Balancing Act

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend reinvents Kennedy tradition, working-mom style.

January 30, 2000|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, working mother, starts her day in much the same way the rest of Maryland's working mothers do: Scrambling to send off her children with full stomachs and light hearts, to conduct their day beyond her protective reach.

Kate leaves first. She's a 16-year-old junior at Towson High and is logging the hours she needs to earn her license by driving her mother to school.

When Kate gets her license, this ritual won't be necessary. Another little bit of letting go. But Townsend is as excited about this milestone as her daughter might be.

"It is such an exciting time in a young person's life. I am so happy for her," Townsend says. Her enthusiasm betrays none of the fears parents often entertain when their kids earn keys to a car.

Then it is back home to prepare a hot breakfast for Kerry, a public-school third-grader and the youngest of the four daughters of Townsend and her husband, David.

"She must like me doing it because, even in the hot summer, I'm there making oatmeal or Cream of Wheat," says Townsend. "We are the two hot-cereal ladies in our house."

She tries to return home by 9 p.m., she says, so she can read Kerry to sleep. "And we do the whole touch, touch thing. I rub her toes. I rub her back," says Townsend, and she works her fingers in unconscious mimicry of this pleasure.

Townsend's face and hands are alive with animation when the subject is her daughters. And there is none of the go-stop stutter of her carefully chosen public remarks when she talks about them. If possible, the familiar Kennedy grin seems wider.

She touches her older girls through the miracle of the Internet. Meaghan, 22, is at Harvard finishing her senior year. Maeve, 20, a junior at Boston College, is studying this year at Trinity College in Ireland.

"Their e-mail is rich and wonderful and full of intimacy," says Townsend.

Demands of Annapolis

In between the driving lessons and the toe rubs and before she gets to open the e-mail from her older daughters, this working mother is Maryland's lieutenant governor, who grabbed the spotlight during the re-election campaign of Gov. Parris Glendening and is the early favorite to succeed him.

As head of the state's criminal justice and economic development programs, Townsend has been given more authority than sometimes comes with the often ceremonial job. Hers is more than the usual role of goodwill ambassador to elementary schools and day-care centers.

"Which I have done!" says Townsend. "But it is also great to go to the opening of the GM plant, which is bringing in new jobs."

But when the boot camp experiment for dealing with hard-core juvenile offenders imploded, ignited by reports in The Sun of physical abuse, Townsend's oversight was criticized and her ability to respond to a crisis was tested.

Townsend told reporters at the height of the controversy in December that when word first came to her that there was violence in the camps, she demanded that it end and was assured by subordinates that it had.

But the newspaper story carrying her response also made brief mention of the fact that she was in Florida on "a political and family trip" the weekend after the boot camp story broke.

Townsend declined to discuss the work-family conflicts in which she found herself during that crisis, suggesting just how sensitive this continues to be for working mothers.

"There is more suspicion of women, that you are not really serious," she says. "There is not that same consideration for men. But I think as we become more facile with communications we will start to judge ourselves on what we do, not whether we are in the room physically.

"Traditionally, face time was the way you proved that you were a good employee, a good worker. But with new communications . . . we are seeing that we don't always have to be there. I think that this is a liberating development for women, but it is going to take some time because there is this old tradition."

Townsend makes the point that being lieutenant governor can sometimes make it easier for her to juggle work and family.

"On tougher, busier days, like those in December, I did work around the clock -- thanks to cell phones. My daughters understood that their mother has a job that sometimes means longer hours and difficult challenges."

But there are weeks, she says, when she can sit down with her staff and work her schedule around Kerry's basketball games or Kate's art shows or visits home from Maeve and Meaghan.

"They will say, 'This is a very important event,' and I will say, 'Yes, but I haven't been home for three nights.' It isn't always easy.

"Sometimes I think Kerry would like to say, 'You know, it would be nice to see you,'" says Townsend.

Multiple roles

Like most women of her generation -- she is 48 -- Townsend's job compounds in uncharted ways the traditional roles in a woman's life, those of mother, wife, sister and daughter.

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