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Playpens, Pampers, and politics. A new generation of female lawmakers speaks out on family issues

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1987

Coronado, Calif.

When 900 politically active women gathered here late last month for a four-day forum for women state legislators, the youngest member of the audience was 11-week-old Austin Esposito. Austin will not be eligible to vote until 2005. But the message cross-stitched in green across his tiny yellow T-shirt hints at his family's political involvement: ``Vote for my mom.''

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``Mom'' is Rep. Claire McCaskill of Kansas City, Mo., a third-term Democrat in the Missouri legislature. As the first legislator in her state to become a mother while in office, she represents a new generation of female lawmakers who find playpens and Pampers as much a part of politics as campaigns and constituents.

``This has been a new thing in Jefferson City [the state capital],'' Representative McCaskill says of her dual role. ``But a lot of constituents have been calling and congratulating me. And my colleagues have been extremely supportive. Many of my women colleagues are older and have grown children, so it's as though Austin has two dozen grandmothers.''

Most of those surrogate grandmothers came of political age at a time when women were elected to statewide office only after decades of volunteer work in the community, when their children were almost grown.

By contrast, Ms. McCaskill is one of half a dozen state lawmakers from across the country who traveled with infants to this conference, sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, nor are they alone. ``For every mother here with children,'' says Rep. Sally Fox, a Vermont Democrat with two young sons, ``I would guess there are another two or three whose children are at home with their dads.''

In separate interviews between meetings at the Hotel del Coronado, as the legislators pushed strollers and played with their babies, they related similar stories about the challenges and rewards of combining politics and parenthood. One challenge involved is timing births to coincide with legislative recesses. ``There's family planning and legislative planning,'' Rep. Margaret Lewis, a Republican from Jefferson, Wis., said with a laugh.

Representative Lewis gave birth to her first child, Andrew, two days before the Wisconsin Legislature convened in 1985. She missed only the opening session, then rejoined her colleagues the next day. The couple's four-month-old daughter, Allison, was born during the summer recess.

Although some women live close enough to the state capitol to commute, others must set up a temporary residence there during legislative sessions. McCaskill has hired a young woman to accompany her to Jefferson City in January to care for Austin. A playpen and crib in her State Capitol office will also enable her to spend time with the baby when she is not attending hearings or floor debates.

Similarly, Rep. Julie Peterson, a third-term Democrat from Brattleboro, Vt., explains that for the past three years her husband, John Wesley, has stayed home with their son, Jack, now four years old, while the legislature is in session. This year she will take the couple's five-month-old daughter, Carolyn, with her to Montpelier, and ``the boys will stay home.''

Although Mr. Wesley, a lawyer, encouraged his wife to run for office, he admits the couple ``had to make some fairly significant adjustments in a short time. It's been a challenge. The logistics of being a two-career family with both parents committed to being dedicated care-givers can be overwhelming.''