For Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, life in politics didn’t start in 2000 when he won the election that sent him to Congress. It started in 1977, when his father, Scott Matheson, D-Utah, won the gubernatorial election.
He was a teenager when his father was elected, and for the next eight years, he lived the life of a political family. The changes in his life due to his father's new position seemed subtle at the time, Matheson said, but he now believes that being the child of a politician helped prepare him for a life of serving in a public office — a challenge for politicians and their families.
In fact, 86 percent of U.S. congressional representatives say they feel they spent too little time with their families, according to a 2013 survey by the Congressional Management Foundation. Only 16 percent claim they are satisfied with the time they spend with their families. Most, however (83 percent) also say their families are supportive of their work in Congress.
A job in any political office — not just the House of Representatives — involves and affects an entire family in one way or another, according to Jim Ross, a political consultant and founder of Jim Ross Consulting. But families who are determined are finding ways to stay close and manage the stress of being in the public eye.
“It’s not just one person in office. Everybody in the family has to bear the burdens that come with it,” Ross said.
Time and priorities
Matheson, who will finish his final term in Congress this year, reflected on the realities of public office and the consequences it had on some of his colleagues.
“I’ve seen a lot of failed marriages in Congress," Matheson said. "Whether the fact that the one spouse was in Congress was the cause of that, I can’t say. But I’ve got to believe that it is was a catalyst that helped make that happen."
For the last 14 years, Matheson, like many of his peers in Congress, has spent four days a week working in Washington and three days off in his home — though even at home he often has government matters to attend to.
“It’s a real challenge when you travel each week,” he said. “My spouse becomes, in effect, a single parent during the week while I’m gone.”
Those who take jobs in public office run the risk of becoming detached from their families, according to Judy Nadler, a former adjunct faculty member at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“One of the saddest things I see in politicians is that they lose touch with themselves," Nadler said. "They believe their purpose is to be (a politician), but that’s only their job.” Before leaving Santa Clara University in December 2013, Nadler helped create ethics training materials and case studies to prepare newly elected politicians for the challenges ahead.
One of the keys to avoid becoming detached from the family, Matheson said, is to make a concerted effort to carve out time regularly to spend with family — even when staff is trying to keep him as busy as possible in his role as a politician.
That quality time is a good starting point, but even more is required to successfully cope with the distance, Matheson said. For his family, daily communication had to become a regular part of their lives.
“Good communication is not just talking to each other on a regular basis. It’s not a ‘Hey, how’s it going? How’s the weather?’ It’s more communicating to make sure that everyone understands what the other is dealing with and how we can best support each other,” Matheson said.
Because his first son was a baby when he was elected, the need for good communication pertained only to Matheson and his wife when he was away. However, as his two sons grew up, it became equally important to maintain a close relationship with them as well.
"Just in the last year, since he got his first phone, my 15-year-old and I text too. That has been a great way to stay in touch about little, in-the-moment things that are going on in his life," he said.
The public eye
Nadler, who also served previously as a mayor and city councilwoman in Santa Clara, Calif., also said a number of her colleagues in local government divorced due to issues stemming from their offices. But just as concerning for her was the amount of attention from the public that she and her family received and their reaction to it.
The attention was often unwarranted and at times unpleasant, and Nadler said she received such criticism more often than praise. After one incident, she went so far as to move her children to a school outside the city limits in order for her daughters to escape negative attention after she supported a bill unpopular among parents and teachers.
“The PTA at the school talked and came out with a resolution that basically said the bill was a terrible thing. People would grab my elbow and shout at me, 'What’s wrong with you?’” Nadler said. “At that point I decided that it was going to be hard to be a mom and city councilwoman in the same town. So we moved our girls to a school that was two towns over.”
Ross — the son of a former city councilman — remembered that when he was younger, people sometimes cornered his mother to argue over decisions and votes his father made in the city council.
“My mom hated (the attention). She used to get pulled aside when shopping for groceries, and someone would try to argue over something going on in city council,” he recalled.
Living in the public eye can have different effects on different members of the family. While some may grow resilient to the constant attention, or get “tough skin,” as Ross referred to it, others can grow frustrated.
Nadler noted that her daughters experienced many such moments of frustration growing up, such as when one of her daughters had to listen to teammates discussing comments critical of Nadler during volleyball practice.
"She was hurt and defensive, and I had to revert back to the basic parenting skills," Nadler recalled. "I had to say, 'OK, who said it? Was it credible? Was it supposed to be a constructive comment or degrading?' If someone I really care about and respect says something about me that’s critical, I’ll talk to that person. Otherwise, you can’t let it affect you.”
During her time in office, Nadler often had to protect and console her family in order to help them endure the difficulties that public office brings — and to simultaneously maintain their support.
While her family overcame that particular challenge, Nadler witnessed similar situations among her peers in which the spouse in office ignored the impact of public attention on the family.
“I know a gentleman who was elected the same day that I was ... to a different city council," she recalled. "His wife just did not understand what this job entailed. He told me that she handed him an ultimatum that it was either her and the family, or the office. So, he resigned."
Expect challenges, expect results8 comments on this story
Holding any public office will present a family with challenges, Matheson said. As with other difficulties in life, the family can work through them and come out better and stronger, or the challenges can damage the family. A life of politics puts stress on families, but it’s also not without rewards for those who endure and overcome.
Both Matheson and Nadler noted that because of the environment their children grew up in, all of them have a better sense of serving their local communities and the country as a whole.
“This has been a great thing to teach our sons and for them to see in their lives every day. My wife, for example, is a doctor and gives back in a different way than I do as a member of Congress. I am glad they have been able to see both," Matheson said.