Michelle Obama has a still-living mom: Marian Robinson. The matriarch is not a household name like her daughter and son-in-law, but she’s a vital part of the family. Marian also lived in the White House during Barack Obama’s presidency. Now she’s telling her story, as is Michelle herself. And it’s an absolutely fascinating one.
There were lots of photographs taken of the Obama family during their time in the White House. Barack, Michelle, and their young daughters Sasha and Malia were the subject of endless international interest. But there was often another person in the photos who many people overlooked – Marian.
Despite all the attention her family got, Marian kept herself out of the spotlight and avoided interviews very often. Michelle’s mom told CBS This Morning in 2018 that she avoided the media over fears that she might “say the wrong thing” and jeopardize her daughter’s career.
There was no doubt that Marian was in a difficult position once her son-in-law became president. Not only was there the risk of accidentally making a faux pas, there were all the problems that come with suddenly starting a completely new life. When raising her kids, Marian had enjoyed a very different life with her husband in a small apartment in Chicago’s South Side.
After her son-in-law was promoted to the highest office in the land, Marian suddenly got to live in luxurious dwellings where her every need was catered to. After all, the White House contains – among other things – a bowling alley, a gym, a music room and a team of the world’s best chefs. It would be a culture shock for anyone, right?
Would you give up your privacy to live with your family in the White House? That was the dilemma Marian faced once Barack Obama was inaugurated and Michelle became the First Lady. Of course, we know what she decided on in the end, but only recently has she revealed the hows and whys.
Right from the beginning, Michelle was very keen that her mom move into the White House. Indeed, she wrote about this in her 2018 book Becoming. The former First Lady remembered, “My mother hadn’t wanted to come with us to Washington, but I’d forced the issue. The girls needed her. I needed her.”
Michelle continued, “For the last few years, she’d been a nearly every day presence in our lives – her practicality a salve to everyone’s worries. At 71, though, she’d never lived anywhere but Chicago. She was reluctant to leave the South Side and her home on Euclid Avenue.” But, as you might imagine, Marian’s hesitation was understandable.
According to Michelle, “I tried to explain that if she moved to Washington, she’d meet all sorts of interesting people, wouldn’t have to cook or clean for herself anymore and would have more room on the top floor of the White House than she’d ever had at home. None of this was meaningful to her. My mother was impervious to all manner of glamour and hype.”
That being said, Marian did plenty for her family without moving in with them. While Barack and Michelle were busy with running a presidential campaign, Marian retired from her job and began looking after Malia and Sasha. The girls were only ten and seven at the time, and it was Michelle’s mom who took them to school and cooked their food.
Barack wanted Marian to live in the presidential abode as well. In 2008 the president-elect told CBS’ 60 Minutes, “She’s just been an unbelievable support for all of us during this process. And you know, she likes her own space… [Marian] doesn’t like a lot of fuss around her. And, like it or not, there’s some fuss in the White House. But we hope that she comes.”
Michelle asked her brother Craig to try and convince Marian to move. That’s because she figured her mother was more likely to listen to him. In fact, Michelle suspected that he might be the favorite child. During a 2018 interview with Good Morning America, she joked, “I am the First Lady but my mother is like, ‘When is Craig coming?’”
Though Craig and Michelle were always close. In 2018 the former First Lady’s brother told the New York Post newspaper, “She played sports with me, rode bikes with me. She got to do everything I got to do.” He went on, “We were friends and playmates growing up… I would make sure she was included or taken care of before I [could] start enjoying myself.”
And Craig also remembered that his parents never treated their kids differently on the basis of gender. He said in the interview, “My parents never made it that, ‘It’s okay, she can’t do this because she’s a girl.’” At some points, he remembered, Marian would tell him, “You [have] got to stop worrying about your sister. She can do stuff on her own.”
It reportedly took a lot of convincing before Marian agreed to move into the White House. Craig told Good Morning America in 2018, “My mom, she is not the sort of intrusive in-law. She would never want to even stay over and babysit our kids. [Marian would] go home. She really didn’t want to join them in the White House for that reason.”
Yet eventually Craig was able to convince Marian. He said in that same interview, “I just sort of positioned it like, you will be helping your granddaughters out, number one, and if you move into the White House, then I’ll come to visit you more.” Apparently, this was the argument which worked on Marian!
Looking at Marian’s backstory, though, you can see why she’d balk at such a big change. After all, her life wasn’t always easy. She was born into a segregated Chicago where her options were few, but she persevered and became a bank secretary. Then she married Frazier Robinson – the father of Michelle and Craig. But he sadly died in 1991.
Frazier was only 55 when he passed, and his death had a huge impact on the family. Michelle wrote in Becoming that in the aftermath, “The three of us sat downstairs at the kitchen table, spent and sullen now – our misery provoked all over again by the sight of the fourth empty chair. Soon, we were weeping.”
But it was a comment from Marian which got them out of it. Michelle remembered that as the whole family cried Marian said, “Look at us,” but with “a touch of lightness in how she said it.” After that, Michelle wrote that “we started to titter and crack up – collapsing finally into full-blown fits of laughter. I realize that might seem strange, but we were so much better at this than we were at crying.”
Marian was – as that one event proved – vitally important to Michelle and her family. No matter what, the First Lady needed her around. But there were still some obstacles along the way. Michelle wrote in Becoming, “My mother would end up staying with us in Washington for the next eight years. But at the time she claimed the move was temporary, that she’d stay only until the girls got settled.”
The media was quick to report on the new development of Marian moving in. When the news broke in January 2009, the New York Times newspaper described Marian as a “loving, tough-minded matriarch who rarely shies from speaking her mind.” And it added that she was “the bedrock of the Obama family.”
But Marian remained adamant that she wouldn’t stay in the White House permanently – even though her family was there for the long haul. In April 2009 she told Essence magazine, “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?”
Yet, as we know, Marian ended up staying in the end. But what tipped her to make the move? Well, the matriarch explained her reasoning once Barack Obama’s run as president was done. It was simply all down to the welfare of her family. She told This Morning in 2018, “I felt like this was going to be a hard life. I was worried about their safety and about the girls.”
Marian was determined to help give her granddaughters normal lives, despite the pressures and the round-the-clock security they were subjected to. She decided that for a start the girls would do their own laundry – even though there were staffers to do it for them. And this apparently came in the form of “laundry lessons.”
During the interview on This Morning, Michelle talked about everything Marian had done. She said, “I mean, you think about my girls were being driven around in a motorcade of three cars with at least four grown adults with guns in each of those cars. And I just thought that that’s an unnatural way for a little second grader to go to school. Well, mom would ride in the car with her to make it feel like a regular carpool.”
Marian was apparently very proud of how her grandkids adjusted to life as the First Daughters. In a November 2020 episode of Michelle’s self-titled podcast she said, “I think the girls did really well with what they had to deal with. They pretty much just went about their schoolwork as just a normal child, even though the Secret Service was standing outside their door.”
And Marian ended up getting along very well with the White House staff. Michelle said in the This Morning interview, “She had a stream of people. The butlers, the housekeepers. They would all stop by… Grandma’s room was like the confessional. You know, everyone would go there and just unload, you know? And then they’d leave. People still visit with mom in Chicago.”
Marian made it clear in that interview that she wouldn’t miss living in the White House, but she would miss the staff who worked there. They were, she said, “like family” to her. Michelle added in agreement, “The eight years was more than enough. And what I realized over the years is that home is where we are, you know?”
Though Marian wasn’t a big fan of interviews, she did write an article for Essence magazine during her time in the White House. Published in November 2012, the piece reflected on her life and family, and it gave people a detailed look into Marian’s life as the First Grandmother.
Marian wrote at the beginning of the piece, “Now I know this might sound crazy, but even though I’ve been living in the White House for the past couple of years, I’ve got to admit that there are a few things I still miss. Like that little bitty house I lived in for decades, and many of my friends and family back in Chicago.”
Marian went on, “But after Barack was elected president and Michelle asked me to move with them to Washington, I said yes because I knew I’d be worrying about them if I was back in Chicago anyway. I just hoped I could be helpful.” And as we know, she very much was.
And Marian sang the praises of both her children in the article. She went on, “Today when I look at Michelle and Craig – a big-time college basketball coach – I feel like maybe, just maybe, [Frazier] and I got something right. We didn’t do anything special. But I see the adults our kids have become and I can’t help but smile a little bit.”
Marian is actually far from the first grandparent to move into the White House. Woodrow Wilson’s second wife arranged for both her mother and sister to move in with her. For their part, Ulysses S. Grant and Harry S. Truman likewise had older in-laws sharing the house with them. Marian seems to have really redefined the role of Grandmother-in-Chief, however.
In fact, Marian even accompanied her daughter and granddaughters to China in 2014. There, she proved herself indispensable, not just as Michelle’s mother but as a diplomat, too. In China people were impressed with the care and attention she paid her family. Later, she even shook hands with President Xi Jinping!
Elsewhere, Marian got to tour the Forbidden City with her family. According to The Independent, Michelle told the Chinese president, “Being able to see my mother – who doesn’t get to travel internationally often – walk through that ancient city, and to see her excitement and wonder, is a moment that I will treasure forever.” Marian could reportedly be overheard saying “Awww” at that!
Both Barack and Michelle Obama have paid tribute to Marian in recent years – thanking her for all she did. In 2019 Marian turned 82 years old and the former president wrote on his Facebook account, “You’ve probably seen Michelle’s mom – Marian Robinson – in photos with our family at inaugurations, Christmas tree lightings, Easter Egg Rolls and a whole lot more.”
Barack went on, “But what you haven’t seen is the way she’s been there for us every day – not just for Michelle and our daughters, but for me, too. I’ve always appreciated her steadiness, her perspective, and the way a wisecrack from her reverberates around the room. Happy birthday, Marian – here’s to many more.”
And for Mother’s Day that year Michelle shared some of her memories of Marian with People magazine. She wrote, “Growing up, she was willing to endure endless questioning from me. Why did we have to eat eggs for breakfast? Why do people need jobs? Why are the houses bigger in other neighborhoods? She didn’t chide me if I scrapped with some of the neighbor kids or challenged my ornery grandfather when I thought he was being a little too ornery.”
Michelle also credits her mother for making her the woman she is. The former First Lady wrote, “She and my father – [Frazier] – were wholly invested in their children, pouring a deep and durable foundation of goodness and honesty, of right and wrong, into my brother and me. After that, they simply let us be ourselves.”
Will we see Marian in the White House again? Almost certainly not, since Barack has used up both of his terms in office and Michelle is adamant that she never wants to be president. But during her time there she went down in history as one of those incredibly important people who help out from the sidelines.