What Michelle Obama's Mother Marian's Experience Was Like Living In The White House

For eight years, Barack and Michelle Obama, along with their daughters Sasha and Malia, called the White House home. But what many might not know is that there was another key member of the Obama clan living there too — Marian Robinson, Michelle's mom, affectionately dubbed the "First Grandma." While she mostly stayed under the radar, Robinson was an integral part of the family, acting as Sasha and Malia's second mom whenever their parents had their hands full.

Robinson didn't initially plan on making the White House her home sweet home. The deal was she'd stay temporarily to help with the grandkids. "I love those people, but I love my own house," she explained to People. "The White House reminds me of a museum and it's like, how do you sleep in a museum?" Yet, she relented, because family is family. "I'm doing exactly what you do: You do what needs to be done," she explained to CBS News in 2009.

Robinson ended up sticking around for the full eight years, later confessing it was out of sheer worry for Sasha and Malia. "I felt like this was going to be a very hard life for both of them," she shared on "CBS This Morning," with Michelle chiming in, "There were parts of the girls' life that I just knew were going to be OK because mom was there." Fortunately, despite her initial reservations about living in one of the most famous houses in the world, Robinson thrived in the White House. Not only did she get to spoil her grandkids, but she also enjoyed the freedom to do what she loved. Turns out, even in a museum, you can find a little bit of home.

Marian loved looking after Sasha and Malia

Marian Robinson may have initially hesitated to uproot her life from Chicago to Washington D.C., but getting to dote on her granddaughters, Sasha and Malia Obama, more than made up for it. As the first kids, nothing about their early life was normal, but Robinson was there to inject a bit of grandma-level sanity into their very public lives.

"You see, my job here is the easiest one of all: I just get to be Grandma. One of my biggest blessings is getting to see my granddaughters grow up before my eyes," she wrote in an essay for Essence. "I go to all their school plays and sports games; I'll answer their questions, and like any grandparent, I try to make myself scarce when their friends are around."

Robinson ensured Sasha and Malia were well taken care of, especially when their parents were swamped with presidential and First Lady duties. She often took the girls, who were 7 and 10 when Barack took office, to school to ease the burden of having a 24/7 security detail. She attended their class presentations and helped them with homework. Most importantly, the so-called "First Grandma" trained the girls on what might be the most vital chore of all — laundry. "She taught the girls how to do their laundry. They would go upstairs for laundry lessons," Michelle said during her chat with "CBS This Morning," adding, "They learned how to use the machine."

She had a colorful social life in Washington DC

The Obamas probably had to jump through hoops just to get a chance to socialize, but Marian Robinson seemed to have no trouble living her best life, flitting around town and hosting guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Michelle Obama herself admitted that her mother was so busy that the family often joked about needing an appointment to get on her calendar.

"She's made friends, she's had visitors, she's been to the Kennedy Center more than I have. She was actually so busy one weekend that she forgot to check my schedule. Then she thought, 'Well, maybe Michelle's going to need me Sunday,'" the former First Lady recalled in an interview with Oprah Magazine. "And I said, 'Actually, yeah, the first state dinner is Sunday. But we'll get a babysitter. Don't worry.'"

Robinson's social butterfly status made her a hit with everyone. While people might have felt a tad intimidated approaching the Obamas, they had no such qualms with Robinson, who was as approachable as they come. "She's definitely very down-to-earth and receptive to engaging in conversations with anyone," said a guest at a party attended by both Robinson and Michelle to The Washington Post. "She was somebody who you could walk up to without pretense."

She made sure to give the Obamas some space for themselves

While it was the Obamas who insisted that Marian Robinson move into the White House, she made sure to set some boundaries, giving her daughter's family the space to do their thing. She would refer to them as "Michelle's family," as if they were a separate entity. "My mom has some really wise approaches to family," Michelle Obama told Oprah.

Speaking to Womens Health, Michelle revealed that her mom would even occasionally refuse to join them for dinner — not because she didn't want to, but because she wanted the family to have their much-needed alone time as a quartet. "Grandma doesn't eat with us all the time because she wants to give us, the nuclear family, a chance to bond. She says that she thinks it's important for Mom, Dad, and the kids to sit down and have that space," Michelle explained, noting that she, along with Barack, Sasha, and Malia, didn't exactly share the same sentiment. "This is her belief; we don't believe it. We're like, 'Grandma, when you want to eat, eat.' She's like, 'Let me not get in your way. I like my life over here.'"

She even abides by the rules her daughter had set, and apparently, the two of them had opposing methods of running a household. "I follow the rules at Michelle's house," she told People. "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!"

She enjoyed the anonymity she had

Unlike the rest of the Obama family, who were kept under tight watch by the Secret Service, Marian Robinson enjoyed her freedom — and she relished it. She loved leaving the White House whenever she pleased, savoring the anonymity that came with not being as public a figure as her family.

"She's quite the lady about town," Michelle Obama said, according to Today. "But the nice thing is that she just walks out the gate and goes." This freedom also meant she could travel whenever she wanted, and according to Barack Obama, she loved flying to Sin City. "I look forward to coming back to Las Vegas, but my mother-in-law is going to get here first," Barack once joked during a visit to the state, notes the Las Vegas Sun. "She comes quite frequently ... Maybe I shouldn't say that in front of the press." 

She relished her independence. "She really enjoys the fact that she can walk out of the White House by herself," a senior administration official told The Washington Post, with Anita McBride, Laura Bush's former chief of staff, noting that the "grandma-in-chief" also simultaneously made efforts to ensure that her life was private. "I'm sure she has enjoyed a lot of what Washington and the world have to offer, but it demonstrates to me that there is a privacy about her and the circle of people she is spending time with."

She was the 'most beloved figure' in the White House according to Michelle

Michelle Obama once quipped that while Barack Obama was technically the head of the house, everyone in the White House, particularly the staff, had a special fondness for Marian Robinson. She was the "most beloved figure" there, and during their years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, her mother became the unofficial therapist. "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," she said during their "CBS This Morning" interview, adding that even after they'd left, some of the staff would still fly to Chicago to pay Robinson a visit. And she adored them right back. "Because they were like family to me," she said.

In Barack's lengthy tribute in honor of Robinson after her death, he marveled at how loved his mother-in-law was by the staff. She made them feel special, even treating them when they celebrated their birthdays. "Over those eight years, she made great friends with the ushers and butlers, the folks who make the White House a home," he wrote. "She'd often sneak outside the gates to buy greeting cards at CVS, and sometimes another customer might recognize her. 'You look like Michelle's mother,' they'd say. She'd smile and reply, 'Oh, I get that a lot.'"