November 18, 2012

Motherlode: Parents in politics should talk about all the juggling

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

With the election of the Democrats Ann McLane Kuster and former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter to the House of Representatives, New Hampshire becomes the first state to send an all-female delegation to Congress. (Kuster and Shea-Porter join Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican.)

And with the election of Maggie Hassan as governor, it becomes the first state that is primarily helmed, politically, by women -- and not just women, but mothers.

Ayotte has two school-age children, while the other women all have older children. But none are new to politics; all ran for office or served in some capacity while their children were younger.

These aren't women who came to politics when their children were grown, but career lawyers and politicians with longstanding ambitions and long histories -- and with families.

As we continue to discuss whether women should expect to "have it all," how men's expectations of career and fatherhood have changed, and how family and career fit together within the balance of a lifetime, the matter-of-fact presence of five family women in one state's positions of political power is a reminder of just how much things have evolved.

You have to imagine that each of these five women has struggled with fitting in all of her obligations at some point; has taken the call from the dentist, from three states away, saying her child has his first cavity; has ached to fit in a workout; has looked at her spouse and realized that the question isn't just "How was your day?" but "How was your week?"

Snow days, sick days, birthdays: Whether those things were managed by a spouse, or by a nanny, or by juggling them with a phone in one hand and a baby in the other isn't particularly important.

What's important is how normal all of that has become. While most of us (mothers and fathers) may anguish a little over those things individually, collectively they're part of the story of the working parent, along with the periods of working too hard and the periods of cutting back on work or stepping down all together.

It's a story that plays out differently at different income levels, but you just know that at some point, these women got up and went to work in the morning after spending an entire night changing barf-covered sheets in tandem with an equally exhausted spouse.

The next step is to talk more about those nights, and more about supporting all parents through them.

One thing that was notable to me as a New Hampshire voter about Ayotte's 2010 Senate campaign was that I never felt like I heard her really get into the question of how she managed to balance her extremely successful political career with parenting her young children.

A professional desire not to appear preoccupied with family life is understandable (and probably necessary to get elected). But parents of both sexes who hold office could help other working parents by talking about their experiences -- and by recognizing, again and again, the often-mundane challenges presented by any job, be it barista or lawyer, in which the hours of work exceed the hours children spend in school.

Maternal status isn't the most interesting thing about any of these women (and the fact that it's become so common as to be little more than a footnote is in itself something to celebrate). And it's not unique to women; many fathers bring an equally intense awareness of how overwhelming the juggle of work and a young family. It's just ... great. Inspiring and hopeful.

The more family voices in government, the more likely government is to consider the importance of family. And the more successful women talk about managing family and career -- while they do it and after the immediate pressures have eased -- the easier that conversation will be for us all.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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