The gentlemom from New York: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's work-life balance

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By Jura Koncius
Thursday, December 17, 2009

If you follow Kirsten Gillibrand on Twitter, you get a pretty good picture of what life is like for the junior senator from New York. In between the tweets on carbon emissions and hate-crimes legislation, there is news of Spider-Man and a "Star Wars" trooper -- her two sons' Halloween costumes.

Many moms balance career and motherhood, getting up before dawn at the cry of a human alarm clock and collapsing into bed many hours later. Few do it on as public a scale as politicians.

"My time is in demand in all parts of my life," says Gillibrand, a Democrat. "I represent 20 million people, and I want to be in so many places at once. I'm always having to prioritize." She would like to be everywhere she's invited and spend more time with husband Jonathan, a financial consultant, and their kids, Theo, 6, and Henry, 19 months. The Gillibrands run two households: a rented D.C. townhouse and a 1930s colonial in Hudson, N.Y., where they return about one weekend a month.

The senator, 43, born and raised in Upstate New York, travels to her home state many Sundays to meet with constituents and community groups and announce legislation. She also heads back to New York on days the Senate is not in session.

The Senator Mom, as the New York press likes to call her, isn't vying for a medal in the multi-tasking-parent Olympics. But she is part of Washington's intense work-life culture, in which parents try to keep it together as they stuff work files in diaper bags and e-mail teachers from elevators.

The former congresswoman from New York's 20th District (appointed to the Senate by New York Gov. David Paterson to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton after she became secretary of state) weaves together work and family responsibilities. Consider New York Farm Day, recently hosted by Gillibrand in the Russell Senate Office Building, where she noshed on a few chunks of cheddar and some chocolate cabernet ice cream. This served as dinner for Gillibrand, who dashed from that event to her Capitol Hill home in time for her kids' bedtime. Then, still in black suit and pearls, she headed to an MSNBC studio for an appearance on "The Rachel Maddow Show" to discuss the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

At home, she and her husband share the chores. "We both do the work as we go along," she says. "When I come downstairs, he will be unloading the dishwasher and putting in the second load of laundry."

The family keeps to a timetable during the week. "On weekends we don't have a set routine. In fact, we try to do very little except be together," she says. Saturdays, they may attend a soccer game, play in Lincoln Park and have brunch at Pete's Diner on the Hill.

She has little time for indulging herself. Her mother is her personal shopper. "My mom got me five suits at Macy's for less than $100 apiece. They were like 75 percent off." She does make an exception for shoes. "I like shoes, and I do buy those. I always wear flats." No time to fuss about a bad hair day. "I get my hair cut wherever I happen to be. Recently, I've gotten a cut in Albany, Washington, New York City and Los Angeles," she says. She keeps up with friends on phone and e-mail, and occasionally drops in at a Bible study group.

She constantly switches from senator to mom. One minute you're caucusing on affordable health care, the other you're baking muffins with your kids. Is it difficult to bolt from one to the other? "It's not really an issue," she says. "When you are with your children, they consume all of your attention immediately."


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