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Why Be Political?

By Kristin Teigen

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Motherhood, as so many say, changes everything. All that was once taken for granted, from careers to relationships to the joys of basic grooming, is thrown into the air, never to be the same. When I brought my first son, Joshua, home from the hospital, the saying held shockingly true. With the birth of one wrinkly, squalling creature, my perspective on the entire world suddenly transformed. It was like an earthquake. Sure, you knew it was coming, but when it actually happens, this seismic event lands you upside down, shaking your head with wonder.

Joshua had colic, with his scream becoming particularly loud any time he left the house. That meant that for nearly three months, I was housebound, leaving only when my husband came home to take over. I got pale. My car seemed to be a foreign object. My friends were now only voices on the other end of the phone. Having never been this isolated, I didn't really know what to expect. I thought I might become a drone, a floor-walking, baby-bouncing robot. Instead, as the days stretched into weeks, then months, I found that my nerve endings were becoming increasingly exposed, open to the wind. Instead of making me tune out, motherhood, I realized, was making me experience everything that much more keenly.

I noticed this in particular when I watched the news. As I breastfed, with the sound on mute, I watched stories -- horrible stories -- about what was going on outside of my all-too familiar walls. By the time my son's tummy was full, I was on overload. While I had always cared about what was going on in the world, now it seemed as every crisis was becoming insinuated into my spine. As a mother, I just felt the problems so much more. This was far from what I expected, far from the gauzy images of mothers drunk on baby-love, washed away from the trials of the world. Naively, I thought this feeling would shift over time -- I believed I was just the temporary victim of hormones, seclusion and a lack of natural light. As Joshua's colic abated, though, and he and I ventured into the world, I discovered that my new lens, my outlook on the world, was here to stay. Because of my little love, because of motherhood, what was going on in the world and what was going to happen in the future took on a whole new meaning.

In talking with other parents, I found that I wasn't alone. The previously ignored car exhaust was now a dire threat, entering our babies' pristine lungs. The national debt was on their tiny shoulders. Cuts in healthcare meant that somewhere, a sick child was going without. Every new soldier killed in war left us imagining our own, absolute worst nightmare. Sure, we may have always cared about education, but now, the idea of rats in school hallways were enough to make us cry. Many mothers I knew couldn't bear to even glance at the stories of child abuse in the paper -- just too close to the bone. Far from home, the realities of AIDS orphans in Africa and around the world made us physically ill. And global warming, well, that just threatened everything. Never before had we felt such a sense of urgency, almost panic, about how the world was shaping up. It all became just so visceral. While I had spent a lifetime trying to change the world, I hadn't ever felt so compelled to have my voice heard.

So, what to do? Too bad you couldn't bottle all of those feelings and pour them on someone who was not so blessedly, insanely busy. I mean, really. Come on. How are mothers supposed to fundamentally change the world in the middle of ear infections, diapers and sleepless nights? I barely had time to take a shower. Despite my increasing anxiety about the world, I was so completely frazzled and sleep deprived, I just couldn't imagine doing anything about it. So many of us are this way, coping with a host of new pressures. A 1999 study by Duke University showed that a mother's stress will not return to pre-baby levels until after her children have completely left home (see Cabell Smith, Duke University Medical School, "Research on Mothers Stress Levels"). It's so stressful, as we all know, because motherhood is the job that never ends. As Ric and Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove wrote in Mother Nurture, "Each day, for twenty-plus years, you do several hundred specific child-rearing or housework tasks, from reading Winnie the Pooh to doing the dishes, and you probably go to bed wishing that somehow you could have done more." Even when my children are not around, I still can still hear their voices -- "Mommy, Mooommmyy!" I still rock back and forth in line at the grocery store, even when I'm alone, as if the air needs soothing. In this all-consuming new role, how do we find the time, energy and mental space to shake the world right-side up?

It's not just that motherhood makes for a frenetic life, it's that being politically active can also be so consuming. Before I became a mother, I was a full-time activist, with my days being a non-stop blur. This way of life was a sort of competitive game among my co-workers. Who can work the hardest for "the cause?" Who really cares the most? As an activist, if you're not thoroughly exhausted, well, I guess your heart just isn't in it. This is seen in a 2005 Department of Labor survey  of advocacy and civic groups, which revealed that their employees were often expected to travel at night or on the weekends and encountered "very stressful environments," low wages and a high turnover rate (see Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Career Guide to Industries, Advocacy, Grantmaking and Civic Organizations," 2006 – 07 edition). Not exactly a family friendly workplace.

The demands of political work are reflected in my home state of Oregon, where I have seen that women often step back from public involvement just as men are stepping up. After the birth of her second child, once-rising star Deborah Kafoury resigned as Oregon's House Minority Leader just a year before Portland's City Council Member Eric Sten, a new father himself, won his re-election. Ted Wheeler, whose wife just gave birth to their first child, recently won his election as Chair of Oregon's Multnomah County, while the sparkly County Commissioner Serena Cruz resigned her seat, citing her desire to start a family. Because of the pressures of motherhood, many talented women are exiting the political world. Indeed, the percentage of women who hold a position of leadership on the local level has actually declined in recent years.

What does this mean? Fundamentally, the voices of mothers, perhaps the group of people in our society who care the most about our collective future, are not being heard. Who is there, during the debates over welfare reform to push for childcare payments for women being forced to go back to work? Can anyone else truly relate to the gripping fear of losing, or not having at all, quality childcare or healthcare? Does anybody else feel more invested in a healthy planet? Who is there, to advocate for more school funding? Who is there to push for paid family leave, for legislation promoting flexible time, for Social Security for stay-at-home moms? Who is there to demand a lower national debt? I knew where I was. With my sons. Changing diapers. Going to the park. Driving to school. I wasn't in the room.

To be sure, there aren't many mothers in the halls of power. Out of 50 governors, only 6 are mothers. Out of 100 senators, only 10 are mothers. In contrast, not only do the vast majority of male governors and senators have children, some of them have a great many -- Jim Bunning has nine, John McCain has seven, Robert Bennett and Ted Stevens have six and so on. The day-to-day tasks that absorb so many mothers most likely have not slowed these guys down. Indeed, it seems to be so rare for a woman to be a mother of young children and in political office that it becomes newsworthy. On Election Night, 2006, as Missourian Claire McKaskill appeared to eke out a victory over Senator Jim Talent, CBS News ran background information on both candidates on the bottom of the screen. As it posted Talent's positions on a number of political issues of the day, it listed for former state auditor McKaskill the fact that she was the first elected official in Missouri give birth while in office. The fact that Jim Talent is the father of three didn't seem to make it to the news scroll.

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