Beto O’Rourke has what many female candidates don’t: a partner who takes the lead on child care

Beto O’Rourke and his wife Amy Sanders address supporters on November 6, 2018, at Southwest University Park in El Paso, Texas.

The newly minted presidential candidate says he “sometimes” helps with his kids.

Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas senatorial candidate who announced his run for president on Thursday, has three children. Sometimes, he even takes care of them.

The issue of his family came to the fore on Thursday when O’Rourke told a crowd that his wife, Amy Sanders O’Rourke, was raising their kids “sometimes with my help.”

The comment, some said, was meant as self-deprecation and an acknowledgment of the hard work Amy O’Rourke did for their family. But despite his intentions, Beto O’Rourke revealed a fundamental inequality of American life: While men throughout history have been able to rely on their wives to provide child care while they fulfill their political ambitions, women have rarely been able to count on partners to do the same. And as New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister pointed out, a woman who joked about being a part-time parent while on the campaign trail would be harshly criticized — and might find her political career over before it began.

Being a “sometimes” parent is a luxury many female candidates don’t have

The O’Rourkes have three children: Henry, 8, Molly, 10, and Ulysses, 12. Their child care arrangements aren’t entirely clear (Beto O’Rourke has not yet responded to Vox’s request for comment), but O’Rourke has certainly spent time away from his family recently, as he traveled the country deciding whether to run for president.

“Jack Kerouac-style, he roams around, jobless (does he not need a job?) to find himself and figure out if he wants to lead the free world,” Nia-Malika Henderson wrote at CNN in January, during what she called Beto O’Rourke’s “excellent adventure.” “This is a luxury no woman or even minority in politics could ever have.”

One reason a Jack Kerouac-style journey would be difficult for many women: Moms, on average, still spend more time on child care than dads do. And mothers still face the widespread expectation that they’ll be the primary caregivers for their kids.

A dad who jokes about being a “sometimes” parent might get some criticism on Twitter, but he’ll also get knowing laughs from people who are used to seeing moms as the ones in charge of kids. A mom who makes the same joke — well, she’s just a bad mom!

In a recent Vanity Fair profile by Joe Hagan, Amy O’Rourke objected to Henderson’s CNN piece — “I was a little insulted because it implied that I couldn’t support our family.” (She is the director of an education-focused nonprofit.) The profile included several photographs, taken by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, of Beto O’Rourke playing music, making pancakes, and otherwise hanging out with his kids. It’s also worth noting that Amy O’Rourke comes from a wealthy family, and she and her husband may be able to afford child care help while he campaigns.

But Hagan’s story also included this anecdote from a recent plane trip taken by the O’Rourkes:

Amy was reading Becoming, by Michelle Obama, absorbing the former First Lady’s account of her trials living through a toxic presidential race with her husband. By the time the O’Rourkes touched down at El Paso International Airport, Amy’s stomach was in knots. “She was kind of pissed at me when we got home,” recalls O’Rourke. “Almost like ‘You fucker.’ ”

She knew he was running.

Whether it’s Michelle Obama or, now, Amy O’Rourke, wives have long had to manage the home front while their husbands go out campaigning — and those husbands have been able to focus their energy on politics, knowing the kids are being taken care of.

It’s a freedom many female politicians don’t have. Take Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democrat who ran for Congress in New York in 2018 (she failed to unseat Republican Pete King, a 25-year incumbent). Shirley and her husband, who works full time, have two young children, and Shirley got Federal Election Commission approval to use campaign funds to pay for child care, becoming the first woman to do so.

“For the first six months of our campaign, I had my children with me every day until 3:30,” she told Vox in November. “I would literally be making phone calls, I’d be at meetings with a baby strapped to my chest.”

In January, she launched Vote Mama, the first political action committee to fund mothers of young children running for office.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has made universal child care part of her campaign platform for 2020. O’Rourke has yet to announce a position on child care.

Child care responsibilities may affect whether women run for office — political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox have found that as women’s household responsibilities decrease, their interest in running increases (the same was not true for men). It’s a relatively slight effect, but as Lawless and Fox notes, household duties might also affect how women run if they decide to do so — they quote gender politics scholar Georgia Duerst-Lahti, who says, “Women may now think about running for office, but they probably think about it while they are making the bed.”

For many mothers, “sometimes” parenting isn’t an option. And while Beto O’Rourke’s comment did draw attention to everything his wife does to support his campaign, it was also a reminder of the privileges many male candidates have that women don’t — in particular, the privilege of a partner who takes the lead in caring for your kids, and a society that accepts that as normal.

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