The XX Factor

Moms Now Run New Hampshire. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t Talk About Being Moms.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte tells the Republican National Convention about how she hasn’t kissed her kids goodnight in months.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

New Hampshire has gone full matriarchy. Next year, the state will be run by two female senators, two female representatives, and a female governor. And KJ Dell’Antonia of the New York Times’ Motherlode blog is particularly impressed that the state is now matriarchal in the purest sense of the term: all of these women are mothers. That’s “inspiring and hopeful,” Dell’Antonia says, and she wishes these working moms would talk it up.

During Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte’s 2010 run, Dell’Antonia was disappointed that she “never felt like I heard Ms. Ayotte really get into the question of how she managed to balance her extremely successful political career with parenting her young children.” She wishes that “parents of both sexes who hold office could help other working parents by talking about their experiences.”

And what would they say? That depends on whether the elected official is a working mother or a working father—or as we generally refer to the latter, “father.” (Or, “Congressman.”) For the most part, women are the only ones asked to participate in this work-life balance conversation. Surely dads have swept a state’s leadership before, though their path to the patriarchy (“How Do These Fathers Do It?”) has never been very compelling fodder for an election trend piece. And while Dell’Antonia was bummed that Ayotte didn’t talk motherhood more, she doesn’t call on Ayotte’s challenger, a former New Hampshire representative and father of two, to document his own work-life juggling act.

When a successful woman does speak out about how she manages work and family, she has to take care that her work-life balance doesn’t tip too far in either direction. Admit that she’s hired a fleet of nannies to care for the children? She’s an out-of-touch elite. Talk about how she stayed home to raise them herself? She’s never worked a day in her life. Popped out a baby and returned directly to work? She’s neglecting her kids. Kept working even while in labor? She was never pregnant at all! Never had kids? What is she, gay? Her husband cares for them instead? What, is he gay?

A professional woman can’t really speak honestly about how she manages her home life without getting attacked. If Ayotte had spoken up, she wouldn’t be empowered to “help other working parents.” She’d probably just not be a Senator.

Working fathers are dealing with their own set of expectations, too. The fact that they’re not even asked to answer these questions implies that a man’s career comes first, no matter what’s going on at home. That means that taking time off to care for kids can be seen as an unacceptable compromise (while for women, it’s just a necessary career interruption). Fatherhood is still valued—this year, the Kansas Tea Party mounted a campaign against Democratic Congressional candidate Brandon Whipple that criticized him for not having children (despite his childlessness, Whipple persevered). But once the kids are in the picture, a male candidate is rarely asked to account for how he deals with that responsibility, as long as he sits for the obligatory tossing-the-pigskin shots and gets his child support payments in on time.

When men do speak to managing family and work, it’s often couched in lovey-dovey thankfulness for the devoted wife (on whom he has pushed the parental duties). In his concession speech, Mitt Romney described his work-life balance this way: “I thank my sons for their tireless work on behalf of the campaign and thank their wives and children for taking up the slack as their husbands and dads have spent so many weeks away from home.” If only women had such an easy out.

Correction, November 9, 2012: This piece originally stated that New Hampshire has three representatives. It has two.