Women Juggle Raising Kids and Running for Office as Norms Shift

2 min
State Assembly candidate Buffy Wicks after a campaign house party in Piedmont.  (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

A record number of women are running for office in 2018. KQED's series "The Long Run" focuses on some of them.

There’s a lot to consider when running for political office.

How will it affect your job or your family? Can you withstand the negativity and lack of privacy that come with it? Those concerns are relevant to anyone. But women face a specific set of challenges when it comes to raising kids and running for office.

In 2011, Buffy Wicks was in her mid-30s and working on President Obama’s re-election campaign in Chicago.

“It wasn’t easy," she said. "You work like 100-hour weeks when you’re on a presidential campaign.”

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Her career was thriving, but, at the same time she began to think about the possibility of having kids. Knowing the moment wasn’t right, Wicks made a very personal decision: She froze her eggs.

"I was doing (hormone) shots every morning, shots every evening at specific times, then layering in different shots," she said. "Physically, my ovaries were getting really big. It was uncomfortable.”

But for Wicks, the discomfort was worth it. She saw it as preserving her choice about whether to have children until she was ready.

Jean Sinzdak, with the Center for American Women and Politics, said it’s common for women to make these kinds of calculations.

“For women it’s a challenge because they’re still primarily the caregivers in their families," Sinzdak said. "So they’re balancing maybe a job and caring for young children or caring for elderly parents.”

And it’s a challenge even those in the nation’s top political offices have faced. On KQED’s Political Breakdown, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was first convinced to run for Congress just as her youngest child was going into her senior year of high school.

Pelosi explained to her daughter she’d be gone a lot if she won.

"I said, Alexandra, mommy's been asked to run for Congress. ... I’d be gone like three nights a week, for a certain number of months. But I won’t do it if you want me to be here with you," Pelosi shared. "To which she said, 'Mother, get a life!' ”

In other words, she was fine with her mother being out of the house. As Pelosi noted, "What teenager wouldn't be?"

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the KQED studios on Aug. 22, 2018.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the KQED studios on Aug. 22, 2018. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Sinzdak said it makes sense Pelosi was nervous about leaving her daughter. But she says norms are shifting.

"A few decades ago it was just really hard because women were expected to be home with the kids in the way that men were not," she said. "And to some degree that bias still exists today. But it's less so."

These days, fewer women are waiting until their kids are grown before running for office.

That includes Buffy Wicks. She’s running for a state Assembly seat and has a nearly 2-year old daughter with her husband. She didn’t end up using her frozen eggs, but now she's dealing with a different challenge: juggling a toddler while campaigning.

"I've been told not to bring my daughter to events, that won't look good as a mom," Wicks said. "That's implying I'm not being a good mom, I'm choosing my career over being a mom. And I love bringing my daughter to events because it's also how I get to spend time with her."

Wicks' opponent in the race, Jovanka Beckles, is also a mother. Both candidates are running on platforms to expand California’s paid parental leave law.

For candidates that don't like to bring their kids along, or just can't, an increasing number of states, including California, allow campaign funds to be used to cover baby-sitting costs. And Sinzdak said the Federal Election Commission recently allowed a congressional candidate to use campaign money for child care.

"The fact that she thought to do it, and that got approved, shows that cultural shift is happening," she said.

In one of the most visible shifts so far, the U.S. Senate recently changed its rules to allow Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth to breastfeed her baby on the Senate floor.

In fact, some candidates are beginning to play up the fact they are moms, including several who have featured themselves breastfeeding in campaign ads.

Wicks said having her daughter inspired her to run for office and influences the policies she wants to pursue.

"We have terrible paid leave policies," she said. "Child care costs are crazy. The zero-to-five system needs a lot of work. It's one of the reasons I'm running for this seat."

Wicks said it's a sacrifice to miss out on time with her daughter. But she said she wants her to grow up in an environment where it's not unusual to see women take the lead.

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