‘Who’s Taking Care of the Kids?’ Is Finally a Question for Dads on the Trail, Too

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Representative Eric Swalwell can rattle off the best places to pump breastmilk in an airport. Julián Castro broke from the campaign trail for the last day of preschool. And Gov. Steve Bullock postponed the announcement of his presidential campaign for a true test of personal endurance — the Advanced Placement exams that his 17-year-old daughter had to take.

Welcome to 21st-century fatherhood, presidential campaign style.

For decades, mothers running for office have faced skepticism: “Who’s taking care of the kids?” wondered voters. As American families evolve, a number of fathers of young children are slowly being forced to grapple with the same politically loaded question. That has left them making a calculation that women have made for decades: how to pursue public life and parenthood at the same time.

And at least a few of the 15 fathers who are running for president in 2020 are eager to talk about it, including the day-to-day caregiving tasks that most politician moms generally consider just, well, business as usual.

“This morning, I changed a diaper before I got on a plane,” said Mr. Swalwell, of California, who has a 2-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter. “Last night, I came back for bath time. I generally do the wake-up, get them out of their pj’s, change the diaper and feed them.”

It is a shift that reflects changing American expectations around what, exactly, makes a good dad. While academic research and survey data show that female candidates still confront a steeper double standard when it comes to their family life, male politicians with young children suddenly find themselves facing something totally new — a standard.

“Bill Clinton had a youngish daughter but there was no discussion about what his life was like as a parent,” said Jill S. Greenlee, a political science professor at Brandeis University who studies attitudes toward parenthood. “Now these men need to acknowledge their role as fathers, in part, because to ignore it would be potentially harmful to their candidacy.”

It is not just a younger generation changing the script. New views toward family life mean that even Joseph R. Biden Jr., four years Mr. Clinton’s senior, is embracing an image that is less “Mad Men” and more “Modern Family.”

“One of my competitors criticized me for not going to Iowa to talk for five minutes,” he told donors at a fund-raiser in Georgetown this past week. “My granddaughter was graduating. It was my daughter’s birthday. I would skip inauguration for that.”

The eight male candidates with school-age children see their balance of work and family as a political strength, a reflection of the political rise of women in the Democratic Party and the changing terms of the debate over the economics of American family life. Fathers today spend far more time on child care than their fathers ever did, and are far less likely to be their family’s sole breadwinner.

Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts announced his bid for the nomination when his daughter was 6 months old. When asked about his child-care situation, he offered a description of his week with the now 8-month-old, Emmy, that was detailed enough to get a fill-in babysitter up to speed.

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Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and his family leaving the stage during his rally at Hemisfair Park in San Antonio on April 10.CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

“Sometimes I look at Emmy and I think, ‘What is she thinking?’, if she can tell I’m always in and out,” he said. That week, Emmy had been with her grandparents and Mr. Moulton in Massachusetts on Monday, with a babysitter on a train from Boston to New York, where her mother was working for a few days, on Tuesday, and back at home by Thursday. “Intellectually, it was the right decision to make. Emotionally, it’s tough.”

In 2016, fathers reported spending an average of eight hours a week on child care — about triple the time they provided in 1965, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. (Though that number remained lower than the 14 hours women reported spending caring for children each week on average in 2016.) Two-thirds of couples with children under the age of 18 live in dual-income families, a significant jump from the nearly half who did so in 1970.

The new realities of American family life provide a political opportunity for candidates raising young children, said Mr. Swalwell, who has posted video clips of himself changing a diaper on social media, along with fund-raising pleas for his White House bid.

“I understand the issues young families are facing because those are the issues that I’m facing,” he said, in an interview.

Mr. Swalwell said he tries to spend no more than five consecutive days away from his children. His family relies on his wife’s aunt, who lives with them, and an additional babysitter to help with child care. Like the candidate, his wife also frequently travels for her job. “It’s a day-to-day challenge to make the child care part of it work,” he said. “We just can’t afford to not have both of us work.”

Fathers are far from the only ones talking loudly about the emotional and financial struggles of balancing work and family responsibilities. Senator Elizabeth Warren frequently tells the story of her 78-year-old Aunt Bee, who moved into her house after her divorce in 1978 to help care for her children, allowing her to keep working as a law professor.

Senator Kamala Harris has written about the pain of missing her stepdaughter’s high school graduation to question the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey at a congressional hearing. And Senator Amy Klobuchar attributes the start of her political career to getting kicked out of the hospital 24 hours after giving birth to her daughter, who was born with a medical condition.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose two sons are 15 and 11, has placed the working mom juggle at the center of her pitch to voters, promising to “fight for your children as hard as I would fight for my own.” She has on occasion asked female reporters with young children who are covering the campaign if their husbands work. She understands the logistics challenge: Her husband is staying home in Washington with the children during the presidential campaign, though the entire family plans to spend much of the summer in upstate New York where her campaign is based.

Ms. Gillibrand is the only woman to run for a major party’s presidential nomination with school-age children at home, a fact that reflects the reality that women have typically entered politics at a later age than men. Women waited until their kids were grown to run for office, like Hillary Clinton, or, if they did not wait, were urged to tamp down talk of their family lives.

That began to change with the 2018 midterms, when a new crop of younger female candidates publicly embraced their role as mothers, arguing that their family life made them more qualified — not less — for political office.

After many won, they set out changing the culture of Congress, creating an informal “mom caucus” to call for changes like shifting the scheduling of votes earlier to better accommodate child-care needs.

Melissa K. Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, said the visibility of mothers running for office in the midterms exposed the double standard when it comes to parenting and politics, forcing fathers in the 2020 presidential race to confront the kinds of questions that female candidates have faced for decades.

Rep. Seth Moulton holding his daughter Emmy at a Town Hall event in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on May 5.CreditJim Davis/Globe Staff, via Getty Images

“For men, that’s really something new to be asked those kinds of questions about their children,” said Ms. Miller, who is studying mothers who ran for the House in 2018. “This used to only be a minefield for women. Now it’s a minefield for men, too.”

Already, some have stumbled. In the early days of his campaign, Beto O’Rourke joked about how his wife, Amy, had been caring for their three young children “sometimes with my help.”

His comments prompted a backlash from women who attributed the remarks to a type of parenting privilege that could be enjoyed only by a father, and he later apologized on “The View.”

“Amy has the lion’s share of the burden in this,” Mr. O’Rourke said after a campaign event, describing how his wife did a “masterful job” negotiating with their kids to keep up their responsibilities at home while both their parents campaigned in Iowa.

Research shows that the O’Rourke family arrangement is far more typical than a down-the-middle split. While the culture of parenting has changed, women still shoulder a majority of the actual work. Mothers do 65 percent of child-care labor, said Darcy Lockman, a clinical psychologist and the author of a book on equal parenting.

Being an involved parent can be a political asset for a male politician, making him appear more compassionate and understanding, but it is simply another expectation for a female politician.

You can be a good dad without knowing your kids have to be at school a half an hour early every Thursday,” Ms. Lockman said. “You can’t be a good mom without knowing that. Men don’t realize fully what the burdens of family life are even when they are good fathers,” she added. “They’re blind to what their wives do.”

In previous presidential races, fathers have taken steps to manage the emotional impact of the presidential campaign on family life, like moving their families to Iowa during the campaign or setting aside at least one day a week to be home with family, though perhaps not much of the actual domestic workload. During his first campaign for president, Barack Obama did a decent amount of parenting over the phone, which had its limitations.

“Michelle won’t keep them up just to talk to their father,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and a family friend, told The New York Times in 2007. “Bedtime is part of their normalcy. It isn’t going to be interrupted because he’s at a fund-raiser.”

Rarely, though, did anyone discuss the details of their babysitting, feeding or bath schedules with the candidate. And whether the father-turned-candidate was playing a big enough role back home was simply not a question that anyone at a New Hampshire town hall or a meet-and-greet at an Iowa City brewery ever piped up to ask.

Now, it is. Sometimes, at least.

“It’s come up a couple of times,” said Mr. Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who said people at campaign events occasionally asked where his kids were and who was watching them. He is planning to bring his children, who are 10 and 4, to the first presidential debate at the end of the month.

Of course, in a historically crowded primary field, at least one candidate has a plan for dealing with those kinds of uniquely electoral parenting challenges.

“We should pool together for child care,” Mr. Swalwell joked. “Whoever comes up with the child-care option for the debate nights in Miami, we would pay anything to have that problem solved.”

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