Mom's in the House, With Kids at Home
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Before the sun rose over their Florida home, Debbie Wasserman Schultz pulled the thermometer from the mouth of her 8-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and checked the mercury: 103 degrees.
Stay home? Or go to work? It's a dilemma familiar to millions of working mothers. But her situation is complex: The job is 1,037 miles away, in Washington.
She got on the plane and flew to a New York fundraiser and then on to Washington for her workweek as a Democratic congresswoman. She knew her husband could handle Rebecca's fever.
Still, the guilt traveled with her. "It feels like someone's ripping my heart out," she said. "No matter how good your spouse is, kids want their mom when they're sick."
Wasserman Schultz, who also has a son, Rebecca's twin, and a 3-year-old daughter, is part of a select group, the 10 women in Congress raising children under 13. It's probably a congressional record, although no one has kept this particular statistic.
They reside on a shaky high wire, balancing motherhood with politicking, lawmaking, fundraising and the constant shuttle between Washington and their home states.
Most of the House members live apart from their children during the week, parenting by phone, e-mail and faxes and relying on husbands, family or nannies to fill the gaps. It's a lifestyle dictated by election cycle. The four senators live with their families in Washington but wake to the daily frenzy of integrating children into unpredictable workdays that can exceed 16 hours and fray relationships.
And they all live with a reality possibly even more difficult: The public will scrutinize and judge the mothering choices these politicians make. It is this that sets them apart from other professional women and their male counterparts in Congress, and the 10 in the group are keenly sensitive to it.
If they have private moments in which they question the work-life balance, most are reluctant to reveal them. Instead, they say their kids benefit from the special opportunities -- picnics at the White House and VIP tours of landmarks -- and get early exposure to public service. One boasted that her daughter, when she was 11, could rattle off an explanation of the Medicare "doughnut hole."
Several are determined to show that a woman can raise a family while serving in Congress. Nearly all say they feel compelled to use their own perspective as the tiny minority of working mothers in Congress to represent the 70 percent of mothers who have school-age children and jobs outside the home.
"In the Senate Finance Committee, we were talking about higher education and I looked around the room and thought, 'I'm the only one saving for college,' " said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), whose twin boys are 11. "I'm not professing that my colleagues with grown children are any less compassionate. They're just not going through it."
Often, motherhood colors the legislation they propose. Wasserman Schultz has introduced a bill to improve swimming pool safety, because accidental drownings account for the second-highest number of injury-related deaths of children under 14. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) is pushing a bill to ensure the rights of women to breast-feed in public. And Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) is trying to increase federal money for childhood cancer research.