An In-Law Is Finding Washington to Her Liking
Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Marian Robinson with her daughter, Michelle Obama, and her granddaughters Sasha, left, and Malia, at the White House Easter egg roll. Mrs. Robinson has had a full social life in her new city.
RACHEL L. SWARNS
Published: May 3, 2009
WASHINGTON — Marian Robinson, President Obama’s mother-in-law, moved into the White House “kicking and screaming,” said her son, Craig Robinson. She had never lived outside of Chicago and was reluctant to leave her beloved bungalow, her friends and family, her weekly yoga class and her familiar routines.
But after three months in the Executive Mansion, Mrs. Robinson is unexpectedly and decidedly savoring her new life.
She entertains visitors from Chicago. She attends White House dinners and concerts hosted by her daughter, the first lady, Michelle Obama. She dines at local restaurants and delights in events at the Kennedy Center, where she often sits in the president’s box and chats with performers.
In fact, Mrs. Robinson, 71, is so busy these days that the Obamas hired a baby sitter to watch their two daughters one evening because the nation’s first grandmother had plans.
“She has a very full social life, so much so that sometimes we have to plan our schedule around her schedule,” Mrs. Obama said jokingly last week during a lunch she hosted for Congressional spouses.
Mrs. Robinson still spends much of her time tending to the Obama girls, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. She shuttles them to and from school most days and accompanies them to some play dates, the first lady said. She attends class presentations, helps with homework and baby-sits when the president and first lady need extra help.
And with her plain-spoken, matter-of-fact manner, Mrs. Robinson helps keep the girls grounded amid the gilded trappings of their new lives.
But Mrs. Robinson has also managed to carve out her own space in the White House and to build a satisfying private life, according to Obama administration officials who know the family. Her bedroom sits on the third floor, just above the Obamas’ residential quarters. (The first lady told Oprah Winfrey recently that her mother often announced, “I’m going home,” as she headed upstairs.)
And because she remains a private citizen and still has something of an unfamiliar face, Mrs. Robinson can travel around Washington without being trailed by television cameras or recognized by the public even as she enjoys the perks of living at the White House. (Administration officials do not inform the news media about her comings and goings as they do with the president and first lady.)
For the first time in her adult life, she no longer has to cook or clean, unless she wants to. She participates in White House events; she sat alongside Malia and Sasha at a Black History Month performance of the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and joined Mrs. Obama in reading a story to schoolchildren at the Easter egg roll.
She has also become a familiar figure at the Kennedy Center, where she has watched performances by the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, the choreographer Debbie Allen and the jazz singer Kurt Elling, among others. (Mrs. Obama likes to joke that her mother has been to the theater more than she has.)
And she joined her daughter for lunch in March at the home of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
“There’s no standoffishness,” said Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey troupe, who was invited to the president’s box at the Kennedy Center to meet Mrs. Robinson. “She’s very open.”
Sally Quinn, a Washington writer and socialite, who met Mrs. Robinson at the lunch hosted by Mrs. Heinz Kerry, described her as “the perfect grandmother you’d kill for: cozy, nice, sweet, friendly, dear.”
“It seemed to me that she’s perfectly comfortable in her new life,” Ms. Quinn said.
That may come as a relief to the Obamas, who relied on Mrs. Robinson to help care for their children during the presidential campaign. They did not want to move into the White House without her, Craig Robinson said.
In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Robinson, the men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University, laughed as he described how Mrs. Obama pleaded with him to help lobby their mother, who was refusing to move from Chicago.
“My sister said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Mom; she’s not moving,’ ” Mr. Robinson recalled. He said his mother was utterly unswayed by Mrs. Obama’s description of the exciting new life they would all lead in Washington.
Mrs. Robinson, a retired bank secretary who ran the 50- and 100-yard dashes in the Illinois senior games well into her 60s, has always prized her independence.
“She doesn’t want grand; she doesn’t want great,” Mr. Robinson said. “She would much rather stay home.”
But Mrs. Robinson eventually decided to move in, at least for a while, to help her granddaughters get settled. If she stays through Mr. Obama’s term, she will be the first mother-in-law to live in the White House full time since the Truman presidency, historians say. She declined to comment for this article, but when asked recently by Essence magazine whether she was enjoying her new life, she answered in the affirmative.
“I really am,” she said. “You want to know why? Because my children are good parents. It makes it very easy to be a grandmother when your children are good parents.”
Last week, Mrs. Obama returned the compliment.
In her chat with Congressional spouses, she suggested that her mother helped bring something precious to the White House, a sense of normalcy in extraordinary times.
“I feel like I’ve never left Chicago,” the first lady said. “Soccer on Saturday — yes, I’m on a soccer field all day, just like many of you. Slumber parties — we had about seven girls over, screaming and yelling.
“And we’re shuttling kids back and forth to play dates, just like usual, although now my mom does a little more of the shuttling than I do. I’m glad to have her here.”
More Articles in US » A version of this article appeared in print on May 4, 2009, on page A12 of the New York edition.
5 Things to Know about Grandma-in-Chief Marian Robinson
By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Originally posted Tuesday January 20, 2009 09:40 AM EST
Barack Obama and mother-in-law Marian Robinson
Photo by: Joe Raedle / Getty
Michelle Obama’s mom kept house and home together during Barack’s presidential campaign, driving the couple’s young daughters to school (with Secret Service trailing in a separate car), serving dinner and tucking them into bed.
Now, Marian Robinson, 72, plans to follow her famous family to Washington. Typical mother-in-law behavior, right? Candid and independent, the retired bank secretary may not be what you expect:
She’s not moving to the White House permanently
Much ink has been spilled about Robinson’s plans to share quarters with the President’s family at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But an Obama spokeswoman says Robinson will only temporarily move in to help granddaughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, settle into their new life. As Robinson told PEOPLE after the election: “I love those people, but I love my own house. The White House reminds me of a museum and it’s like, how do you sleep in a museum?”
She loves yoga
For this spry septuagenarian, limbering up is a family affair. Eleanor “Mama Kaye” Wilson, godmother to Sasha and Malia, is Robinson’s yoga partner, and their instructor is her younger brother, Stephen Shields, 57. “He’s our youngest child out of seven children and he’s the wisest,” Robinson tells PEOPLE. ” He has found a way to make a living doing what he likes to do. and I’ve always admired that.”
She brags on her son as much as her famous daughter
Setting out lunch in the Obamas’ Chicago home this past summer, it was a Sports Illustrated magazine that Robinson was eager to show off to a visitor. Inside was a profile on her son, Craig Robinson, 46, head coach for the men’s basketball team at Oregon State University. “They did a whole article on Craig!” said Robinson. “He’s another hard worker,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him.”
She keeps her opinions to herself
Unlike some mothers-in-law, Robinson says she’s conscious of not saying too much. “You try to get your kids not to think in the same way you did when you were coming along because you pass down – I call them ‘your issues’ – you pass down your issues and a lot of times, they don’t apply to their time and their life. They will have their own issues; they don’t need mine in their head.”
She’s not as strict as her daughter
“I follow the rules at Michelle’s house. At my house, they’re my rules. (Laughs.) I know Michelle is strict … When I’m at their house, the girls are doing all the stuff their mother has told them to do, there’s not much left for me to do! But when they’re at my house, they don’t have to scrape the dishes – and they get to watch TV.”
Marian ‘First Granny’ Robinson: I Have Always Looked Up To Michelle
WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama is a role model for many people, including her mother.
“Michelle has always been Michelle. And she has always accomplished whatever it was she set out to accomplish,” Marian Robinson told Essence magazine during a rare interview with her daughter. “I have always looked up to Michelle because she has been able to do things that I couldn’t do emotionally, psychologically or physically. I think she is amazing.”
Her late husband, Fraser, would be thrilled by his daughter’s success.
“You would not be able to shut him up! He would not be able to stand this,” Robinson, 71, told the magazine for its May issue, which is appearing on newsstands this week. “He would be beaming until you would just want him to stop talking.”
She said her husband bragged about Michelle and her brother, Craig, the basketball coach at Oregon State University.
“He always encouraged them, and when he talked about Craig and Michelle, you could just see a smile on his face whether it was there or not,” Robinson said. “He just enjoyed these two people.”
Mrs. Obama said she always felt that her parents were “unconditionally rooting for me. And kids need that.” She said their support helped build confidence in her and her brother early on, and gave them a sense of security.
Asked for advice for black families raising children, Robinson said treat them as “little people,” not as babies. She said most people don’t realize how much kids can absorb because they are listening, they love conversation and soak up information.
“The main thing that I think needs to be taught to children is the ability to think and make decisions,” Robinson said.