Grandma Robinson Makes White House Transition The Obamas will soon undergo a historic transition in January as the nation's First Family of color enters the White House. Also making the transition will be Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's mother. President-elect Obama has attributed the success of his campaign, in part, to Robinson's support, especially as a child care provider. A roundtable of grandmothers share advice for Robinson and discuss the special role of grandparents.
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Grandma Robinson Makes White House Transition

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Grandma Robinson Makes White House Transition

Grandma Robinson Makes White House Transition

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I'm Korva Coleman in for Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera in New York shows his composer side with a new CD highlighting the peril facing rivers in our country's deserts.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child. But maybe you need just a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And today, we talk about grandmothers. The president-elect, Barack Obama, was raised in good measure by his grandparents, and it's no secret his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, played a big part on the campaign trail, caring for her granddaughters, the Obama girls, when their parents were out on the road stumping.

Now Mrs. Robinson is coming to Washington as part of the first family. It's a move that's been commented on by observers, so we decided to talk to some grandmamas to get their take on the subject. We also invited a daughter who enlisted her mother's help when her family was going through a transition. I'm joined by Diane Tullson, a grandmother of a whole passel of kids. Welcome

Ms. DIANE TULLSON (Author, Young Adult Novels): Thank you

COLEMAN: Grandmother of three, Sajida Nomani, mom of Tell Me More regular Asra Nomani. Hi, Sajida

Ms. SAJIDA NOMANI (President, Morgantown Muslims and Friends): Hi. How are you

COLEMAN: I'm great. And Betty Noel-Cushenberry, her mom lived with her family while Betty's two children were growing up. Welcome, Betty

Ms. BETTY NOEL-CUSHENBERRY (Lawyer): Thank you

COLEMAN: Diane Tullson, did the reality of being a grandparent match up with what you thought it was going to be

Ms. TULLSON: I'd say yes and no. My children when they had children were in the military, so one was born in Germany. I had to get the pictures via FedEx and it was - that was tough not to see him, not to feel him. Eventually, I got to meet him, and the other one, I was there. His mom was in the military, and I was there for the birth so - but they were all out of state and it's tough

COLEMAN: Did you ever say to yourself, when I become a grandparent, I will never do..

Ms. TULLSON: Yes. I said all of those things.

COLEMAN: And how long did it last

Ms. TULLSON: Didn't last very long

(Soundbite of laughter

Ms. TULLSON: At all. Not at all

COLEMAN: Sajida, what about you? What about you

Ms. NOMANI: Well, I was looking forward to becoming a grandmother, and I enjoyed every bit of it. And I got to see all three of them. Two of my older grandkids lived with me for 14 years, and Shibli was born here in Morgantown, West Virginia. So I have enjoyed every bit of them.

COLEMAN: Sajida, you were raised in India. What cultural differences do you find between India and the United States when it comes to grandparenting and parenting

Ms. NOMANI: Usually the mother stays at home in India. So, you know, the grandparents are just, like, there to spoil. They don't have to cook, clean, or something like that, but they do help in some ways, but not completely. But here, you know, if you take the responsibility of taking care, you end up doing entirely everything. So that's the difference

COLEMAN: Betty Noel-Cushenberry, your mama moved in with you. Is what Sajida is telling us true in your household

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: Not exactly. When you have your first child you're very possessive, and you want everything to be perfect. I could not find perfect childcare, and I actually thought about giving up the law and coming home and just mothering. I called my mom, who worked. And I said, mommy, I'm coming home to take care of this baby. I cannot find anybody. And she said, well, wait a minute, I'll come down and take a leave of absence for six weeks, and you'll go back to work and get your land legs, and then we'll interview and you'll have childcare. I said, fine. She came down for six weeks, and 23 years later..

(Soundbite of laughter

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: When my youngest daughter graduated high school, my mother returned to New York. And actually, I think having my mother there, and my husband would concur, was probably the greatest gift that we gave to our daughters and, in fact, to us as a family unit

COLEMAN: Sajida, how does it work with you? Do you spend a great deal of time with children? Do you..

Ms. NOMANI: Right now, I don't have anyone with me right now. But my older - two of my older grandkids were with me for 14 years in my house. And I had a lot of fun with them. No complaints. They have kept me going. So that's the benefit of having them around

COLEMAN: How do your grandchildren relate to having you in their lives, Diane Tullson

Ms. TULLSON: Believe it or not, I have three grandchildren that live on my street. So I see them, feel them, touch them weekly. We have a good time together

COLEMAN: You're talking about children living down the street from you, how does that work in your family? How does that work in your neighborhood

Ms. TULLSON: They help us with lots of chores, because grandpa has two new knees and one new hip. So they do a lot of our chores for them. They go up in the attic for me, things like that

COLEMAN: But they actually live in the neighborhood

Ms. TULLSON: They actually live in the neighborhood

COLEMAN: But they have their own houses

Ms. TULLSON: They have their own houses, right

COLEMAN: Did you plan this

Ms. TULLSON: It worked out well. It's a long story, but it's a great story

COLEMAN: Diane Tullson, how common are these intergenerational relationships within the African-American community? Is your arrangement unusual, or is it common

Ms. TULLSON: I think it's a little unusual because now people move around the country for their jobs. In our family, we own four houses on the same street. And that is very unusual, and we have big family meetings, big family dinners, and it's great. It is. But I was raised very tribally, and so that's how we function. So we have lots of family reunions, and we all enjoy each other to a point


Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: It was common actually for me. My father died just before I was born, so my mother went right back to work, and I was raised by my grandparents. I had a very deep and abiding relationship with both of my grandparents, and now that I see that happening with my daughters and their grandparents, I realize it's something that they will always have. I can't imagine a better - other than education, a better gift that I could have given them.

COLEMAN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Diane Tullson, Sajida Nomani and Betty Noel-Cushenberry about grandparenting. Betty, what conclusion should people draw when they see Michelle Obama and her mom settling into the White House

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: I think, like so many people in America, we exhaled. We felt all will be well. Michelle and the president-elect can do what they must do, and the babies will be fine because there is now grandma's hands. And we know that those children will be fine

COLEMAN: Not everybody has that view. I'd love to play for you a clip of tape that we have. And last week this very subject came up during a regular Barbershop conversation. And here's what a couple of the guys had to say

Ms. TULLSON: Mm hmm

(Soundbite of Tell Me More

JIMI IZRAEL: You know, yo, what's up with Michelle trying to move - her mom's up in the spot, man? You can't have your mother-in-law living with you, man

MARCUS MABRY: Well, I must say there are many people who said, oh, well, you know, with black folks, you know, your wife's mom might have to come live with you. You know, so..

IZRAEL: Those people are divorced, man. That's not - that's not a good look. That's not a good look

COLEMAN: That was from our Barbershop regulars, Marcus Mabry and Jimi Izrael. Would anybody care to comment

(Soundbite of laughter

COLEMAN: Diane Tullson

Ms. TULLSON: Well, grandma will have her own space, I know that, and I'm confident grandma is going to keep her property in Chicago. But Michelle will definitely need help when she travels, you know, she'll have many obligations and the girls will feel safe and secure and comfortable with grandma there. I know that

COLEMAN: Sajida, you just heard the same clip. What was your view

Ms. NOMANI: I watched the "60 Minutes," and Obama mentioned the fact that, you know, he respects her privacy. So in case she ever needs to go back to Chicago, she can always. And it's nice for her to be there and be of help to very busy folks, Obama and his wife. So I don't see any - they should not make fun of them at all

COLEMAN: Betty, there was a little smile playing at the corner of your lips when..

(Soundbite of laughter

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: I'd like you to - I'd be interested to know what happens when you go into the hair salons and hear what the girls have to say. I think they'd have a very different opinion.

COLEMAN: What might, do you think - what might you think that some men are saying as opposed to what some women are saying

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: I think the women, those of us who are trying to be wives and mothers, and to not have it all but attain some balance in our lives, which is very, very difficult. The idea that you could have another mother at home for your daughters when your husband's at work, when you're at work, that you know that all is well in your world because your babies are with grandma. Again, that's a gift. That's a gift, and it is priceless.

And my daughters, as a result, have a very - my daughters are now 28 and 23 - they have a phenomenal relationship with Nana. It's one that neither my husband and I can interfere with. It is very special, it is unique, and it's a beauty to know that, even at their age, they're adults, that they have someone that they can go to and talk to and know that they will receive that unconditional love and support beyond that which my husband and I would give. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

In fact, I emailed my daughters and said, what would you like me to say? And my youngest daughter wrote me a five page epistle. I cried when I read it, but one of the things that she said is, you might be able to manipulate a babysitter or an au pair. But you can't manipulate Nana. Because with Nana, everything comes out. And she also said that Nana, as a result, has a piece of her heart. So I am praying for the first family, but I am so thrilled to know that just a little bit of relief will come knowing that Nana's there

COLEMAN: Diane Tullson, one of the things I think I'm hearing on what the Barbershop was talking about, there seems to be some kind of fear that somehow the mother-in-law will insert herself negatively into the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Obama. You think that can happen

Ms. TULLSON: That can, but I know the Obama family and extended family are aware of all of these ramifications, and the first lady and the president-elect need all the support they can get. And these children, you know, with this transition, they've got new friends, new environment, and they eventually will get a new puppy, all of these things, grandma will just be a great leveler for them and be there for support for the family here in Washington. It's going to be awesome

COLEMAN: Diane Tullson, being a grandparent, what was it like or can you think of anything funny that it was like being a grandparent in terms of having the kids come home from school and maybe having to deal with something that maybe mom and dad didn't know about or were afraid to admit to mom and dad but found you an easier person to deal with

Ms. TULLSON: Sometimes it has to do with wardrobe. You know, like my grandson today has on shorts. Why do we have on shorts today, you know

COLEMAN: We should mention the weather here in Washington is quite chilly

Ms. TULLSON: It's quite chilly. All sorts of things - different. For boys, it's different haircuts. Two of my daughters are adopted, and they found their biological family. So I also have those children that consider us grandma and grandpa. I gave - the one 12-year-old was having an honors ceremony, I took them a gift - I took her gift, all pink. She's in all black. Who knew? I said, I'm still in my pink period you're in your black period. So the attitudes about hair - the big deal. And grandma sometimes steps in whether it's a haircut or straightening the hair or braiding the hair, all sorts of obligations. And I remind the parents, you went through this, you went through your - when you only wore black clothes. You wanted all designer clothes, all kind of things like that. So we have a great time, and braces and non-braces. Lots of different ways a grandma interjects and remembers

COLEMAN: Betty Noel-Cushenberry. You're smiling, what happened to you

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: Well, I think that grandmothers provide a filter for grandchildren. Sometimes things happen, school, whatever, and kids may not know exactly how to tell mom and dad. My children always knew that they were going to tell, but they would tell my mother first. And perhaps

COLEMAN: Can you give me an example

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: Oh, I didn't get a part in a play. I'm upset about it. Or, I'm not getting along with someone, or I don't want to take piano lessons anymore or whatever. And they'd throw that by my mother first. And, my mother would have her conversation with them, at whatever it was. And I think that she would help them come back to us with it. But they always knew they were coming to tell us. In the meantime, she might pull my husband and I offline and say, this is what's going on. We never told the kids we had that offline conversation. But we were ready to hear them better, and they had a way to come to us

COLEMAN: Sajida Nomani, did you ever find that there were offline conversations where, perhaps, you acted as a buffer

Ms. NOMANI: Actually, my granddaughter lives about 600 miles away from here, but the times when she's bored - so, instead of going and talking to her mother as to what she should do, she will come up with, OK, grandma, I'm bored. What should I do? And, I will say OK. Then we come up with different plans and that way, you know, her boredom is over because the conversation goes on for like about an hour. So, you know, the closeness that we have with each other, instead of going to the mother, she comes up to me. And then Shibly will say sometimes, oh, grandma, you can make the decision. You are older, you are my mom's mom, so you make the decision for me. So that's how things go around in our house

COLEMAN: Diane Tullson, do you have any advice for Mrs. Robinson when she moves into the White House

Ms. TULLSON: Mrs. Robertson needs to get a circle of friends for herself. When she's here, she'll be in a new city, and I'm sure that she will be able to do that. It is a wonderful city. Chicago's Midwest, this is the East Coast. She's going to thoroughly enjoy it, and the weather is not going to be a big deal for her. So, we welcome her, we look forward to it. And there are so many grandmas who would love to meet her

COLEMAN: Betty Noel-Cushenberry, do you have advice for Mrs. Robinson

Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: I would not presume to give advice to Mrs. Robinson. However, my mother, I called her in New York, and I said, mommy, I'm doing this show, what would you like me to say? And my mother, her name is Darvine(ph) Noel. She lives in the Bronx. She came up with five pearls. Can I offer them


Ms. NOEL-CUSHENBERRY: I offer them in my mother's name. One, she says, just concentrate on your grandbabies. Nothing else matters. Two, do not interfere with the core family. Support the mother and father equally. Three, grandmothering is not babysitting. And when I asked my mother what the difference was, she said jurisdiction. There's no appeal from Nana's rulings. You can't go to your mother to get me reversed. So when you're with my mother, and my mother says X, X is the law. Number four, the weekends are yours, for you. Find something to do for you on the weekend. My mother was a docent at the Smithsonian. When my mother came here, she didn't know how to swim. She was terrified of water, she joined the Silver Spring Y. And by the end, she was on the senior citizen synchronized swim team. It was her time - time that was hers. And we didn't interfere with that. Number five, two parts. A, my mother says, know when it is time to leave. Recognize when your work is done. And the second part of that was, to this end, retain and keep your own home so you can go home when your work is done. Or as my mother also said, when they get on my nerve and I just feel like going home to the Bronx. Those are my mother's pearls of wisdom. And I will tell you, I'm old enough to say that my mother has never been wrong. She may be prescient, she may have be premature, but she has never been wrong

COLEMAN: Betty Noel-Cushenberry joined me in my Washington studio, along with Diane Tullson. Sajida Nomani joined us from West Virginia. Moms and grandmoms, thank you for joining us


Ms. TULLSON: Thank you

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you

COLEMAN: Happy Thanksgiving

Ms. Noel-Cushenberry: Happy Thanksgiving to you

Ms. TULLSON: Happy Thanksgiving

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