Meet the First Mother-in-Law

Michelle had to beg her mother to join them in the White House. But now she's having a ball, writes David Usborne

Just back from a paparazzi-besieged dinner in a Georgetown restaurant, the First Couple slipped hand-in-hand last Saturday into an area of White House garden where no photographer could pry. Privacy at last! But what is that curtain-twitching they see on the third floor? Isn't that one of the granny-flat windows?

Some might have wondered at the wisdom of Barack Obama agreeing after his election to invite Marian Robinson, the mother of Michelle, to move with him and the family from Chicago to the new digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and give her her own suite just above the presidential apartments. At the very least, it promised to offer comedians a distractingly rich seam of First Mother-in-Law jokes.

History testifies to the risks of bringing the relations along when you attain the highest office in the land. Harry Truman had to suffer through the withering glances of his mother-in-law, Madge Gates Wallace, who moved in even though she never hid her disdain for him. We know little of what Ulysses S Grant thought of father-in-law Richard Dent, who also took up full-time residence in the White House.

But if the window lace was moving on Saturday, it was surely a draught. By all accounts, Mr Obama gets on famously with 71-year-old Ms Robinson. It was her hand that he was holding on that couch in a Hyatt hotel in Chicago on election night last November as they watched the first of the returns to see if victory was to be his. And she apparently well understands the difference between helping and interfering.

Nor is she the sort, it seems, who will pass critical comment about how things used to be done in her day. "You try to get your kids not to think in the same way you did when you were coming along because you pass down your issues and a lot of times, they don't apply in their time and their life," she said in one interview recently. "They will have their own issues; they don't need mine in their head."

Far from gagging to accompany her daughter and son-in-law to their less-than-humble new home in Washington, in fact Ms Robinson at first resisted making the move. For weeks before Mr Obama was sworn in, she put it about that all things considered she would rather stay in her own abode, an anonymous bungalow in the South Side neighbourhood of Chicago where she has lived her entire life. She had her friends there and her routines, including daily yoga classes taught by a younger brother, Stephen.

"I love those people, but I love my own house," she said early in the presidential transition. "The White House kind of reminds me of a museum and it's like, how do you sleep in a museum?"

And so it was that Barack and Michelle were reduced to begging Ms Robinson to uproot herself and join them in Washington. The girls had a lot to do with it. During the hectic months of the campaign, which included long periods when Michelle's presence was also required on the road, it was grandma who accompanied them to school every day and kept their routines going.

Michelle even resorted to recruiting her brother, Craig Robinson, head basketball coach at Oregon State University, to the cause. "My sister said, 'You've got to talk to mom, she's not moving," he told The New York Times. It made no difference apparently that Michelle was dangling a new life of non-stop excitement and glamour. "She doesn't want grand, she doesn't want great," her brother told her.

In the end, though, granny Robinson relented, but – at first, anyway – only with the welfare of her granddaughters in mind. "She didn't want anyone else taking care of the kids," said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a spokeswoman for Michelle. "She wanted to be the one there."

And indeed, as the First Lady has been drawn into the whirlwind of a packed daily diary, it is her mother who fills the breach, shuttling the girls back and forth to school or standing in for her at school functions. She helps with the homework, goes with them on play-dates to other homes and, most importantly, babysits whenever Barack and Michelle are out of town – or even just in Georgetown for dinner.

But even after she finally agreed to come along for the ride, Ms Robinson, who is widowed, made it clear that she intended to stay only as long as necessary to see the family and especially the two girls, Malia, 10, and Sasha, seven, settled in their new routines and school. Then she would return home.

So now we have passed the symbolic 100-day mark, is Marian feeling just about ready to leave? After all, how long was the "settling-in" period meant to last? The girls are doing well and so, judging by the handholding under the laurel trees, are Barack and Michelle. And it's springtime in Chicago.

Dying to return to the Windy City, however, she is not. The big news from the First Family is that far from just tolerating her time in the capital, granny is having a blast. That "glitzy life" that seemed so unappealing when her daughter first described it may not be so bad after all. Indeed, such is her gadabout life that Michelle has to reserve in advance if she wants her mother's baby-sitting services.

"She has a very full social life," the First Lady admitted with a smile during a lunch for members of Congress at the White House recently, "so much so that sometimes we have to plan our schedule around her schedule". The First Lady recently revealed to Oprah Winfrey that her mother has even taken to saying, "I'm going home", when retiring at night to her third-floor retreat.

Some of her new distractions are right there inside the White House. She has been spotted sitting in on a variety of events, including a musical performance recently for Black History Month as well as a children's book-reading event during the Easter weekend egg roll. She has the pleasure of being in close proximity not just to her children and grandchildren but now there is Bo too, the new First Dog. And if Bo makes a mess, it is no longer Marian who must wield the mop or bucket. She has staff all around.

Ms Robinson has an advantage over her daughter, meanwhile. Because she has mostly kept a low profile – though she did appear on the cover of Essence magazine last month alongside Michelle – she is not quickly recognised and is able to move around the capital city more or less unimpeded. She is a regular at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts where she eschews the stalls in favour of the presidential box, sometimes inviting artists to join her. On Sunday, she was back at the Kennedy Centre again, though this time accompanying her daughter, for a night celebrating women in the arts.

Grandmother Robinson also lunches with ladies. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post recently encountered her at a lunch hosted by Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Senator John Kerry. At the table, she came across as the "perfect grandmother you'd kill for: cosy, nice, sweet, friendly, dear".

It was Essence that asked the obvious question – are you enjoying being in the big house? "I really am," she replied. "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."

She has been in the city for a few weeks only and already knows how to spin the media. And even the comedians for the most part have been steering clear of mother-in-law humour.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £23,000

£13500 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning, Bolton base...

Recruitment Genius: Client Account Executive

£23000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Account Executive is r...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Executive

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Full Time position available now at a growing...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive + incentives + uncapped comms: SThree:...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future