“I was worried about my grandkids”

Marian Shields Robinson didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C. when her daughter, Michelle Obama, became First Lady in 2009. But her grandchildren, Sasha and Malia, were only seven and ten, and Marian was worried about them, she said in a recent interview with Gayle King of CBS This Morning.

Marian, 81, hardly ever talks to the press, but she made an exception earlier this month to help Michelle promote her new book, Becoming.

Here are some highlights from the conversation, which also included Michelle. 

Gayle King: First, thank you so much for doing this. The whole eight years you were in the White House I think I could count the number of times I saw you on TV. And I got up to one and then I had to stop. It’s just not something that you do … Why didn’t you want to do interviews, Mrs. Robinson?

Marian Shields Robinson: I don’t like the sound of my own voice, for one thing. And I didn’t want to say anything that would … you know how you accidentally say things? I figured if I didn’t say anything, then I wouldn’t say the wrong thing.

Gayle: When your daughter becomes First Lady of the United States and your son-in-law is the President, how do you wrap your brain around that? What are you thinking?

Marian: It’s pretty difficult, let’s face it.

Gayle: Uh-huh. Why?

Marian: Because I felt like this was going to be a very hard life for both of them. And I was worried about their safety. And I was worried about my grandkids. That’s what got me to move to D.C.

Gayle: That was it?

Marian: That was it.

Gayle: The safety of the kids.

Marian: Right.

Gayle: Because at first you were reluctant to move to the White House.

Marian: Not reluctant. I wasn’t going! But [my son] Craig talked me into going, really.

Gayle (to Michelle Obama): Why did you want her there? Why was it important to you?

Michelle: Because, for the girls, you know. I wanted them to come home to family. Because Mom—when I lost my favorite babysitter, and I was about to quit work, and Mom had just retired, and I was just done trying to figure out the babysitting thing—she was like, ‘I’ll step in.’

All her grandkids love their grandma. Because she’s got that house, where you go over to Grandma’s, and you can tear up the sofa and make a fort with it … They’d spend the night, she’d sleep not in her bed but on the couch because the girls would be propped up in her bed where they could have TV and pizza and all that … Craig and I would walk in and we’d be like, ‘What is going on here? Who are you?’

Gayle (to Michelle): Do you think you would have had the personal and professional success that you had in the White House if your mom hadn’t been there with you?

Michelle: I think it enhanced it tremendously. Because there was just parts of the girls’ lives that I just knew were gonna be okay ’cause Mom was there. When I traveled internationally, Grandma was there. When I wasn’t home at the end of the day, Grandma was there.

When the kids were still little and they needed to have someone be with them in school—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 [Sasha] to make it feel like a regular carpool. Mom couldn’t sit in the front seat, and it was Sasha’s car. So Grandma didn’t have her own motorcade. So she would ride all the way to school, which was far away from the White House, get dropped off—she’d have to get in a separate car cause she couldn’t ride back in Sasha’s motorcade—and come home, and then she’d go back and pick them up from school at the end of the day … Grandma never wanted a detail. She was like, ‘I don’t need any of that.’

Gayle (to Marian): You never wanted a detail?

Marian: No, because you see them coming. It’s not quiet. I’m by myself, no one stops me, I can go where I want to go. Sometimes people don’t even recognize me.

Gayle: Or if they say, ‘Hey, you look like Michelle’s mom!’ what would you say?

Marian: ‘People say that all the time’ … and keep walking.

Gayle: But you were so low-key. There are so many parents that would say, ‘My son-in-law is the President. My daughter is the First Lady.’ You always wanted to stay in the background. Even at the White House, people would be there and you wouldn’t even sometimes come down ‘cause you would say, ‘That’s their life.’ I marvel at that.

Marian: But if I didn’t live with them, that’s the way it would be. And that’s why I don’t want to live with them. Because I do have a big mouth. So if I was at the dinner table with them I would probably butt in, which no one needed to hear.

Gayle: You are an asset to every conversation.

Michelle: And she was the most beloved figure in the White House. Let me tell you, the butlers, the housekeepers, they would all stop by, and Grandma’s room was like the confessional. And everyone would go there and just unload, you know, and then they’d leave. People still visit Mom in Chicago. Some of the staff come and visit; they’re in town in Chicago, they visit her.

Gayle (to Marian): Do you feel you have your life back? Do you miss the White House at all?

Marian: I do. No. Not at all. I do miss the people because they were like family to me. And where I stayed was near where [the staff] were all located. We got pretty close there.

Gayle: Well, what about the life adjustment for you in the White House? Because you’re used to doing, washing socks for everybody. You’re in the White House where they say, ‘Mrs. Robinson, can I get you something? Mrs. Robinson, do you need anything?’ Was that a big adjustment for you?

Marian: It was a huge adjustment. As a matter of fact, I talked them into allowing me to do my own laundry.

Gayle: You were doing your own laundry?

Michelle: And she taught the girls how to do their laundry. They would go upstairs for laundry lessons.

Gayle (to Michelle): Your mom says she doesn’t miss the White House. Do you?

Michelle: No. No. I mean, eight years was more than enough. And what I realized over the years is that home is where we are, you know. And the White House happened to be our home for eight years. But we took all that love and energy and we just moved it to another house. It’s still there. And that’s the part of life that’s important. It’s not the house you live in.

Gayle: What’s the best thing about Michelle Obama, that makes you proudest?

Marian Robinson: Well, now I—my saying is, ‘When I grow up, I would like to be like Michelle Obama.’