role from her predecessors. In addition to claiming no interest in politics, she'll serve as the primary caretaker for granddaughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, when their parents are unavailable. It's a position she willingly accepted in 2007, when she retired from her job as an executive secretary for a bank to care for the girls while Michelle and Barack Obama worked the campaign trail.

"The sole reason Michelle was willing to campaign at all was because she knows that Mom is there to help take care of the girls," Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, said at the Democratic National Convention last year.

For 22 months, Marian Robinson cooked meals, prepared baths, helped with homework and shuttled the girls to various soccer practices and ballet lessons. Although she tried to adhere to Michelle Obama's rules about organic foods, limited TV exposure and an 8:30 p.m. bedtime, Robinson acknowledged being a softhearted grandmother who occasionally questioned her daughter's modern-day approach to child raising.

"I've heard [Michelle] say, 'Mom, what are you rolling your eyes at? You made us do the same thing,' " Robinson said in a rare interview with the Boston Globe in March 2008. "I don't remember being that bad. It seems like she's just going overboard."

Presidential historians believe Malia and Sasha will benefit greatly from having their grandmother in the White House. Robinson will be called on to provide the same stability the girls enjoyed in Chicago as they adapt to their new roles as the country's most famous tweens.

"It may save their lives," said Presidential Historian Doug Wead, author of "All the Presidents' Children." "The children will need as much support as they can get. If Grandma is there to offer comfort when their parents aren't home, that could make a huge difference for the girls."

Amy Carter, for example, had spent significant time with her paternal grandmother, Lillian, when they lived in Georgia and missed her terribly when her family moved to Washington, said former White House correspondent Bonnie Angelo, author of "First Families." Angelo believes Carter's lonely White House existence might have been cheerier if her Miss Lillian, as she was called, had been a permanent resident in the mansion and not just a frequent visitor.

"I think it's wonderful that Mrs. Robinson is joining the Obamas," Angelo said. "It may be the best family decision they make in the White House."

Whether Robinson stays after her trial visit remains to be seen. Aides have said they wouldn't be surprised if she bought her own place in Washington, so she could maintain her independence and still care for her granddaughters when needed.

"I love those people, but I love my own house," Robinson told People magazine in November. "The White House reminds me of a museum. How do you sleep in a museum?"

Robinson's aversion to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is in keeping with her no-frills persona, family and friends say. Widowed in 1991, she has long valued her independence, opting to stay in her blue-collar neighborhood and to continue working despite the success of her two Ivy League-educated children and famous son-in-law.

About a week before the inauguration, many homes along Robinson's street still have "Obama-Biden" signs hanging in the windows. Robinson's, though, remain bare with no sign of her son-in-law's prestige, save the security system warnings posted in the front yard."She doesn't like a lot of fuss around her," Barack Obama told "60 Minutes" in November, explaining why she may not live with the family. "And like it or not, there is some fuss in the White House."


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