The XX Factor

Grown Up and Living with Mom, Just Like Michelle Obama

Do you think that Michelle Obama and her mother ever have run-ins in the White House kitchen? Do you think they ever battle about whether the girls get to stay up and watch a movie or not? No matter how helpful it is to have two sets of mothering hands involved in the transition from Chicago to D.C., Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Obama are still mother and daughter. Don’t you think that must back up on them every so often?

I wonder.

Around the time of the election I had just finished a stint of living with my mother and my two children in the apartment I was raised in. I had been living in Ohio in my own house with my own life when my marriage abruptly came to an end. I had nowhere to go with my two sons, very little money, and not much to do in Ohio except be someone’s ex-wife. My parents instantly and very generously invited my family to move back home to New York, where I could begin again.

This unexpected turn of events put my mother and me on a road we never thought we would travel. (Do you ever think Mrs. Robinson thought that her daughter would ask her to move to the White House to help get her grandchildren ready for school?) For us, at first, probably the most complex and worrisome aspect of our new living situation was not the divorced-daughter bit, but that we would have to share a kitchen. We were forced to share a small, New York kitchen for two years. There were generational challenges, style conflicts, aesthetic clashes (I like flowers by the stove, she DOES NOT), and wildly out-of-control micromanagement issues. It does seem small now that I write it down, but we would rather try to solve the health care crisis than have to collaborate on a stew.

If someone woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “Quick! What’s the best thing about your mother?” I would sit straight up and yell, “Food!” It’s not just that she is a marvelous cook, or that she loves food in an uncomplicated, easy way, but it has been a large and important part of how she mothered. My mother worked full-time running a foundation, but she found all the time in the world to have supper ready every night, feed us shirred eggs on the weekends, and produce a leg of lamb for my fourth-grade Bedouin feast at school. She even survived having two teenage stepsons-mostly by feeding them mountains of good food at every turn. Lots of my own mothering takes place in the kitchen, and that comes directly from her.

My mother’s kitchen was made for her, not me, and we were in each other’s way. For my mother, the mornings were quiet, solitary affairs of NPR and Muslix. My boys and I destroyed all that. The sun still streamed through the windows, but suddenly there was bacon frying (I had a theory that if the boys smelled bacon in the mornings they would believe they weren’t from a broken home), toasters popping, and milk being spilled. Quiet was replaced by a symphony of manners taught, juice demanded, and songs sung. I was a stressed out single mother and my kids were little. My mother had to rethink when she ate.

We soon decided we didn’t have to eat every dinner together, and if we did, we didn’t have to cook the same thing. I have heard that Mrs. Robinson has developed quite an independent life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I had to do the same thing. Even though my mother always made enough for me, I often would create something of my own. Something to keep me connected to the woman I had grown into and not the child I felt reduced to.

I bet watching your adult child up close, going through a transition over which you have very little control of is frightening and quite moving at the same time. So different than when the child was 7 or 12. Mrs. Robinson must be in awe of what is happening to her daughter. She must feel protective and proud, but she also must know that she has very little to do with it. She can help with Sasha and Malia, and be there for the late-night chat, but it isn’t she who is the very first black First Lady of the United States.

Yes, mothers help, and it’s right to include them when life throws you (and your children) a curve ball. But at the end of the day, those small children were mine. I was the one who was changed. We were not mother and daughter as much as we were two grown women living together. It surprised us not to fall into the assumed roles, the ones we had known, but we didn’t.

Apparently Mrs. Robinson is having a wonderful time in the White House, and from where I sit, Mrs. Obama seems to be thriving. But under that roof, they must have their moments, even if it isn’t over the stove. They must have run-ins about something small and technical, Malia’s clothes, Sasha’s chores, or too many cookies. And maybe, just like with me and my mother, those run-ins replace the anxiety. The anxiety that comes from the overwhelming, monumental, responsibility of changing history.

Photograph of Isabel Gillies courtesy of the author.