You don’t have to be a fan of Kellyanne Conway to be angry at how the headlines treated her last week. All you have to be is a parent blessed with a large family.
In the latest public skewering of an advisor to the president, Conway was roundly mocked for the reason she gave when she ducked out of the hot media glare for a few days. Here’s how this went down, in a sampling of headlines:
The Daily Mail: “I wasn’t sidelined, I was looking after my kids!”
Deadline: “Kellyanne Conway Returns to TV, Says She Has Been Busy Looking at Houses and Being Mom.”
Washington Examiner: Kellyanne Conway: “Looking at schools and houses kept me off TV”
In some publications, the eyebrow-raising language continued into the story that followed, as in Fortune’s opening paragraph, which said that “family matters” were “to blame” for Conway not being on TV for a couple of days.
Oh, those damnable family matters, always interfering with the stuff that matters most, like helping out when a TV booker desperately needs a guest.
Leaving aside the reason for the discussion—whether or not Conway was temporarily censored by her boss—the thigh-slapping ridicule that accompanied her explanation is permissible only in a culture in which large families are an oddity, and the work they involve is comprehended by a weary few. Let’s call them, oh, the 14%.
That’s the number of American families that have four children or more—a number that has been in steady decline over the course of Conway’s lifetime. In the 1970s, some 40% of women at the end of their child-bearing years had four or more children, even though some research shows that parents who have large families are happier than those who have fewer kids.
But happy though those parents may be, they’re also busier—and having outside help, as Conway surely does, doesn’t change the reality of this. Polite parents of four won’t say this in conversations with mothers of singletons, but our voices may take on the high pitch of insincerity when we say, reassuringly, “Oh, all kids are work, it doesn’t matter how many you have.”
You learn what a lie this is as you accumulate more. Two kids are quadruple the work of one. Four are why that video of a mom hiding in the closet eating candy went viral. “They don’t ever go away. They want everything you have,” Ashley Gardner, a Utah mother of quadruples, says in the video she posted to her Facebook page, and like all good humor, it’s so funny because it’s so true. They want everything you have, your time included, and it doesn’t matter how high-powered a job you have.
Conway’s closet is the White House these days, but even on the job, she doesn’t escape the equivalent of the relentless child peering under the pantry door, as evidenced by an interview she gave to The Washington Examiner. During it, her phone pulsed constantly until she picked it up, answered a few questions, sent a few texts, and then revealed to the reporter that it was one of her twelve-year-old twins, who had a question about choir practice at a local church.
They don’t ever go away. Nor do we really want them to. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the hardest thing ever, trying to do difficult and important work in the professional sphere while placating the most demanding of self-absorbed dictators, one’s own children, whose never-ending needs and problems are most often met and solved behind closed doors. And the hardest thing ever is more than exponentially harder the more kids you have.
The soothing of nightmares, the packing of lunches, the meetings interrupted by a pediatrician’s call or young-adult child who needs help filling out her first W-4, the unscheduled delivery to a school of a forgotten lunch or violin, the friends who are coming over after school to work on a project and will need something to eat, the parent-teacher conferences, the winter concerts, the well-child visits, the wisdom teeth that need to come out—these things and more we won’t know about Kellyanne Conway’s life, as she struggles to be a mom, an employee and a high-profile target of sardonic headline writers and savage SNL skits.
She manages, like all parents do, by making deliberate and rigid choices about priorities. “I see people on the weekend spending an awful lot of time on their golf games, and that’s their right, but the kids will be with me; we live in the same house, and they come first,” she has said. She dismisses the cult of superwoman, calling herself “an imperfect mom raising imperfect children,” and says she wants to be known for being “kind and generous and honest,” but mostly for her children’s accomplishments.
“I want to be famous for my children,” she told The Washington Post. “I want one of them to cure cancer or win the Nobel Peace Prize or be the first woman president.”
Most Americans would prefer not to wait that long for the first woman president— Conway’s oldest children are twelve—and many Americans intensely dislike Conway and the president she represents. But wherever you stand on President Trump, “Media Perplexed by Idea That Four Kids Are Work” is a headline that can unite even the most politically estranged of mothers. That’s not fake news. Maddeningly, it’s real.