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Mom's in the House, With Kids at Home

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), left, shows off infant son Cole to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), left, shows off infant son Cole to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

Family Values

Traditionally, women run for federal office after they've raised children. The most prominent example is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was elected to Congress at 47, when the youngest of her five children was 16. So this new wave is "pretty extraordinary," said Cindy Simon Rosenthal, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma who studies women in Congress.

Pelosi likes to stress that she's a mother and a grandmother and last week heralded the opening of Congress's first nursing room. But the member moms say the longer, five-day workweek under Pelosi is a strain on family life. Instead of being in Washington two nights a week, lawmakers now spend four nights a week.

"We have a lot of long weeks in Washington and short days, not using the time well at all," said Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who commutes home every weekend to Albuquerque, where her 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son live with her husband.

Pelosi, who declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, "I have the greatest respect and admiration for those in the House juggling the difficult job of raising their children and being a member of Congress. But creating a brighter future for all children . . . requires a more rigorous schedule than the two-day workweek we experienced under the Republican majority."

While plenty of male lawmakers have small children, the pressures and responsibilities don't seem to weigh on them the way they do on women.

"Men have this fixture called a wife that's going to take care of the children," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. "We hear very often from women who are running or elected that they wish they had a wife, someone to deal with the children, have fresh food in the house, pick up the dry cleaning."

Men running for office get kudos from voters for raising young children, but women are often penalized for it, said Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who has tracked voter attitudes on the topic for the past 20 years.

"For male candidates, people think having young children is a total plus -- people think, 'Oh, this is great, he's going to be concerned about family issues, he'll be more future-oriented,' " she said. "A male with young kids, everyone likes it -- men, women, seniors." For women, it's a different story.

"If the kids are grown, then it can be a real positive," Lake said. "But if it's younger kids, people ask, 'Who's taking care of the children?' "

It's worse for women seeking an executive office or one geographically far from home, Lake said. So in Lincoln's 1998 Senate campaign, it was Lake who suggested the television ads showing Lincoln's husband feeding their 1-year-old twins and taking them to the pediatrician to reassure voters the children would be all right.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who married last year, became the first member of the House in a decade to give birth, when her son was born in April. She didn't disclose her pregnancy while running for reelection, not to hide it, but because she wanted to wait until she was safely through her first trimester, she said. She got a "handful" of negative letters from the public, but the overwhelming response was positive, she said.

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