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Lawmakers Learn to Juggle Family, Office Duty

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Rep. Buck McKeon displays a picture of his family, including children and grandchildren, in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building.

When Rep. Wally Herger went door to door for his first campaign, he and his wife weren’t pulling the traditional wagon full of literature around the neighborhood. Theirs was filled with small children. 

The California Republican now has nine children, all of whom are an asset on the campaign trail, he said. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) had 10 child campaigners — all of whom donated to his campaign without any prompting. Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) remembered similar help from his six kids at parades and events. His children would walk around wearing signs that read “Vote for my Daddy.”

“Part of the benefits of having a large family is that you’ve got slave labor when it comes to manning phones and things,” said Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who also has six children.

Despite the help large families can provide a campaign, fewer than 20 Members of Congress have six or more children. Those who do agreed that balancing such a complicated home life with the demands of politics isn’t easy. Catching late flights, racking up long-distance phone bills and missing votes for graduations — or recitals for votes — are the norm for Members with big families back home.

“It’s not a family-friendly job, being in Congress,” Herger said. 

Politics “soaks up all your time, like a sponge in water,” Webster agreed. “There’s a certain amount of time you have to devote to it and a certain amount of time you have to spend on family. You have to make them a priority.” 

“You end up, as a parent, having only one day a week that the family gets to even see you at the dinner table,” Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) said.

Congressional leaders recognize this as a hardship for all families. At orientation, they tell Members to remember that although they won’t always be a Member of Congress, they’re always going to be a father or mother, Schilling said. 

Members with larger broods have found different ways of coping with the difficult balance. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a father of six, drives his three boys to school every morning that he’s home. 

“That’s my time with the boys — I make that time count and learn as much as I can from them,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. He’s constantly heading to baseball fields, rock concerts and Scout meetings to get in enough time with all of his children.

For Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a father of six, there’s a simple equation to balancing lawmaking with his large family: always go home. He returned home from the California Legislature every day when his children were young. Now, they all live within easy driving distance of his home in the district, so he and his wife can stay close to the grandchildren.

Schilling has similar priorities. After missing a trip home one weekend, the Illinois Republican turned down an interview with Christiane Amanpour the following week to travel home. When his staffers asked what they should tell the news show host about his refusal, his reply was simple: “Tell them I haven’t been home for two weeks and I really miss my family!” 

Going home on weekends wasn’t enough for Herger, who moved his entire family to D.C. when he was elected, after receiving advice from former Rep. Norman Shumway (R-Calif.), who has five kids. 

“I saw them much more being here than I would being back in the district,” Herger said. “It’s not a family-friendly job, no matter how you do it, but we felt we would see the family far more if they were here.”

Webster and Akin chose to home-school their children to accommodate their many different schedules. Webster’s kids would take their lessons on the road while their father traveled around the district. 

“I don’t think I would have known my kids near as well if they had been in regular school,” he said.

Akin agreed. 

“It allowed us, when I did have free time, to really utilize it,” he said. “You weren’t trying to match the normal school schedule with a political schedule that’s really kind of erratic. When I was home, we would do something fun and also educational.” 

No matter the living or schooling situation, all of the Members agreed they could not have survived the tumultuous balance without their spouses. 

“I can’t say enough of my wife — my dear, saintly wife,” Herger said. “I say that with total truth — I mean, she was like a single mother because I was away so much. ... You couldn’t do it unless you had a very supportive family.” 

Despite the challenges of balancing schedules and commitments, the job of raising sizable families isn’t as tough as it sounds, some said. Older kids tend to help raise the younger ones, and large families offer support and relief from the rush of lawmaking. 

“Our daughters especially, those two are really like second moms,” Schilling said of his daughters Isabel and Rachel. “That’s the thing folks forget about with large families: As the other kids grow older, they can really kind of help out.” 

For Rep. Michele Bachmann, a 55-year-old mother of five who has been a foster mom to 23 children, the kids are part of the campaign. Bachmann’s daughters have joined her in Iowa and for political speeches, and she mentions the foster program frequently while she’s on the trail.

Children help out in more ways than by campaigning or changing diapers. They’re never short on advice or counsel, Garamendi said. Herger has a similarly opinionated family.

“I get a lot more advice on issues than most people do,” he said, laughing. “When we have family meetings, I get a lot of input.”

In addition to legislative advice, children have a lot to give their parents, the Members said. 

“You learn so much from having six kids,” Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) said. “You learn how to deal with different personalities, different needs, how to budget your time and multitask.”

Congressional parents have a lot to offer their children, too. With tickets to swearing-in ceremonies and countless Capitol events, Members’ children receive a front-row seat to learn the ins and outs of government. Many find their children and grandchildren internships and jobs in Washington. Six of Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R-Calif.) 31 grandchildren have served as pages, and one is serving this summer in the Capitol. 

Herger and Akin mentioned bringing their daughters to the White House Christmas Ball. Very close to her 16th birthday, Akin’s daughter Abigail got a coveted ticket to the ball — and while there, a kiss from the president. 

Akin’s sons were even luckier. Perry, his second oldest, met his wife when she was working as a staff assistant in Akin’s office. Ezra, his youngest son, realized Perry’s wife had a younger sister working in Akin’s campaign office — and the two married earlier this year. 

Whatever the perks for child or parent, every Member said politics and lawmaking took a backseat to the most important aspect of their lives: their children. 

“I really have accomplished an awful lot of things in my life, and I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Buerkle said. “But my six kids are my greatest accomplishment. I’m so proud of them.”

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