I'd never seen anything like it. Washington, D.C., is typically blasé about even major political events, even inaugurations. But not this time. When I flew home to Washington National Airport Sunday night, I'd never seen the place so alive. And what struck me most were the many multigenerational families, both locals and visitors, traveling together around town: A grandmother in a wheelchair with her twin granddaughters, all decked out in fur coats and hats, grinning like they were at Disneyland. A set of grandparents with three grandchildren whom they had vowed to bring to Washington from Ohio if Obama was elected -- no matter the expense. I saw, I heard, and yes, I felt the sense of familial celebration and connection all around me. From where I sit, as an advocate for grandparents and families, this family interdependence that was so apparent here throughout the inaugural is a key to bringing change to our nation in the years ahead.
Observing visitors arriving for the inaugural ceremonies, I expected to see "grown-ups" dragging suitcases filled with tuxedos and ball gowns. But I saw more multiple-generation families with children carrying backpacks or pulling little pink-wheeled suitcases decorated with princesses. I saw one grandmother wrangling her family -- there must have been 20 people in all -- and there was no doubt who was in charge. One little girl walking with her grandfather wore a little hat with President Obama spelled out in rhinestones. Grandpa was clearly proud of her -- bling and all.
Multi-generational families came from all over the U.S. Some had tickets to inaugural events, and some did not -- they just wanted to be part of a moment in history. I've heard from grandparents this week -- both those who voted for Obama and those who didn't -- who told me that they needed to witness this unprecedented moment with their grandchildren. You only get one chance to see this kind of history in person, and they didn't want to miss it, or the memories it will give their grandkids.
A New, Higher Profile for Families
This moment in history has multiple implications for American families. Consider: The new president was raised, for a significant portion of his life, by a grandmother. He's bringing young children back to the White House for the first time in a generation. And he's given a historic role to his mother-in-law, now the nation's First Grandmother, who will move into the White House, at least temporarily, to help care for the president's two young daughters. The First Family is for the first time in memory a multi-generational family under the same majestic roof.
The nation's grandparents have taken notice of the many ways the Obama model validates their own contributions to their families. In a recent grandparents.com survey, our readers spoke out loud and clear about what the First Family's example means for the country. In our survey:
• 84% of respondents agreed that Marian Robinson's move to the White House will help highlight the value grandparents can bring to a family.
• 77% of respondents said that Barack Obama will be a more effective president (and Michelle a more effective First Lady) knowing that Sasha and Malia are being cared for by their grandmother.
• 87% said that their grandchildren -- and their adult children -- value their own role as grandparents.
A Multi-Generational Agenda
As this new administration moves from promises to policy, I would put forth the following suggestions as an agenda for supporting the nation's multi-generational families within the Obama White House's overall strategy for addressing the many challenges our nation faces:
• Utilize the growing resource of older adults in America. We are moving toward a time that will be unlike any other in history: Soon, older adults will likely outnumber the country's under-18 population. As we develop approaches to deal with the current financial crisis, demographic changes and workforce changes, it will become increasingly important for our society to make use of the contributions of its older cohort and, critically, to shift public perception away from seeing them as a burden and toward seeing them as America's fastest-growing natural resource? Marian Robinson -- at age 71 active, involved and making her family's dreams possible -- is a fine model for her generation.
• Support programs for children. Recent support for strengthening the SCHIP program to bolster children's health insurance certainly brings us hope. But all too often, real investment in the care and education of America's children has been supported in rhetoric but not action. They are the future wage-earners, and caregivers, of our society. They are our future, a message reinforced repeatedly at the Kid's Inaugural: We Are the Future event in Washington on Monday night, which was attended by the Obama children, Marian Robinson, and the granddaughters of Vice President Joe Biden, in an arena filled to capacity with the children of America's military men and women, all hopeful for the four years ahead of us, but also, perhaps, eager to contribute to society in their own way.
• Help grandparents support their families. Grandparents provide significant care for grandchildren, and financial assistance, housing and educational support for their families. Their legacy goes far beyond transfer of wealth to include building stronger families, teaching character, and passing on knowledge and wisdom. Doesn't it make sense to support them in this role?
• Strengthen and promote the compact between the generations. Our intergenerational society is aging, and I don't just mean the over-65 population. We are all aging. The minute children are born, they are aging. If you are alive, you are aging. We are all in this together. And the covenant between generations, to care for each other and to support each other, must be strong. National leadership sets the tone for how different generations perceive each other. The challenge for the Obama administration is to avoid pitting generations against each other in a competition for limited budgetary resources, and instead to strengthen interdependence between generations to ensure a stronger future for all?
In the weeks and months ahead, we shall see how the Obama administration moves ahead after its inspirational opening moments. I hope that the president's personal commitment to family is an indicator of the approach his White House will take toward all American families.
I'll be following his actions closely. And so will all those families that brought two, three, and four generations to the Mall this week to witness history and share in the hope that better times are to come.