‘Who’s taking care of the kids?’ Is finally a question for dads on the trail, too

Representative Eric Swalwell held his son Nelson at a campaign event in April. Swalwell, who also has a young daughter, said he tries to spend no more than five consecutive days away from his children.
Representative Eric Swalwell held his son Nelson at a campaign event in April. Swalwell, who also has a young daughter, said he tries to spend no more than five consecutive days away from his children.Joe Raedle/Getty Images/File/Getty Images

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 Governor Steve Bullock postponed the announcement of his presidential campaign for a true test of personal endurance — the Advanced Placement exams 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 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 Joe Biden, four years 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 baby sitter up to speed.

“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 Moulton in Massachusetts on Monday, with a baby sitter 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 younger than 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 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.

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 baby sitter 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.”


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.

Gillibrand is the only woman in history to run for American president with school-age children, 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.


“For men, that’s really something new to be asked those kinds of questions about their children,” said 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.”