Will Obama's Mother-in-Law Move to the White House?

As they stare down their big move to the White House on Jan. 20, Michelle and Barack Obama face a sea of important decisions: Which church to attend? Anyone know a good organic chef? Standard poodle or goldendoodle?

Historians also are hanging on another question: mother-in-law or no mother-in-law?

The family says they expect Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, to leave her native Chicago early next year and move to Washington to help care for their two young daughters -- a job she held throughout the presidential campaign.

"If somebody's going to be with these kids other than their parents, it better be me," she told The Boston Globe.

It isn't clear whether Robinson will move into the White House; neither she nor Michelle Obama would comment.

If she does take up residence with the first family, they'll doubtless face a fair share of ribbing from late-night comedians. A sample so far:

• From Jay Leno: "Barack Obama's mother-in-law might be moving into the White House with him. See, Joe Biden was right: Hostile forces will test him in the first few months."

• From David Letterman: "A mother-in-law in the White House? Honestly? I thought this was the administration that was against torture."

But in the end, says Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter, the multigenerational Obamas could help make extended families visible again.

"It seems unusual for Michelle Obama's mother to move in. You say, 'Oh, my goodness, this doesn't fit my idea of a family.' And yet it is highly consistent with a lot of real families."

Multigenerational families represent 3.6 percent of households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent survey in 2007, which is up from 2.2 percent in 2000. An estimated 3.6 million parents live with their grown kids, according to the Census Bureau.

Apter acknowledges the strains that in-laws bring. Her forthcoming book is titled What Do You Want From Me? But she says more families than we may realize operate like the Obamas.

"Grandparents have an enormously strong emotional tie to their grandchildren, and they also are caretakers far more than you would expect," she says.

If Robinson moves in this January, she won't be the first. Several mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law have hauled their steamer trunks up the stairs of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. over the past 200 years or so. But if Robinson aspires to be the Most Colorful White House In-Law, she had better take a number.

The In-Laws Through History

It turns out that the Kennedyesque notion of a small, attractive nuclear family living in the White House is so late-20th-century. Before that, presidents routinely invited extended family members to stay at the White House for a month or two or longer, says William Bushong, staff historian for the non-profit White House Historical Association.

Andrew Jackson "brought just about everybody in his family with him from Tennessee to Washington," he says.

In his more than 12 years in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt practically used the White House as a hotel, Bushong says. "He just loved company." To accommodate their 13 grandchildren, Eleanor Roosevelt had slides, swings and sandboxes built on the South Lawn.

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