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Politicians wrestle with work-life balance in the public eye

Published: Sunday, March 2 2014 6:00 a.m. MST

Rep. Jim Matheson and his wife Amy celebrate his 4th District win over Mia Love as Utah democrats gather at the Salt Lake Sheraton on election night Nov. 7, 2012, in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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.

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