It’s notable that when people hear that a successful, ambitious man is eschewing a more powerful position for family reasons, many assume it’s a cover story. In certain cases, it may well be.
But is it really so hard to believe that Paul Ryan prioritizes his roles as husband and father above that of House Republican? According to The Fix, Ryan “has reminded colleagues and reporters that he is a married man with three young children [ages 10, 12, and 13] with whom, because of his existing work in D.C., he already spends only weekends.”
I really like Ryan. I like his command of policy issues, how articulate he is when explaining conservative principles, and now, I particularly like his setting out boundaries around his family. Too often in Washington, career is considered sacrosanct, and if family is mentioned at all, it is only as an afterthought. People assume men in particular are on the fast track to career stardom, and no number of children at home will alter their trajectory.
In the wake of California Rep. Kevin McCarthy withdrawing his name for consideration, many Republicans have clamored for the relatively young Ryan to take the Speaker’s gavel from John Boehner. Yet Ryan has remained impressively cool to the suggestion.
Young Children Need Their Fathers
This appears to mean that Ryan either won’t take the job at this stage, because he really would prefer to maximize time at home with his wife and three young children, or, if Ryan does end up as Speaker, he would be well-positioned to negotiate some changes to the job description, like significantly reducing the 200 days Boehner spent annually on fundraising trips.
Such changes would make the job more palatable for a man who also wants to be an involved father. Janna Ryan told The Janesville Gazette this summer that Paul Ryan’s time at home with family is “his oxygen,” and the thing that “drives him, keeps him centered.”
Of course, I’d prefer that Ryan didn’t take the job. Speaker of the House is a wonderful opportunity, but it’s unlikely to be a springboard to anything higher, and I still hold out hope for a possible future Ryan presidential run. President Obama’s catapult from the Capitol to the White House was an exception rather than the rule, and being a senator just briefly likely helped him.
While Ryan is impressively talented, this isn’t necessarily the right time in his life to take on a job that’s even more time-consuming than his existing chairmanship. Many older House members could take up the mantle without shortchanging children at home.
Ryan arguably feels the same way about the presidency. This would have been an ideal cycle for him to run, having been the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012. Yet he opted out this time, at least in part because of family considerations. Given that Ryan lost his own father, “a hard-charging lawyer . . . [to] a heart attack” at age 16, we shouldn’t be surprised that his values conflict with prevailing Washington norms.
Everyone Deserves a Chance at Happiness
Anne-Marie Slaughter has compared careers to interval racing. That analogy is helpful. It’s also applicable to both mothers and fathers who value family life, as, ideally, we all do. Children are only young once, so if there is any time not to overload the career side of work-life balance, it’s during that period.
As a mother busy raising two young children, I especially sympathize with Ryan’s wife in this situation. As The Washington Post noted, she typically spends only weekends with her husband.
Thankfully, my husband is around significantly more than that. However, he also works long hours, and when he travels for work, I have to do everything I typically do as well as everything he typically does for our family. It’s a challenge. On some days, it’s downright bone-wearying. So I salute Janna Ryan for managing on her own every week.
Being the lone parent at home isn’t easy, and I wouldn’t begrudge Janna Ryan telling her husband behind the scenes that this just isn’t the right time for a bigger job that would keep him apart from his family even more. It sounds like he would agree, and good for him.
The question is why so many other people seem to have trouble accepting that assessment of the situation. Why do we have so much trouble believing a man would take his family into account when making career decisions? Do we honestly believe that family is only a woman’s issue, or have we settled for the idea that a cracker-jack career is the only route to true success? Is there room for personal happiness in a successful life?
While it may be possible to tweak many jobs to better accommodate family time, it’s not clear that’s realistic with the speakership. Ryan is talented, but he is also still relatively young. He should enjoy this time with his family and plan to accelerate his career when they’re grown.
And we, the American public, should support him. Parenting may not be publicly recognized like a congressional leadership role. As conservatives so often note, however, parenthood is its own valuable form of service, and to Ryan’s family, it is undoubtedly more important.