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Mom's in the House, With Kids at Home
For Congresswomen With Young Children, a Tough Balance

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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.

It's women voters who are hardest on women candidates with young children, Lake said. "Perhaps it's their own sense of conflict or they know firsthand how difficult it is," she said. "Or maybe it's jealousy. The idea of 'If I can't do this, you can't do it.' Or 'You're putting yourself over your family and that's not a value I share.' "

Republican Margaret Hostetter tried to tap into those sentiments when she ran against Wasserman Schultz in 2004.

A divorced mother of grown children, Hostetter seized on the fact that Wasserman Schultz took notes at a candidates' forum with a peach crayon pulled from her purse. The crayon was proof, Hostetter said, of a "frazzled life." It was not a winning argument.

One of the first decisions Wasserman Schultz and the others made is whether to move their families to Washington. With their two-year terms, House members are perpetually campaigning, back in their districts most weekends to raise money, meet constituents and be visible. If their families lived in Washington, they would see little of them during long weekdays and even less on weekends. Senators, with six years between elections, can afford to travel less frequently and create more of a home life in Washington.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and her husband, Frank Snellings, built a house on East Capitol Street, about four blocks from the Senate. "It's the only way I can do this job and be a good mother to them," said Landrieu, whose son, Connor, was 4 and daughter, Mary Shannon, was an infant when she was first elected in 1996. "I put my children to bed almost every night and they wake up to their mother's voice every morning. Nothing would separate me from that."

When she travels to Louisiana once or twice a month, Landrieu often takes an early flight on Friday morning and flies back the same night.

She makes dinner about four times a week. "It may not be fancy, but it's food," said Landrieu, the oldest daughter of famed New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu. "We ate together every night at 6 p.m. All nine kids and both parents. My mother insisted on it."

Some evenings, Landrieu has to rush back to the Capitol to vote or attend events. Snellings, a lawyer turned real estate agent, has the flexibility to adapt to her schedule. One recent Wednesday, Landrieu walked home around 6:30 p.m., changed from a suit into a polo shirt and pants and prepared tortellini with tomato sauce and a salad from a pre-mixed bag of greens.

Mary Shannon, 10, set the table, wheeling around the kitchen's hardwood floor in her rollerblades. Snellings made himself a gin and tonic and handed a glass of white wine to his wife. Connor, 15, was at a friend's house.

Ninety minutes later, Landrieu would be back in the suit at Union Station to bestow an award at a dinner. But first, there was time to clasp hands and say grace at the table, and to talk about summer camp and Sugarbelle, the family dog.

Her Other House

Blocks away, the scene was less traditional on D Street SE, where three women House members share an immaculate townhouse during the week, far from their families back home in their districts.

Maloney (D-N.Y.) owns the house and rents space to Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) and Wasserman Schultz. The three are at different stages of child-rearing: Maloney's children have graduated from college and law school; Bean's girls are 14 and 16; and Wasserman Schultz is raising the 3-year-old and 8-year-old twins.

Over late-night bowls of microwave popcorn, the women are as likely to talk about their children as caucus politics. They communicate daily with their kids by phone and e-mail. Wasserman Schultz's twins fax their homework for her inspection.

Several of the mothers try to include their children in their work.

Wasserman Schultz brings each of her three children to Washington separately to spend a week with her when Congress is in session.

Last month, it was Rebecca's turn. The little girl with a blond ponytail glided down the polished terrazzo hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building in her Heelys sneakers. A pink blur, she slalomed around clusters of adults in dark business suits and turned into the Appropriations Committee room where her mother was presenting a budget. Afterward, mother and daughter walked hand in hand to the Capitol in time for Wasserman Schultz to cast some votes, debating along the way whether dinner would be Chinese food or sushi.

The balancing between the professional and personal is constant, and sometimes the juxtaposition is jarring.

As she was walking into the Senate chamber to vote on renewable energy bills last month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar's cellphone rang. Her 12-year-old daughter, Abigail, was in fashion crisis. She needed a bathing suit for the sixth-grade pool party, and the school had banned bikinis. Could she buy a tankini? The freshman Democrat from Minnesota listened attentively, told her daughter to hold on and hid the phone, which is not allowed on the Senate floor.

"I walked in, kind of put the cellphone down and signaled my vote to the clerk," Klobuchar said. "Abigail was saying 'I think I can get a tankini' and the next thing I saw was Lindsey Graham. I thought, 'What's wrong with this picture?' "

No. 1 Constituent at Home

Pryce, the eight-term Republican from Ohio, couldn't imagine life without motherhood. She and her ex-husband, Randy Walker, tried for years to get pregnant and then turned to adoption, finally becoming parents in 1990 to a baby girl named Caroline. Two years later, Pryce was elected to Congress. Her life seemed complete, until Caroline developed a rare childhood cancer and died at age 9.

Heartbroken, Pryce wanted to adopt another child; Walker didn't. After 21 years of marriage, they divorced.

Pryce adopted again and became a single mother at age 50. "I'd been trying all my life for the basics of having a family, something a lot of people take for granted," she said. "It was incomprehensible to me that I wouldn't have one."

Her daughter, Mia, now 5, lives in Ohio near Pryce's parents and four siblings. She attends preschool and a babysitter cares for her during the week, until Pryce flies home on weekends. Mia comes to Washington "when I can collect enough frequent flier miles," said Pryce.

The little girl's daily routine is unorthodox -- she often goes to sleep at midnight and eats just one large meal a day, around 8 p.m.

"I promised myself I wouldn't feel guilty about this," Pryce said. "She's thriving and smart and better off with me than she had been if she hadn't been adopted. It provides her with so many opportunities that other children would never have. I see that as the silver lining."

"You can do both jobs," she said. "You can do both jobs well, but you can't do it the same as everyone else in America."

As an older mother who has endured loss, Pryce has learned to shrug off the small frustrations of political life.

"I don't take myself nearly as seriously," said Pryce, who narrowly won one of the toughest reelection contests in the country last year and is likely to face a repeat next year as her district increasingly leans Democratic. "Even if I lost an election, there would be an upside -- I could spend more time with Mia."

Pryce was by McMorris Rodgers's side last month when Cole McMorris Rodgers made his squirmy debut in his mother's arm on the House floor. He was greeted with a standing ovation and hurrahs that bellowed across the chamber. "There was a lot of love in that room," said Pryce, who passed along a crib to McMorris Rodgers. "It's something you don't normally associate with Congress."

Born a month early with an intestinal blockage that required surgery, Cole spent his first three weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Doctors diagnosed him with Down syndrome.

In a sharply partisan Congress, McMorris Rodgers was taken aback by the support she's received from other lawmakers regardless of party, particularly women. Baby gifts stacked up in her Longworth office. The bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues planned a shower. Pelosi called, concerned about the baby's health.

McMorris Rodgers and her husband, a retired Navy officer, are trying to figure out how to care for a baby with developmental disabilities while she holds a job with long hours, constant fundraising and frequent cross-country travel.

"Our goal is to maximize our time together as a family as we learn more about the demands and what it's going to take," said McMorris Rodgers, who took a month off and eased back to work part time, shuttling between her Hill house and the Capitol complex to greet constituents or attend committee meetings. A beeper at home summons her when it's time to vote. She breast-feeds Cole while flipping through briefing books.

'Ordinary Mom'

Having a mother in Congress can be tough on children, too, said Wilson, from New Mexico.

"There are times when they want me to be just a mom," she said. "They're very patient, very tolerant of people who want to talk to me in the grocery store and things like that. But sometimes it's too much."

When that happens, her 10-year-old, Caitlin, makes a fist like an "O" and then points her three middle fingers downward like an "M" -- a signal that she wants an "ordinary mom," Wilson said. "We all have that moment when we ask ourselves -- are we doing the right thing?"

At Wasserman Schultz's home in Florida, Mondays can be the cruelest day. It's hard to watch her mother walk out the door, Rebecca said. "Sometimes, I regret that," the 8-year-old said quietly.

If these children are sometimes ruffled by casualties of their mothers' political ambitions, so, too, are the Congress moms constantly calculating the trade-offs.

"Everything you do has an opportunity cost," said Bean, of Illinois.

Bean missed every one of her daughter's violin concerts this school year but was determined to make the last concert in May. "I told my staff I was going home," said Bean, who missed some minor votes in order to fly to Chicago on a Wednesday afternoon. She stopped at home in time to see her daughter get ready and then drove her to the concert, where she won a director's award.

"It was so great," said Bean, who had to race back to the airport that night and return to Washington for a key breakfast meeting the following day. "She said to me, 'Mom, I'm so glad you were here.' "

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