When a mother with babies or preschoolers runs for office, the question inevitably arises: Who will take care of her kids while she is on the campaign trail?
But in a year when 23 Democrats are vying for their party’s presidential nomination, it’s the men who have children ages 5 or younger — enough to fill a small day care center. They are rarely asked about parenting, however, a review of their television interviews found.
“I could tell you all sorts of literature on women running for office and how they navigate parenthood,” said Jill Greenlee, the author of “The Political Consequences of Motherhood” and an associate professor at Brandeis University. “The equivalent literature in political science doesn’t exist for men.”
This may be the year to write it.
Among the 2020 hopefuls, California Rep. Eric Swalwell has a 7-month-old daughter and a 2-year-old son; Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton has an 8-month-old daughter; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s son turned 5 on Wednesday, and he has two older stepchildren; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old; Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s sons are 3 and 6, and the youngest is autistic, he has said.
Only a handful of men with small children have run for president in recent history.
This year’s candidates have focused some attention on what have traditionally been dubbed “women’s issues” — Swalwell talked about taking paternity leave when his daughter was born, while Ryan chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that last month approved studying comprehensive leave for all House employees starting in 2020.
But men running for president are missing an opportunity, advocates say, to use their experiences to present issues such as paid leave and the cost of child care more broadly as economic or family issues.
A role change?
So far, it has been the women in the 2020 race, whose children are older, making parenting or family-friendly policies central to their campaigns.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks about potty-training her children (now adults) so they could go to day care while she taught law. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose children are 11 and 15, branded herself a “young mom” fighting for their futures. California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has two stepchildren, penned a Mother’s Day essay for Elle magazine about her role as their “Momala.”
A sign that something might be changing for men this cycle came this spring, when Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, faced blowback for joking on the campaign trail that his wife, Amy, raised their three kids, “sometimes” with his help. O’Rourke later apologized.
“My ham-handed attempt to try to highlight the fact that Amy has the lion’s share of the burden in our family … should have also been a moment for me to acknowledge that that is far too often the case,” he said in March.
Other candidates likely took note, said Andrea Zuniga, vice president of legislative affairs for the advocacy group Paid Leave for the United States.
“I guarantee you that every male who is now running saw that and said, ‘I’m going to answer that question very differently,’” she said.
A family decision
What little the male candidates with the youngest children at home have said about their family lives — most notably in recent articles in Slate and Vox — reveals day-to-day realities that would look familiar to many families. While some have wives who stay at home, many have spouses who are working full-time and a hodgepodge of child care arrangements combining paid caregivers and help from family and friends.
That’s the case for Swalwell, a Bay Area congressman and the only candidate who agreed to be interviewed for this story. His wife, Brittany, travels almost as much as he does, working as director of sales for the Ritz-Carlton resort in Half Moon Bay, California.
“Deciding to run, one of our biggest concerns was how do we do this as a family, with child care?” Eric Swalwell said on a recent, muggy morning at the couple’s rented row house in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood, a corner unit with blue-painted brick and a soccer goal in the yard. “How do we meet the demands of the presidential campaign, still both work, keep the family together, and afford it?”
Coming home at 2:30 a.m. earlier that morning, after a delayed flight from a Houston campaign event, he accidentally set off the burglar alarm — only to find Brittany awake, feeding their 7-month-old daughter, Cricket.
Later that morning, their 2-year-old, Nelson, needed asthma medication before he attended morning storytime at a neighborhood bookstore with Brittany’s aunt Susan Reynolds, who moved in to help with the kids when Eric started to consider a presidential bid.
More campaign events awaited. But now, Eric was giving Cricket a bottle, and he and Brittany were preoccupied with a new challenge on the horizon: Nelson was starting preschool the following week.
It was a typical day for the family, Brittany said.
“Eric changes, probably, more diapers than I do when he’s home with us,” she said. “I mean, we’re just trying to survive. Who’s feeding who, who’s changing who, who’s bathing who, who’s putting who down. We share the roles completely.”
When they are both home, they have a system: She takes night feedings, he wakes up with the kids when it’s way too early. She works from an upstairs office. He drops in between meetings and votes on the Hill and tries to be home in time to get the kids in bed by 7 p.m. Sometimes, they even manage to go on dates.
“I think being a woman candidate with little children is harder than what I’m experiencing,” Eric Swalwell said. “But the best thing we can do is take what we have learned and what we experience and project solutions for other families.”
Swalwell’s policy positions include a call for community development block grants that could be used to help parents pay for child care and incentivize child care providers in low-income areas, he said. He has also drawn from personal experiences with his children in other areas, such as when he wrote a personal essay about how an ICU visit with Cricket cemented his support for “Medicare for All.”
Such positions fit with the way Swalwell, 38, has sought to position himself in the race as a voice for millennial voters, who expect parity in their homes.
A ways to go
But a candidate’s portrayal of hands-on fatherhood could also backfire with voters who see housework as emasculating. When Swalwell tweeted a photo of himself holding Cricket on the House floor, for example, he was accused of pandering.
“You know someone’s desperate for voter attention when their profile picture is literally them kissing babies,” tweeted JD Rucker, the editor-in-chief of NDQ Report, a news outlet that bills itself as “a strong, conservative voice for patriots.”
And after Swalwell launched a recent Twitter ad featuring a video of himself changing his daughter’s diaper, a Fox News headline called it “bizarre.”
Not everyone is convinced that change is happening quickly enough.
New York Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley founded Vote Mama, a political action committee to support progressive, young mothers running for office, following an unsuccessful run for a Long Island-based House seat in 2018.
She thought it was funny when a newspaper reporter noted her husband taking care of their two toddlers while she spoke at events, as if that were unusual. She said she is still waiting to hear the men in 2020 offer a substantially different picture, and that would mean putting child care in a much more central role in their campaigns, she said.
“When you have a dad walk out on the floor with a baby strapped to his chest, maybe that will change the conversation,” she said.
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