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Lawmaking mothers balance work, home

ST. PAUL - Your 4-year-old daughter's first T-ball practice or a debate in the Minnesota House. Your high school senior's last choir concert or a legislative committee hearing at the Capitol. The decisions would seem easy, but for a select group ...

Rep. Karen Klinzing and daughter Marie

ST. PAUL - Your 4-year-old daughter's first T-ball practice or a debate in the Minnesota House.

Your high school senior's last choir concert or a legislative committee hearing at the Capitol.

The decisions would seem easy, but for a select group of Minnesota women with kids, their job as state lawmaker poses unusual challenges. At times it leads to tough decisions that pit their work responsibilities against a desire to be at home for important events.

A handful of the 63 women in the 201-member Legislature have young children at home. Some of those female legislators said realities of the job still deter qualified women from seeking office: hours are long, schedules are unpredictable, and public criticism and personal attacks can be difficult to take.

"This is an important job, but nothing's more important than being a mom," said Rep. Karen Klinzing, among the few female legislators with young children.


In her second term, Klinzing, a Republican, said she has learned to juggle work and home life by maintaining a balance of the two, using the time she spends at the Capitol effectively and by planning ahead.

While some lawmakers might use a recess of legislative action to build social relationships at the Capitol, Klinzing rushes off to her suburban Woodbury home to visit with her children.

Klinzing said her three daughters mostly like that she serves in the Legislature.

"It is time away, but I'm also giving them another gift," she explained. "I can be a female role model for them of something they can do outside the home, if they choose to do that. I opened doors for them that weren't open to me."

A flexible schedule allows the Legislature's newest mom, Sen. Mee Moua, to balance motherhood and her job as an elected official. A corporate lawyer, Moua said she is used to working long days and, in her absence, relatives lend a hand at home. Her family members understand that her schedule during the legislative session is hectic, she said.

"They just know that that's what we need to do," Moua said.

Moua missed most of the first month of the 2006 session because she was on bed rest prior to the April 14 birth of her third child. Fellow senators made sure her bills advanced through the committee process, and she used a laptop and phone to stay in touch with colleagues and constituents. She returned to the Capitol five days after her daughter's birth.

"It's very manageable," the St. Paul DFLer said.


Lawmaking mothers from Greater Minnesota face different challenges, including having to spend at least a week at a time away from home.

"I really like being a legislator, but my favorite job is being a mother," said Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, who finds ways to stay in touch with her four children almost daily.

Otremba was elected in 1997 to replace her husband, who died while serving in the House. Unwilling to be separated from her daughter for week-long stretches, Otremba home-schooled her 11-year-old at the Capitol.

Otremba paired her daughter with legislative colleagues who had specialties in areas the girl was studying. Educating the young Otremba became a bipartisan effort; the girl received help with math work from House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, who was a math teacher.

Like other female legislators who are mothers, Otremba occasionally talks to other moms considering a run for elected office.

"I tell them that if you really want to do this, you can do this," she said. "You can make it work."

Lawmaking mothers say their spouses play a critical role in helping to maintain the balance.

"It is much harder to be the spouse," said Otremba, who for 10 years stayed at home while her husband served in the Legislature.


"It really is a team effort," said Rep. Kent Eken.

When Eken was elected to the House in 2002, his wife Lori left her job as a secretary to stay at home with the couple's children. They have four kids who range in age from 2 to 12.

"We thought it was important that if I was going to be down here ... we needed to have one parent at home with the children," said Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.

As a teacher, Eken said he uses summer vacation to really connect with his family.

"That's the time that I make up for lost time," he said.

Sen. Carrie Ruud faces the unusual situation of trying to split her time between her work and her two grown sons, a granddaughter and her elderly parents. She regretfully admits to missing her granddaughter's dance recitals, having to watch them on video instead.

"It is tough because you want to be there for all of those things," Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said of having to choose job responsibilities over family during the legislative session. "It is a challenge."

"It takes a family that gives you a lot of support and understands," she added.


Technology has helped outstate legislators connect with family while conducting business in St. Paul.

"My cell phone bill has significantly increased," said Ruud, who calls home frequently. She also uses video capabilities on her computer to stay in touch with relatives.

When the full House was considering the Twins ballpark bill recently, Rep. Brita Sailer's son in Bismarck watched the debate online. Sailer, a first-term DFLer from Park Rapids, listened to the floor discussion and responded by e-mail to her son's questions about the stadium bill.

"It was fun to have this little conversation," she said.

Sailer, who was involved for years in local politics, didn't think of running for a spot in the Legislature when her sons, now in their 20s, were young.

"This is a good time (to serve)," Sailer said. "They're out of college. I can still walk."

Scott Wente writes for the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican-Eagle, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper.

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