the body politic

Mom vs. Dad on the Road to 2020

Elizabeth Warren, age 22, with daughter, Amelia. Photo: Elizabeth Warren Campaign

So far, there are six women running for president of the United States in 2020, and many of the most prominent politicians of the moment are the women of the new congressional class. We are, for the first time in American history, talking about a slew of political leaders who are mothers of young children, mothers of grown children, stepmothers, grandmothers, and not mothers at all. But one of the oddest side effects of this entrance of so many women with their different approaches to parenthood is that I can’t stop thinking about the fathers and non-fathers out there.

Our political history is built around fathers — starting with the forefathers. In the White House alone, we’ve had fathers of one, fathers of 15 (hey, John Tyler), and fathers of none (six presidents have had no children of their own, though some of those, including George Washington, have raised stepchildren). But the perceptions of their fatherhood haven’t mattered that much, largely because the fact of their fatherhood wasn’t necessarily central to their public or political stature.

March began with the presidential rollout of former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke. A Vanity Fair cover story kicked off with a remarkable detail: his 8-year-old son, Henry, announcing from the back seat of the family car, “Dad, if you run for president, I’m going to cry all day.” Days later, a Washington Post story included the observation that O’Rourke’s recent Senate campaign had been particularly hard on his 12-year-old son, Ulysses, the only one of his three children “old enough to remember a time before Congress, a time when his father was around a lot more often.”

Most of the profiles of O’Rourke have covered his obsession with Joseph Campbell, the Odyssey, and Star Wars, stories built around a hero’s quest in which there is no particular interest in the Penelopes back home. O’Rourke, we are meant to understand, is also on a hero’s quest.

In his first days of campaigning, O’Rourke joked repeatedly about how his wife, Amy, had been caring for their three children, “sometimes with my help.” Between his Senate and presidential runs, O’Rourke, questioning his purpose in the wake of his loss to Ted Cruz, had gone on a road trip. During the trip, he’d posted meandering journal entries on Medium, including one in which he recalled searching for human connection in Kansas while his wife was back in Texas working as a parent to his children.

“I called Amy,” he’d written. “Kids were in the car, she was a little distracted, we didn’t connect either. Maybe you could meet people at a bar she said as we hung up.” Meanwhile, Amy described her children’s own search for connection with their dad, how sad they’d been when their calls to him kept going to voice mail, and how she’d finally urged them to try writing him letters instead of calling.

Of course, no female candidate who hoped to gain an ounce of public approval could have survived that first sentence in the Vanity Fair story: the plaintive wail of a child whose misery was tied to the political ambitions of his parent. No woman, dead or alive, could hope to win the nation’s heart by writing about seeking communion in a Kansas bar while her husband drove carpool in El Paso. Just five years ago, Wendy Davis, another Democratic candidate with an enthusiastic following, ran for office in Texas. During the 2014 gubernatorial race, the New York Times Magazine ran a story headlined “Can Wendy Davis Have It All? A Texas-Size Tale of Ambition, Motherhood, and Political Mythmaking.”

It’s hard not to consider how snugly that Texas-size tale of ambition, fatherhood, and political mythmaking might fit a profile of O’Rourke — and how inconceivable it is that the question of whether he could have it all would ever get slapped across his image. Davis, like O’Rourke, was a sometimes-absent parent on an improbable journey, in her case from an impoverished childhood to a Harvard Law degree and an ambitious political career. But for her, there was no way to tell a tale of herself as heroic without the separations from her kids becoming the defining frame — and punishing moral — of the story. Davis lost.

The obsessive tallying of days Davis had spent away from her family reminded me of a 1984 interview of then-vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in which her husband had assured Barbara Walters that his wife had missed only two weekends with her kids in over six years in Congress. This was what it was going to be to have women vying for political power long held mostly — only — by men; there would be anxious tabulations of the days, nights, and weekends they had spent away from their families.

The tight knot for women in politics (and perhaps in life) has been, will always be, this: Everything associated with motherhood has been coded as faintly embarrassing and less than — from mom jeans to mommy brain to the Resistance. And yet to be a bad mom has been disqualifying, and to not be a mom at all is to be understood as lacking something: gravity, value, femininity. Just this month, Tucker Carlson wondered, about New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whether “someone who’s never even raised children gets the right to lecture me about morality,” as if parents are given a moral compass upon the birth of a child.

Fatherhood for male politicians so far has, for the most part, worked only as a bonus. It’s been a way to show off the shiny white teeth of a strong gene pool and an escape hatch from a job you’re getting fired from — in order to spend more time with your family! It’s been a way for powerful men to signal respect for women without evincing femininity themselves: They are the fathers of daughters, folks. At its best, presenting publicly as a committed father has offered an opportunity for men who otherwise cast themselves as tough and authoritative to demonstrate their tender side.

Joe Biden, who is expected to enter the presidential fray any day now, has been publicly beloved specifically as a dad because the 1972 deaths of his wife and baby daughter left him raising two sons, alone and with his second wife, Jill. More recently, the 2015 loss of his adult son Beau to brain cancer made him a powerful transmitter of intimate grief on a national scale.

Even unconventional paternal history has not been brought to bear against men in the way it has against women. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s son, Levi, is most frequently pictured sitting on his dad’s lap as a toddler in the ’70s. That Sanders did not live with the mother of his son, that for years he did not correct press reports that Levi was the product of a first marriage, that Levi called his father “Bernard” from early childhood … these quirks haven’t mattered to Sanders’s campaign, as they should not — but as they certainly would have were he a woman. Donald Trump’s wretchedness as a president is rarely tied to his wretchedness as a father.

But as our expectations for fatherhood rise, even when the fathers castigate themselves for absences, the judgment hasn’t been harsh. Barack Obama openly acknowledged his familial shortfalls in The Audacity of Hope, where he wrote about how, when he ran for Congress in 2000, leaving Michelle at home to care for their two young children, her “anger at me seemed barely contained.” So a man whose first book was about the search for connection with his father was candid about the ways he had often been absent as a parent, and no one cared.

I thought about that again this week, when I recalled how California representative Eric Swalwell had spoken so openly last year of his qualms about running for the Democratic presidential nomination given that he had a new daughter, Cricket, born in October, and another child who is under 2. “It would be hard to be away during the early, developing years of their lives,” he said in November. Here, I thought, was a new view of fatherhood, one in which that work-life-balance, have-it-all judgment (and self-judgment) would apply to men. Last week, Swalwell announced his candidacy.

How can we get to a place where women’s relationships to their domestic lives are not undermining? Those who’ve been out there have tried a million approaches. Nancy Pelosi speaks often of how her time raising five children equipped her to be in politics: “I became so energized and efficient in the use of time and willing to delegate, to the children, responsibilities,” she told the Washington Post earlier this year, gently undermining the metaphorical children to whom she now delegates.

But Pelosi has also noted the relationship between motherhood and the shape and timing of women’s political careers. In 2012, when 27-year-old Luke Russert asked Pelosi whether her insistence on continuing to lead her party crowded out younger leaders, the then-72-year-old took him to task. “I came to Congress when my youngest child, Alexandra, was a senior in high school,” Pelosi said. “I knew that my male colleagues had come when they were 30. They had a jump on me because they didn’t have children.” But of course they had children; there was simply no expectation that they’d be responsible for raising them.

In the 2020 field, multiple women are making reference to their own experiences as mothers to push for progressive policies that would specifically help parents. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar has spoken of how she got into politics after she was forced to leave the hospital less than a day after giving birth to her daughter in 1995 and pushed for a bill that guaranteed 48-hour hospital stays for new mothers. When Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose children are adults, talks about her subsidized-day-care proposal, she speaks with detailed ferocity about her own experiences of having been a parent with a job (as did Hillary Clinton). She often describes how the question of whether she’d be able to attend law school hinged on whether she could get her youngest child potty trained, and thus into the day-care facility she and her husband could afford. “I stand before you today,” Warren likes to say, “courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a cooperative toddler.”

Kirsten Gillibrand, in a different phase of motherhood, takes pains to make clear that her responsibilities are not on hold while she’s on the presidential campaign trail; she regularly invites reporters to watch her cook dinner at home and posts social-media stories of her 10-year-old son, Henry, tagging around after her through New Hampshire, placated occasionally with bags of candy. She has made it clear that her own experiences of motherhood have informed her fight for a paid-family-leave program and a bill aimed to combat rising maternal-mortality rates. Gillibrand has also used maternal rhetoric to explain her 2017 call for her colleague Al Franken to resign in response to allegations of groping. “As a mother, I had to be really clear,” she said at a recent town hall. “It is not okay for anyone to grope a woman anywhere on her body without her consent; it is not okay to forcibly kiss a woman, ever, without her consent. It was not okay for Senator Franken, and it is not okay for you, Theo. Ever.” This is a deft and fairly radical reimagining of how motherhood — and especially white middle class motherhood — is often deployed in conversations around harassment and assault. Instead of presenting herself as the defender of sons against imagined false charges, Gillibrand has publicly positioned herself, and her own sons, as models of the need to teach men responsibility to be better. Sarah Palin, who accepted the invitation to join John McCain’s ticket when her son Trig was less than a year old — and became the first woman on a major-party ticket to have young children — used her “mama grizzly” image to present herself as tough and practical, but this was done in support of traditional power structures; it did not threaten them.

Of course you don’t have to be a parent at all to advocate for policy that would help other parents. Shirley Chisholm shaped her congressional career around the fight for WIC benefits and subsidized day care, yet she did not have her own children. Neither does the woman drawing on Chisholm’s 1972 presidential candidacy as inspiration, California senator Kamala Harris.

Harris, like Chisholm, is black, and thus her relationship to traditional valuation of motherhood is more fraught. Black women have rarely been celebrated politically as maternal ideals. Before Michelle Obama became mom-in-chief, black mothers most often turned up in a presidential context as emblems of bad parenting, deployed as “welfare queens” and pathologized as unfit single mothers in fights to reduce government programs. Were she a mother, Harris would surely be judged on an even more unforgiving scale.

Harris’s childlessness (and that of another 2020 candidate, Tulsi Gabbard) puts her squarely within a long tradition of women in politics, including Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, and Elizabeth Dole, all of whom ran for president before 2008. Childlessness, and often single or widowed status, meant there was no perception of conflict, no domestic responsibility a female politician would be shirking in her rise. But when women powerful enough to be taken seriously for president must also hit some vague mark of “likability,” the risk of being cast as chilly and striving is real. Harris takes pains to mention that her stepchildren call her “Momala”; her Twitter bio reads, “U.S. Senator and candidate for president. Wife, Momala, Auntie.”

Because fatherhood hasn’t been a structural impediment in the way motherhood has, the proportion of childless male presidential candidates has been statistically less significant; neither Cory Booker nor Pete Buttigieg gets asked much about the fact that he doesn’t have children and how that’s shaped his view of the world. Buttigieg, in fact, often positions himself as childlike in wondering what the world will look like in 35 years, when he’s Trump’s age.

Which brings us back to O’Rourke and the blowback he’s received, because, perhaps for the first time in presidential politics, a man did get called out in national publications for his comments about “helping” to raise his own children. He seems to have considered this and, after a few days out on the trail, announced that he’d stop making that joke. “Not only will I not say that again,” he vowed, “but I’ll be more thoughtful going forward in the way that I talk about our marriage and also the way in which I acknowledge the truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privilege,” here making reference to the fact that he never faced serious consequences after having been arrested twice as a young man.

That’s all good and true, but O’Rourke has gotten to the cruelest truth about the many advantages that gender and race have bestowed on men like him: Those privileges aren’t really about fatherhood; they are about childhood.

White men — in life, on streets, in cop cars, within their families, on the pages of magazines, and in politics — are permitted to fuck up, to gain our sympathy and protection. They are offered the possibilities of blamelessness, selfishness, naïveté, and second and third chances. They are offered the benefits of youth itself, no matter their age. It doesn’t matter whether they have kids or how they raise kids; these men who want to lead us get to be kids.

*A version of this article appears in the April 15, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Mom vs. Dad on the Road to 2020