The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s Amy Coney Barrett’s child-care secret? She should let us in on it.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett's children were in the front row at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 13. (Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Before he landed a role in Marvel’s “Eternals,” Kumail Nanjiani was the everyman: a slouchy nerd who seemed a lot like the character he played on “Silicon Valley,” at least fitness-wise. Then, overnight, he showed up on my Twitter feed chiseled, oily and emanating attitude.

What happened? Why couldn’t I get in amazing shape? I go to the gym occasionally. And why couldn’t my own nerdly husband generate biceps like that?

Thankfully, Nanjiani wrote a post about his transformation, crediting his dedicated personal trainer and nutritionist (both paid for by the studio producing the film) and the full year he had to make over his body.

Just like that, the rest of us — who don’t have a team of professionals to make us look like Greek gods and goddesses — could give ourselves a break.

During our first few weeks of lockdown, when I was so overwhelmed by being stuck at home with my kids that I taught my 3-year-old to use the remote himself, I was comforted by parenting expert Anya Kamenetz’s epic self-own about screen time for her own children. She’d only been able to jet-set across the country teaching other moms about screen-time moderation, she admitted, because she’d had a full-time nanny. She’d never actually spent this much time with her children.

Cardi B, Serena Williams, Pink: New celebrity moms are changing the game by getting real

These moments of transparency lift the veil on the illusions of perfection created by wealth and access. They give us permission to be flawed ourselves. To be limited. To be doing the best we can.

Which brings me to Amy Coney Barrett, her working husband and their seven children.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t think that Barrett’s family life should determine whether she’s qualified for the highest court in the land, to which she was confirmed Monday. Indeed, some of the questions surrounding her nomination have been sexist and antiquated, like when Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) asked who does the laundry in her household.

Watch Amy Coney Barrett's full speech after being sworn in to the Supreme Court

And I’m not here to discuss her politics.

However, I do fervently believe that Barrett’s vague answers around her own child-care situation are hurting moms in America. Working moms. Stay-at-home moms. Moms who wish they could be working more. Moms who wish they could stay home more.

During Barrett’s nomination ceremony, she said that her community knows her more as a “room parent, car pool driver and birthday party planner” than a judge. How does she do it?

In the same speech, Barrett credited “friends and fearless babysitters.” Similarly, during a 2019 interview at Notre Dame Law School, she said that her husband and her husband’s aunt, along with a flexible workplace and living in a small town, enable her to pursue a demanding career while being present for her family.

I have some absolutely wonderful friends in my life, friends who would drop everything to watch my children in an emergency. But as wonderful as they are, I cannot imagine them watching my seven children for 40 hours a week so that I can work. I cannot imagine asking. The babysitters I’ve used, while also wonderful, typically quit once they find full-time nannying gigs that compensate them better than the measly four hours a week that I pay them for.

I also have a wonderful family and lovely aunts. But as helpful as they are, they have lives of their own. They do not enable me to work 40 hours a week.

Is there any possibility that Barrett raised seven children without consistent, high-quality child care?

I have no interest in judging Barrett for having a nanny, if she does. I fully support women in whatever choice they make — or whatever arrangement their family’s needs necessitate.

I can already hear pushback from those who think that it’s sexist to ask such questions. Justice Antonin Scalia, after all, boasted a full quiver of nine children, and no one asked how he managed it. But Scalia openly admitted that his role in raising his children was minimal, even conceding that his wife Maureen raised them “with very little assistance from me.”

I just want Barrett to be transparent about how she balances family and work, rather than perpetuating the “she can do it all” myth. She has a valuable opportunity here. She was selected to the highest court, paraded through confirmation hearings as an amazing mother and lawyer. There are so many of us out here trying to figure out how to be the mothers we want to be and have a career we want to have. When a woman lands a spot like Barrett just did, with seven children on top of it, we’d love some acknowledgment of a shared struggle, some clue as to how she does it.

When Barrett does acknowledge how much her husband’s aunt has helped bridge the gaps in their parenting routine, I can’t help but hear echoes of Elizabeth Warren’s iconic speech about the need for affordable child care. When Warren was herself a young mother, her own aunt moved in to care for her young children so that Warren could attend law school. Without her aunt’s help, Warren said, she would never have become a senator. But Warren acknowledged that having a member of your extended family devote themselves entirely to the rearing of your children, presumably without pay, is an incredibly rare gift. Knowing that, she uses her own story as a catalyst to fight for the parents who don’t have a live-in aunt who just happens to sound a lot like Mary Poppins.

Child care in my hometown of Nashville is woefully hard to access. Prices are prohibitive, and the last time I looked into enrolling my son, I was faced with a 24-month waitlist. When I have an idea for an article or a book that I know will never make it onto the page because my 11-month-old is teething, I’m furious. When I see my smart, capable, driven friends resign themselves to a season of “just momming” because of a lack of affordable child care, I’m furious on their behalf, too.

Maybe Barrett is a superhero. Maybe she doesn’t sleep, or she has children who potty-train themselves and make themselves fresh salads for school lunch. Or maybe she’s just privileged.

There are many who have venerated Barrett as a mom who can do it all. In his New York Times opinion piece, Ross Douthat looks to Barrett to define a new brand of “a conservative feminism that’s distinctive, coherent and influential.”

Patrick J. Deneen, a friend and colleague of Barrett’s at Notre Dame, paints her as an ordinary mom. In his telling, her parenting and career ambitions blend seamlessly.

“As I write this, some of the Barrett children are gathered in roving bands with other families’ children, running around the neighborhood utterly oblivious to the presence of dark-tinted SUVs on every corner.”

There are those who want to lift her up as an everywoman who blazes the trail for the rest of us.

All I know is that she’s not a trailblazer if she won’t show us the way.

Caroline Siegrist is a freelance writer. She lives with her husband and two young children in Nashville.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our newsletter. We are on Twitter @OnParenting.

More reading:

‘The most crushing, anxious parenting choice’: To return to day care or not?

The coronavirus is shaping the conversation about the need for paid family leave

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the model we working moms needed

As a doctor and mother, I’m balancing privilege and pain through this pandemic

Loading...