A Strong Case of Grandmother Attachment Disorder

I know she’s probably very busy right now, but I’d really like to sit down with the new First Lady and have a little chat about our mothers. In case you haven’t heard, Michelle Obama’s mom, Marian Robinson, just moved into the White House with the first family to help take care of Malia and Sasha.

“There is nothing that makes me rest more, now that I have to work, than to know that my kids are being loved and cared for by someone who’s teaching them values and discipline, and giving them a little extra candy every now and then,” Michelle Obama told reporters on the day in early January when the announcement of her mother’s new (albeit, perhaps, temporary) living arrangements became official. Upon hearing this, some journalists went online, on the air, and into print with responses like, good for her. How lucky to have such a dedicated grandmother to escort the Obamas and to support the girls through this rough transition. Other journalists saw this as a way in to a story about boosting the profile of a “forgotten” generation of active, vibrant and often overlooked senior citizens.

Not this journalist. This journalist read between the lines of that comment, and saw the deeper, grittier truth there. This journalist, a mother of two like the First Lady with a grandmother attachment disorder of her own, saw her own world reflected right back at her. What this journalist saw was a classic combination of the eye-roll delivered while voicing the word “candy.” Now, taken out of context, this move is meaningless. But when used in conversation about one’s mother and one’s children in tandem, it becomes a rather significant gesture. You see, what the First Lady said was “sometimes my kids get extra candy from their grandmother.” But what I heard was, “When it comes to my children, sometimes my mother doesn’t listen to me.” Watching her that night on CNN, I knew I had found a true friend in Michelle Obama.

In all fairness, the Obamas have said that when Marian Robinson takes care of the girls at their house, she follows the rules pretty well, giving Malia and Sasha organic snacks and only allowing them one hour of television viewing a day. However, when Ms. Robinson takes the girls to her own house, all bets are off. There is candy a-plenty, movies on the DVD player, and late nights spent hanging out together and playing board games.

Sounding familiar to anyone out there?

A lot of grandparents and their adult children have a similar understanding. When I send my three and six-year-old children to “Nana’s country house,” for example, I know that Cheerios will be swapped out for Fruit Loops and donuts. The rest of the day is a nutritional downward spiral from there, as “chocolate chip” becomes synonymous with “lunch time” and “more noodles” is the code for “dinner.” Under my mother’s skilled hand, the traditional food pyramid is turned on its head and spun like a top until it resembles a double-helix of sugars and complex carbohydrates.

It’s like magic!

But do not misunderstand me: this is not a criticism of my mother, nor of the First Lady’s mother. It is merely a fact of life. Under the guidelines of Grandmother Attachment Disorder, I know full well – as does Michelle Obama — that there is a price to pay for a little “me” time, and that this price is well worth it.

We love our mothers, we need our mothers, our children beg for our mothers. Don’t let their cheerful, calm, sweet exterior fool you: these keen seniors know we need them, and, because of this, they have the upper hand. Herein lies the crux of the attachment disorder. Because if my husband and I need someone truly loving and responsible to watch the kids while we go to work, or ever hope to get a weekend away from the children, we have to know that, while we’re not looking, these grandmas are gonna break some of our rules.

We have to know that while they will never ever put our children in harm’s way (except for that one time at Nana’s country house when my son Andrew ate too many donuts and then jumped on the couch and then threw up), they might just choose to ignore most of our advice in favor of their own special brand of care. And, annoying as this sometimes is, we have to agree that there’s something really great about giving up control of our children to the person or people who helped make us who we are.

For me, that means looking the other way as an ever-increasing parade of stuffed animals march into the house behind my daughter every Monday, when Nana is in charge of school pick-up. It also means that, courtesy of Nana, my son has enough Kooky pens to barter his way through the rest of elementary school.

If my mom were on the verge of residing in the White House, she would hire a decorator to turn her living quarters into an intoxicating hybrid of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Entrance to her rooms would not be guarded by secret service, but rather by a portrait hung somewhere between Carter and Ford of an animated Fat Lady, a la Harry Potter. Only those who know the secret password would be allowed inside. (The secret password would be, of course, “candy,” except on alternating Tuesdays when the password changes to “gum.”)

But as The First Lady and I also know, grandmothers provide services that go beyond spoiling our kids. After Andrew was born, my mother moved in with us for a week. I was exhausted and getting used to breast-feeding and incredibly nervous about taking care of this tiny new person. Having my mother there made a huge difference in my sanity and in my growing comfort with becoming a mother. Many friends of mine hire a baby nurse to help them handle the transition to motherhood. But I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified for the job than my very own mother. I mean, really, who better to pass that torch? Who else could possibly ensure that I made the same mistakes from day one?On Andrew’s third night home from the hospital, the three of us put our heads together and made the executive decision that it was time to give the baby his first bath. We outfitted the kitchen sink with the new molded plastic bath seat from Buy, Buy Baby and surrounded ourselves with hypoallergenic houte couture baby bath products, Supima cotton baby washcloths, rubber duckies big and small, and custom-monogrammed infant hoodie towels.

Andrew wailed like a maniac. “Are we doing the right thing?” My husband Brett screamed to my mom over the deafening roar. He and I were trying desperately to keep Andrew’s soapy, writhing, red, and wrinkled seven-pound body from slipping onto the tumbled marble tile beneath us.

“Is he too cold? Is the water temperature okay?” I called out to my mom, to Brett, to any sort of God. “Maybe we shouldn’t be giving him a bath yet?!” I wondered, loudly and with increasing frustration.

“Mom! What do you think?” I cried.

And there she was, camera in hand, aiming the lens at the three freaks by the sink. “I think he’s fine. Smile everybody!”

At the end of that week, my mom moved back to her apartment in the city where my step-father was patiently waiting for her. That day was one of the loneliest days of my life. Brett had gone back to work, and I remember thinking: how the heck am I going to do this? Who put me in charge here? I suddenly had a new job title and a new way of framing myself to the world, and the whole thing, as awesome and exciting as it was, was sincerely overwhelming.

In the days following the announcement about Marian Robinson, I imagined the First Granny packing up her suitcases and some boxes of candy-coated contraband and heading to DC from Chicago. I thought about how she probably wasn’t just doing this to help Sasha and Malia, but her daughter Michelle too. Because no matter how old we are, how accomplished in the world, or how brave, there are times in our lives when we just need our mommies. I would think that becoming First Lady of the United States would certainly qualify.I mean, if you’re speaking to the press about your views on world hunger, your mom is the one who will tell you that you have spinach in your teeth moments before going on camera. When you need to figure out what to wear to a diplomat’s dinner party, you can trust your mom’s brutal honesty to pull you through. And in a leadership position that probably allows very little room for real relationships, you can vent to your mother, worry with your mother, and gossip like hell about all of Washington with your mother.

Overall, you can tell that I’m very much in favor of this new living arrangement for the Obama family. But I do have one serious concern: now that they are all living under the same roof, whose rules…rule? I believe that, like the very government they are running, the Obama household will rely on a system of checks and balances as outlined in the US constitution. The President will serve as the executive branch (natch), his wife will act as the judiciary branch (as all mothers do), and the First Granny will get to have a say in just about everything as the legislative branch of the family.

Maybe I don’t need to talk to The First Lady after all. Malia and Sasha are clearly in good hands. And so is she.

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