How Paul Ryan Is Changing the Conversation About Family Time for Public Servants

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he will continue to see his three children on weekends if he is speaker. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he will continue to see his three children on weekends if he is speaker. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Rep. Cyn­thia Lum­mis was in the throes of her reelec­tion cam­paign in Wyom­ing last Oc­to­ber when her hus­band, Alv­in Wieder­spahn, died sud­denly. He was just 65 years old.

Lum­mis couldn’t even find his will as she took on a new load of re­spons­ib­il­ity. She had to shore up her hus­band’s busi­nesses and pull to­geth­er a me­mori­al ser­vice. Her daugh­ter was grown, but Lum­mis says she still felt a push and pull between her per­son­al life and Con­gress.

As Wyom­ing’s only mem­ber of the House, she felt an ob­lig­a­tion not to fall short in serving the state even as she grieved. There was a lame-duck con­gres­sion­al ses­sion to at­tend, and she served on the steer­ing com­mit­tee re­spons­ible for ap­point­ing a new in­com­ing class of fresh­men to com­mit­tees.

“I really did not have any choice, so I just kept up the pace,” Lum­mis said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Like many wo­men in Con­gress, Lum­mis has been re­luct­ant to take a step back from work in the face of fam­ily ob­lig­a­tions—or even per­son­al tragedy. She con­tin­ued fly­ing between Wash­ing­ton and Wyom­ing on week­ends, a jour­ney that takes a min­im­um of eight hours be­cause there are no dir­ect flights. That’s the job, she said.

When men in polit­ics pub­licly mourn or seek more time with their fam­il­ies, their de­cisions are ap­plauded, praised, and held up as ex­amples of why they are well-suited for pub­lic ser­vice. A touch­ing in­ter­view between Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden and Steph­en Col­bert left view­ers aching for a Biden run at the White House. On the cam­paign trail, Sen. Marco Ru­bio sel­dom misses an op­por­tun­ity to talk about his de­vo­tion to fam­ily life. And now, Rep. Paul Ry­an has drawn a line in the sand for work-life bal­ance.

But many wo­men in Con­gress—just like wo­men across the work­force—haven’t felt com­fort­able pub­licly ad­dress­ing the toll their jobs take on them and their fam­il­ies. Most have dis­missed the no­tion that their jobs are more de­mand­ing than oth­er wo­men’s. And speak­ing out has car­ried risk. That is un­til Paul Ry­an.

“To have someone like Paul Ry­an, who is clearly Mr. Grav­itas, say ‘I am go­ing to put my kids first on the week­ends’ is go­ing to bend the curve for oth­er people in polit­ics, par­tic­u­larly wo­men,” Lum­mis said. “Now, they won’t feel that it is a sign of the in­ab­il­ity to bal­ance your life or some sort of weak­ness when they say, ‘Hey, I am go­ing to need time for my fam­ily.’ ”

When Ry­an stood be­fore his con­fer­ence a week ago and laid out what he was and was not will­ing to do as House speak­er, the 45-year-old was not only en­sur­ing his three chil­dren would see their dad on week­ends, he was be­gin­ning to change the ex­pect­a­tion for work­ing wo­men in Con­gress, too.

“If a wo­man had been the first one to say that, I just don’t think it would have gone over well at all,” Lum­mis said.

Rep. Martha Roby, a 39-year-old moth­er of two, was on the way from the Cap­it­ol to the air­port Fri­day af­ter­noon when she spoke to Na­tion­al Journ­al. It had been a mara­thon week for Roby, an Alabama Re­pub­lic­an who serves on the Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Benghazi. She had ap­peared on CBS This Morn­ing, CNN’s New Day, Fox’s The Kelly File, and MS­N­BC’s Morn­ing Joe in the span of a few days, en­dured an 11-hour hear­ing with former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton, and kept up with GOP con­fer­ence meet­ings and votes.

Roby usu­ally tries to hold meet­ings early enough on Fri­day morn­ings to get out of town to pick her kids up from school on Fri­day af­ter­noons in Alabama. Last week, she missed that treat.

She has been try­ing to find ways to bal­ance her work and fam­ily since she got to Con­gress in 2011. On spring break, her kids come to Wash­ing­ton. In the sum­mer, each child—Mar­garet, 10, and George, 6—vis­its Mom by them­selves for a week. Still, she said it al­ways helps when a fel­low le­gis­lat­or stands up and ac­know­ledges how hard it is to raise a fam­ily and serve.

“I re­spect any of my col­leagues pri­or­it­iz­ing their fam­il­ies—male or fe­male. This job that we do is very im­port­ant, but it is not more im­port­ant than our fam­il­ies,” Roby said, be­fore apo­lo­giz­ing pro­fusely for cut­ting the in­ter­view short so she could catch a flight.

Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, who as chair of the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence is the highest-rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an wo­man in Con­gress, says Ry­an’s de­mands last week set a new pre­ced­ent not just for wo­men in pub­lic ser­vice, but for men too. With Boehner in lead­er­ship, the ex­pect­a­tion had been that the speak­er fun­draised year-round. That left his depu­ties fol­low­ing in those foot­steps. With grown chil­dren, Boehner has man­aged to make that sched­ule work, but Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers says Ry­an has now opened the door for a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers.

“You look around our lead­er­ship table, and there are sev­er­al of us who have young fam­il­ies: Steve Scal­ise; [Kev­in] Mc­Carthy still has a daugh­ter in high school; Patrick McHenry has a baby; Luke Mess­er has young kids; and me,” says Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers. “It is an im­port­ant dis­cus­sion as we see how this place can op­er­ate more ef­fect­ively in this mod­ern age.”

One thing mem­bers say con­stitu­ents and voters may not un­der­stand is that the work­week for mem­bers of Con­gress sel­dom ends on Thursday af­ter­noon or Fri­day morn­ing, when they board flights back home. In their dis­tricts, there are meet­ings, town halls, and com­munity events to at­tend.

“My wife gets really in­furi­ated when she sees tele­vi­sion re­ports say­ing we are on re­cess,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art, a Re­pub­lic­an from Flor­ida. “What I try to do is bring my son and my wife along to stuff.”

Still, not every­one has been sup­port­ive of Ry­an’s stance. Some mem­bers of his own party say his fam­ily ob­lig­a­tions may be too de­mand­ing for him to serve as speak­er. And Demo­crats have cri­ti­cized him for mak­ing the case for fam­ily time when he has not sup­por­ted man­dated paid fam­ily leave. Rep. Mar­cia Fudge made the case that former House Speak­er Nancy Pelosi nev­er could have asked for what Paul did.

“I don’t think she would have ever got­ten up and said that, even though she is very close with her fam­ily and un­der­stands fam­ily time,” Fudge said. “She also un­der­stands the chal­lenges and the re­spons­ib­il­it­ies of be­ing the speak­er of the House.

“I think the real proof is go­ing to be in the pud­ding,” Fudge ad­ded. “If his con­fer­ence, once they elect him speak­er—if in fact they do—de­cide they want a full-time speak­er.”

Rep. Rosa De­Lauro, who was a spon­sor of the Fam­ily and Med­ic­al In­sur­ance Leave Act, said she wished Ry­an would re­cog­nize that he could do more to help people out­side of Con­gress find a bet­ter work/life bal­ance. But she ad­ded she’s happy he has sparked a broad­er de­bate on the sub­ject.

“These are is­sues that used to be on the fringes,” De­Lauro said. “They are now the cen­ter of our pub­lic dis­course.”

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