It’s certainly a measure of the times that my elementary-aged children have integrated impeachment into their vocabularies. It’s also a measure of the reality that, since I ran for our local city council, my evenings have become a clutter of meetings.
I ran for local office at the start of the Pink Wave, in part, because I didn’t know what else to do. I had a vague sense that my running would model important lessons for my kids, and show them that when the world feels broken, we should step up to help fix it.
They marched with me in the town parade where I announced my candidacy. They canvassed and heard all about our city’s tax rate from frustrated voters. They stood beside me for 20, 30, 40 minutes at a time as neighbors railed about protecting trees or slowing traffic. (And soon enough, my kids had opinions to share.) They dressed up with me for events and sat with my husband (who’d been my campaign manager) in council chambers as I took my oath of office.
Like many of my friends who are mothers, for a few years, I’d nearly disappeared from most of our photos — the lens was often aimed at our children. Then our evenings became overrun with kids’ activities, and my role shifted to behind-the-scenes manager — arranging rides, planning my time around their young lives. Since I took office, though, our community has become the center of our lives, and sometimes draws me out of my kids’ orbit.
I’m parenting at the vertex of some fairly sharp realities, including a professional culture that to me, as a freelance writer, translates into constantly hustling for work. I’m part of a generation of mothers who grew up with feminism as a default philosophical position but who still do the majority of families’ emotional labor and 2.6 times the unpaid care and domestic work men do. I’m a member of a part-time, nonpartisan city council where I put in gobs of time and get paid $5 a month (pretax) — a laughable reality that ensures the role is only attractive to those willing and able to sacrifice the time necessary to do the work. I love it fiercely, and most communities have somewhat more reasonable stipends, but it’s also no puzzle why it’s difficult for many women to fathom running for office at the local or even state level.
When I decided to run, the mathematics of the time I was spending organizing for reform started overtaking what I thought would be the time required of me if I won. I thought it could streamline my community efforts. But I’m so busy, my kid (only half-joking) hopes I get impeached, for the crime of not being constantly available to her.
Last November, record numbers of women ran for national and state positions. But in communities, an undercurrent of female candidates was also rising, getting less attention than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but vying just as hard in city council, school board and mayor’s races. I wonder how other mothers, new to office, are handling it. Sure, there was the amazing wave of photos of moms and kids at swearings-in, a demonstration to our youngest generation that women deserve their growing place in our halls of power.
But what happened next? Is there a class of kids growing up understanding the importance of committee meetings and finally accepting that if you want your socks matched, you’re going to be doing that yourself? Are families finding new equilibriums, like mine has, with my husband now packing up the work he can do from home so I can scoot out to my meetings? If that’s the general outcome with more women in office, we’ve already won.
A former co-worker of mine, Candace B. Hollingsworth, ran for city council in Hyattsville, Md., years ago. She’s now the city’s mayor. Her kids grew up seeing their dad doing more than half the housework and organizing play dates and school activities. Now, she says, her kids “have highly textured views of personhood that go against what is typically portrayed.” Her daughter sees her father’s maternal side; her son sees that being nurturing is also part of manhood.
Adding public service to the juggle requires support.
Joyce Mason is a single mom who ran for — and won — a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. Mason’s friends and family backed her when she served on her local board of education, but she says she didn’t realize how much of their support she’d need in state office. When Mason is hours away in Springfield, her daughter — who is 19, in college, and working — also gets her 14-year-old brother to school, cooks dinner and helps with homework. Mason’s sisters and friends fill in with rides and run errands. Although it’s hard for her to ask for help, her friends tell her it’s their contribution to democracy: “If you can’t run yourself, you can support your sisters who do.”
My kids (out of necessity) have sat through more commission meetings than most adults, often with homework or an occasional electronic device in hand. But at bedtime, I realize they’ve absorbed something. They’ll ask: Why is the city doing it this way? Is there a better way? I hope when they grow up, those little blips of civic engagement stick with them more than the hassle of having to wait out another of Mom’s meetings. Hollingsworth has noted that both her kids seem to view service to others as a duty.
Childhood is a fleeting time. I understand why so many women tell me “maybe later” they’ll run, once the kids are older, or once they aren’t taking care of their own parents and kids, or once things settle down at work. None of it is easy.
But in this time of so much political frustration, with young kids — not just mine — mouthing off about various hard realities of our world, there are parenting lessons available in the political. Our children, collectively, are not going to wait long for us to show them how to lead.
I know so many moms who’ve decided to run for office in recent years to improve the community in which their children are growing up. I wonder at the intangible value of kids who watch their mothers fight for what they believe in. They see us lose, win and compromise but above all, keep going. These kids wind up observing a background rhythm of public service. They learn the hard work of change. I hope when their time comes, they’ll step up too.
We learn so many things from our mothers. I wonder what will reflect back in my children from this time. As much attention as the women running for president are getting, it’s just as vital for women and mothers to run locally, close to home, because of course, our kids are watching.
Yesterday I asked my daughter if she really hopes I don’t win the next election. She again moaned about all the meetings. “It’s just you have so many jobs. Writing, mom, city council.” But she said she hopes I run again and win. “I know it’s important.”