On Capitol Hill, the Mom Caucus Is Growing

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Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

At a press conference last year, Luke Russert asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi why, at 72, she didn’t pass the torch to a younger Democrat. He then received a televised schooling in man years and woman years. While the other Democratic women of the House booed Russert, Pelosi explained that her male colleagues had gotten a jump-start on her, since she waited until her youngest child was headed to college to run for office. “You gotta take off 14 years off [my age] because I was home raising a family,” she said, adding that she had worked throughout her career to bring younger candidates — and especially younger women — into the fold.

To a certain extent, she’s succeeded. Where the previous generation of women arrived on Capitol Hill empty-nesters (Dianne Feinstein) or child-free (Barbara Mikulski), the rising class includes a number of younger women with school-age children. Legislators like Kirsten Gillibrand, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Kelly Ayotte are in the throes of motherhood’s most hectic years — the days of sleepovers and permission slips, memorably detailed by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the New York Times’ Motherlode blog last year.

And that cohort may soon be joined by more moms. Stephanie Schriock, president of the Democratic women’s recruitment and fundraising group EMILY’s List, called the 2014 slate a “sea change” for women. “We’ll see more moms of young children run and we’ll elect more moms of young children and we’ll have more policy outcomes that are reflective of women and families,” she said. “It’s a set of voices we desperately need.” In Georgia, there’s Michelle Nunn: After announcing her bid for retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss’s seat, she traveled around the state in her minivan with her husband and her sons, ages 8 and 10. In Iowa, former State Senator Staci Appel, a mother of six famous for campaigning pregnant, will make a run for the House. West Virginia’s Secretary of State Natalie Tennant — mom to Delaney — will run for senator. Wyoming hopeful Liz Cheney has two children under the age of ten, among more vocal family members.

These women stand to close the fourteen-year baby detour that has kept women from ascending to leadership positions until they’re old enough to elicit Luke Russert’s shade. “The more compressed your career is, the harder it is to reach a position of power,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Democratic National Committee chair is still grateful she had the guts to run for the state house at 26, against the recommendation of the “good old boys” who told her it wasn’t her turn. “It gave me the opportunity to have a much longer ramp than women generations before me, who typically made those decisions when their kids were older and less dependent on mom,” she said.

Mothers of young children are just one segment of the gradually diversifying legislature, but their early and sustained presence has the potential for long-term consequences. Democratic New York Representative Grace Meng, whose sons are 5 and 4, first assumed being the mom who couldn’t go to weekend conferences would put her at a competitive disadvantage. Now, though, she thinks it gives her a valuable political perspective. “People like to talk about children, but it’s hard to get at the substantive issues,” she said. “Kids don’t have an advocate or a lobbyist helping them.” The influence of those with immediate firsthand knowledge of children spans from straightforward practical matters (like bills banning expired baby formula and drop-side cribs) to high-profile legislative battles, like sequestration cuts that directly affect children in WIC and Head Start programs, Meng explained.

Republican moms — though less numerous than Democrats — show how a maternal perspective can be marshaled for conservative politics, too. Last spring, Alabama Representative Martha Roby proposed the Working Families Flexibility Act, a bill that would allow private employers to pay employees for overtime hours in comp time instead of time-and-a-half — and opened up a Congressional theater in the mommy wars. Republicans said that Democrats who opposed the bill didn't care about working mothers in ads on mommy blogs; Democrats called the bill a “deplorable,” “shameful,” “appalling” Mother’s Day gift that would weaken labor laws. As for Roby, she said the bill stems from her personal experience with the push and pull of being a working mom. “I understand that time is far more valuable than the cash dollars for overtime,” she said.

Like any career, legislative success depends on finding a roadmap to navigate the logistics of Congressional motherhood. Wasserman Schultz’s youngest was 1 when she was sworn in as a U.S. Representative in 2005, and since then she’s become House Democrats’ unofficial mom adviser, sought by Congressional hopefuls (including a pre-Senate appointment Kirsten Gillibrand) and dispatched by EMILY’s List to assuage recruits. “Moms have a whole lot of questions about how you make it work, particularly when they’re the primary caretaker, as most women are,” she said. As a strain of work-life balance, holding federal legislative office presents unique challenges. The late-night votes and cross-country commutes preclude the Sheryl Sandberg method of ducking out at 5:30 for homework help and dinner before logging back on remotely after bedtime. And nor is electoral politics — with the constant pressures of fundraising and re-election — fit for the fluid “see-saw marriages” prescribed by Hanna Rosin, in which partners trade off years as caretaker and breadwinner. (Unless you’re a Clinton.)

The first thing, Wasserman Schultz says, is to make sure the candidate’s spouse, partner, parents, and in-laws are wholly on board. “The last thing you want is to come home on the weekend and have to deal with stress raining down from your family because they haven’t bought into your decision to make this career move,” she said.

Then there’s the question of where to live. For some parents of young children, like Roby, keeping their families in their home district is a way of drawing a line between work time and family time. “If they were here I would feel so pulled away from them during the week,” Roby said of her daughter and son, ages 8 and 4, who live in Alabama with her husband, the babysitter, and plenty of grandparents. Rather than feel conflicted about each working dinner or nighttime speech, she can fly home on Fridays in full mom-mode.

Some of the challenges, finally, are devilishly mundane. Wasserman Schultz says parents must train their young, childless staffers to respect family responsibilities, like the fax- and iPad-enabled homework review time she had put on her daily schedule. Roby lives in weeklong crusades, using weekends to strategize. “I go to the grocery store on the weekends, and I cook for the week — just fill the refrigerator — so it’s one less thing my husband has to worry about,” she said. Meng takes the opposite tack. From fellow delegation moms Sen. Gillibrand and Rep. Carolyn Maloney she gets practical tips — “teaching your husband to cook more, for example” — and big-picture encouragement. When she misses her kids, which is more often now that they’re talking, she says, “They remind me that I’m making a long-term investment in our country.”