Managing Public Office With Private Lives is a Question of Balance

Toni Lepeska, Special to The Daily News

They juggle work and home life just as their counterparts in the business world, but women in public office do so under the full-time weight of civic duties that sometimes lead to hazards in their lives.

General Session Criminal Court Judge Loyce Lambert Ryan once was guarded for several weeks after her name was publicized on a white supremacist website. Her family was similarly protected. Her 5-year-old daughter didn’t go to school or the library without an officer.

“That’s part of it, and I had to explain that to her,” said Ryan, whose daughter is now 18.

Loyce Lambert Ryan

While elected officials don’t always face such serious threats, they often feel the pressure public life puts on the home, on a full-time job, or both. A public defender who lost her first try as a judge, Ryan nearly didn’t run for office again because she was a new mother.

“Loyce,” her husband of 17 months told her, “you have to do it again. We can make it work.”

Ryan won the full-time seat in 2000. She said the support of a spouse is essential, as is support from others. Her mother pitched in to care for the baby. As she got older, the little girl sat with coloring books in Ryan’s chambers, safely across the hallway from the bailiffs.

The court’s female staff became what the girl called her “downtown moms” while the bailiffs became her “downtown dads.”

Memphis City Councilwoman Patrice Robinson leans on the support of family, friends and even church mothers. Her children were still in school when she was first elected to public office as a school board member in 2000. Her son began to complain there was “nothing” in the house to eat. She realized what he was missing wasn’t food but her cooking. Her mother missed her, too.

“It’s really difficult trying to maintain a normal life,” said Robinson, elected to the city council in 2015. “What I mean is staying in contact with family. My mother at one time said she saw me more on TV than in person.”

Now a grandmother and great-grandmother, Robinson is retired from MLG&W but finds herself at least as busy as when she worked and held public office simultaneously. The word is out, she said, that she’s responsive. She gets calls from areas outside her District 3.

An assist comes from an administrative assistant assigned to the council and a legislative analyst. And women at Faith Temple Ministries make her family meals from time to time. If Robinson can’t get to the cleaning, they also dust and vacuum for her.

“Other women need to build that into their budget,” she said. “You cannot do it all.”

Prioritizing also is a must. Robinson assigns Tuesdays and Wednesdays for meetings with people who need her help, but she admits “it’s hard for me to say ‘no.’”

Heidi Shafer, the only woman currently on the County Board of Commissioners, grew up in a small Nebraska town where her grandfather was mayor. A part of campaigns early, she schedules her time with these priorities in mind: God, family, country and work.

“I prioritize them that way,” she said. “It’s a little relentless. It’s keeping the balls in the air. Some days I do it better than others.”

Shafer, elected in 2010 and 2014 to represent District 5, reorganized her commissioner’s office and modeled the flow after a business. With adult daughters now, her parenting duties are “much less rigorous,” but she maintains a job as chief marketing officer for the Flinn Clinic. She also is a confirmation instructor at Trinity Lutheran Church. Women interested in public office often tell her they don’t know when they’ll have the time to go into politics.

“They don’t know how in the world they can get it all done,” Shafer said. “When I talk to them, I tell them there will be a season. When you have little kids, that’s probably not it.”

She’s never had to explain her multiple duties to her male colleagues on the County Commission.

“Like every woman I know,” she said, “we don’t have excuses. We just do.”