Move over, Michelle Obama, cause Mama’s in the house.
That’s right, Michelle Obama’s mother is moving into the White House.
Marian Robinson quit her job 22 months ago to help care for the Obama girls while Michelle and Barack started campaigning. She’s now 71 and a retired secretary and she’s moving into the White House on a “trial basis” before giving up her home in Chicago. While the presidential campaign was underway, Ms. Robinson cooked the girl’s meals, shuffled them to their various activities, helped with homework and kissed them goodnight. That’s a big job, but it was for a big reason.
That’s something I admire–a family that figures out how to care for one another and when it’s the appropriate time to do so. I’m not too worried how she’ll be treated a few years from now when she needs elder-care or caregiving. She’s invested in her family, and love is almost always returned.
The White House will be full again, with a father, mother, two children, a grandmother, and a dog. I like the idea of those old rooms bustling with the sound of feet running up and down the halls, of a grandmother’s stern call to order and the yelp of a dog.
Multigenerational families aren’t new. People used to live together under one roof out of necessity–to run the farm, to continue the family business. In fact, it’s on the rise.
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 in the new economic light, more and more families are choosing to “bunk up” to save on expenses, and as a necessity for those who have lost their jobs.
Somehow, we got away from that in my generation. We got independent, perhaps too independent thinking that money would be enough–or as my southern daddy would say, “We got too big for our britches.”
My adoptive mother grew up in a multigenerational house. She was surrounded by aunts and uncles (her mother was divorced and raising two children on her own in the 1910′s). My mother’s memories are good ones. A large table with lots of food and conversation. She said she felt as if she had many mothers, not just one–and it helped that her mother could work full time and her two children had someone at home.
Times haven’t changed that much. Marian Robinson is an example of millions of grandmother’s who are either raising or helping to raise grandchildren. We need each other. We need our mothers and fathers to be a part of their grandchidren’s lives. That’s how values and stories get passed down.
From all I’ve read, Marian Robinson is going to be a busy woman. She’s noted for her independence and will only stay if she’s needed. She may even purchase a home nearby just so she has some privacy and doesn’t have to deal with the day to day fuss life in politics entails. She’s no where near slowing down and has recentlycompeted in the Senior Games running the 50 and 100 yard dash. No matter where she chooses to sleep, she’ll be an active part of the Obama household and everyone will benefit from that.
It’s not that her value as a grandmother is in throwing in a load of laundry or chauffeuring the girls around, it’s that the children will be influenced by her wisdom and will have that sense of family and continuity that’s so important. It’s easy to caught up in the “doing” and not the “being.” The most valuable gift our elders have to offer is simply who they are–a part of us. Their life, their experiences, their stories shape and define future generations.
I have seen families take advantage of their elders–used them as free babysitters–and that’s not healthy for anyone. Sometimes we have to say, “No, not tonight, I have plans.”
As my mother moved in with my husband, our daughters and myself, I knew I had to strike a balance. My mother had to fit into our home, and in return, I (we) needed to treat her with respect and privacy. These are the concerns multigenerational families face. You don’t know exactly what your issues are going to be until you’re there, all living together. One person becomes needy, another bossy–someone needs more privacy than another, and…somebody always gets jealous. It’s just human nature and no matter how old we are, we still get jealous or needy at times.
My mother was always a part of our lives, and I’m so grateful that even though she was an older grandmother (she was 74 when her first granddaughter was born), she got right to being an active grandmother. She used to come over and get our girls and take them for an overnight stay as soon as they were out of diapers. They remember going to eat breakfast at Shoney’s with my mom and how proud she was showing them off to anyone who walked by, and then going to K Mart to hold the dolls. She’d buy them something small and even though these times weren’t fancy, they were just enough to begin to build a relationship–and memories. Our daughters remember my mother’s songs, her prayers and Bible stories, her stories–and even her quirks, her humor, her fears–everything that made her a whole person. So when it came time for my mother to move in with us, they expected it. In many ways, she was already a part of our lives.
Just the other day, our 21 year old daughter said she was glad her grandmother lived with us. That’s saying a lot, because she was there through it all, the Alzheimer’s, the heart attacks, and the end of life. She’s now able to measure the whole of the experience and not just focus on a particularly dark time.
What I wish for the Obama’s is that everyone will be patient and understanding with one another during this time of change. My advice, if I may offer a little–be quick to forgive, laugh at your mistakes, value your togetherness, and respect each other’s differences.
Getting used to living together and under such scrutiny is bound to cause some nerves to be razzled. Just as with any family, it takes time to learn to live together. But it’s worth it. There are times when we need each other, and that’s the best definition of what makes a family that I can think of.
In the end, the Obama girls will be surrounded by family, by legacy, and by love.
I wish them (and all of us) the best.
~Carol O’Dell, author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir
Familly advisor at Caring.com
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