When a working mom goes too far

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2000

In hindsight, Jane Swift must look back on her pregnancy as the good old days. Wherever she went in the 1998 race for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Elizabeth came with her.

Of course the critics and the media followed her too. Reporters chronicled her morning sickness and counted the cartons of chocolate milk. Her press secretary had to explain that the coffee in her cup was decaf.

As one of the first women to run for statewide office in a maternity dress, she was taken to task by the right wing of her own Republican Party. One particularly irate citizen said that if she wasn't going to stay home with the baby, she ought to have a cat instead.

Yet that was the easy part.

Today, the holes in the Swiss cheese of this working mother's child care have landed on page one. First came the news that Swift took a state helicopter to her home in North Adams when, among other things, her 14-month-old daughter had pneumonia.

Then came reports that she often used statehouse staffers as her ``village.'' Some baby-sat for Elizabeth when all else failed. Others ran errands for Jane.

The 34-year-old lieutenant governor defended herself, insisting that the staffers were volunteers, a ``support system'' who helped her ``hold it together the best I can.'' She described herself as an average working parent with above-average demands: ``There are times when I can't call in sick, when I can't just not be available.''

Some who shared the experience of working parenthood sympathized with Swift while others resented her privilege. The reaction to the personal use of staffers split between those who said ``men have done this forever!'' and those who answered, ``exactly!''

Skating ahead of the cracking ice of new motherhood, Swift herself insisted that the staff enjoyed caring for Elizabeth because ``she's adorable and engaging and she's learned to blow kisses.'' Somehow it was easy to forget that ``volunteers'' can't always say no to the boss.

Nevertheless, when all the ethics are said and done, there is more to this flap than one lieutenant governor's childcare. The first young mother to occupy this second seat has shown again just how much harder it is to bridge the gap between work and family these days. The distance, the hours, the expectations of the job only grow wider the nearer you get to the top.

Today, two working parents have become the norm. But the new economy demands more and more time. In the upper echelons of the professional world, our fathers' average workweek qualifies now as ``mommy hours.''

Not long ago a CEO downsizing his company was asked how he would decide who got the pink slips. What he'd like to do, he answered, was stand by the door and see who left work at 5 p.m.

In private life, bosses ratchet up the demands. But in public life the voting bosses expect 24/7 even from politicians who preach family values.

It's no wonder that the room at the top is filled by men in traditional marriages and women without children. It's no wonder that, on average, American women enter politics a decade behind men. Or that far fewer have gone into politics than any other profession. Or that the legislature in South Africa reorganized to accommodate family life - after women filled one-third of the seats.

As for Jane Swift, she has a husband who is the primary caregiver and a boss-governor who has done everything to support her except change Elizabeth's diapers. Yet her family too has fallen off the balancing beam.

Surely this politician should have paid the ``volunteers.'' Surely, she should crusade for child care in the statehouse - now there's a better public solution to a private problem.

But there is more. Back when Swift was a pregnant candidate, she said the fuss made her realize, ``we haven't made as much progress as my generation has been led to think.''

To her generation of parents, ``progress'' means a balanced life. To her generation, ``progress'' means reasonable hours not just ``mommy hours.'' It means work that allows parents to get ahead without leaving families behind.

Swift once fancied herself a role model. There's another political role to model now from the top down.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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