First Mom Patti Blagojevich
How does she parent two children while in the spotlight?
Sunday, April 24, 2005
This article ran in a 2005 issue of Chicago Parent. In light of today's Blagojevich verdict, we thought it might be interesting to take a trip down memory lane. One quote from former first lady Patti Blagojevich, talking about his then-announced 2006 reelection campaign, stands out on reread:
"The initiatives I'm working on, they're very fulfilling. Having my husband like what he does and enjoy his job is a good thing. But if for some reason the people of Illinois chose not to re-elect him, it's not the end of the world. … Come what may, we always have each other. Your circumstances may change, but if you have each other, it doesn't really make a difference."
Though the former governor was found guilty on only one of 24 charges today -- the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the other 23 -- there are likely tougher circumstances ahead for the Blagojevich family.
Anyway, read on. See? Patti Blagojevich is just a regular mom!
From the inside, this Mediterranean-style bungalow seems no different from the homes of other Chicago-area families. Toys are piled up against the couch. In the playroom, a fudge-colored hamster named Chocolate scampers through the exercise tubes in his cage. Artwork hangs from the banister leading to the second floor, including a gray, cantaloupe-size model of Pluto sprinkled with pink glitter.
But from the outside, it's clear this is not a regular family. An unmarked sedan and a marked Illinois State Trooper vehicle hug the curb across the street, guarding against unwanted visitors. Getting inside requires an invitation, a valid ID and an OK from the officer in the car.
The precautions are understandable. After all, this is where Gov. Rod Blagojevich lives with his wife, Patti, and daughters, Amy and Annie.
A career politician understands the need for a security detail. But how do you explain it to an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old? As a mother, how do you raise kids stuck between two worlds-one filled with ice skating lessons and birthday parties and the other populated by security guards and front-page criticism?
Patti Blagojevich sees herself as a typical working mom, albeit one whose every move is under a microscope. She sets high standards: She struggles to juggle family, work and first lady duties.
She aims to put her family first. Because at the end of the day, that's what matters-not campaigns, elections or public opinion polls.
"You can't let your ambition crowd what's ultimately the most important thing to you," she says. "And that's your family and your children."
That's not to say she gets it right every time. Blagojevich is the first to admit she's still figuring out how to straddle politics and family life. All she can do is take it one day at a time, she says.
It's just after 2 p.m. Upstairs, Annie, 2, is grudgingly waking up from her nap. Downstairs, Blagojevich reheats a cup of soymilk-sweetened coffee. "I need my afternoon caffeine fix," she says. A few minutes later, she returns with Annie in her arms. Still half asleep, Annie burrows her face into her mom's shoulder while Blagojevich stokes her daughter's short, brown hair.
Blagojevich is a full-time mom who remains active in her real estate business and politics. Like other working moms, she occasionally ends up in not-so-kid-friendly situations with her kids in tow.
With Amy in school during the day, Annie accompanies her mom nearly everywhere, including to political speeches and property showings. When conflicts arise, Blagojevich gets creative. "I've gotten pretty good at holding [Annie] when I give speeches," she says, though Annie sometimes fights for the microphone.
One afternoon, she brought Annie along to show a property. She walked into a room full of men in suits-her client, the contractor, two company officers and another real estate agent-with a toddler in her arms. Feeling the need to explain Annie's presence, she blurted out: "She's my consultant." The nickname stuck.
Keeping things consistent
As much as she can, Blagojevich works to create a stable, regular home life. "We try to keep as many things normal [as possible], and that includes living in a normal house, in a normal neighborhood, being able to see your grandma, being able to walk to the park," she says.
When possible, the family follows a regular, if rigorous, routine. On school days, Annie is up by 6:30 a.m.; Amy by 7. When dad is home, he and Amy devour the sports page during breakfast, eager for news on the Chicago Cubs. Amy is driven to school, sometimes by her mom, sometimes by a state trooper. After school, Amy has gymnastics on Tuesday, ice skating Tuesday and Thursday, guitar on Friday and swimming on Saturday.
Dinner is usually between 5 and 6:30 p.m., with Annie in bed by 7 and Amy by 8:30 p.m.
"It's all very mundane," Blagojevich says.
But it can also be exhausting. While the governor usually works from downtown Chicago, it's hard to predict when he will be home. So Blagojevich often cooks three meals-one for the kids, one for herself and one for her husband. "At the end of every week, you go, 'Whew,' " she says.
While the family's day-to-day schedule is often out of her hands, she can control where they live. Springfield may be home to the state capitol, but the Blagojevich family still calls Chicago "home."
She and her husband have taken political flak for their decision. But the first mom is resolute.
The 35-room, 50,000-square-foot governor's mansion "is a beautiful place and a state treasure, but it's not necessarily the best place to raise children," Blagojevich says. "You have to do the best for your kids. I think most people understand."
Moving would have required Amy to leave the school she's attended since age 3 and go to a place where everyone would know her as the "governor's daughter," Blagojevich adds.
Childproofing would have been a nightmare. And with tour groups tromping through the residence three days a week, she sees the environment as disruptive-not to mention decadent. Having servants on hand might sound like fun, but Blagojevich says it's not a habit she wants herself-or her kids-to get accustomed to.
"You don't know how long your husband's going to be governor," she adds. "Plus, Rod and I are not independently wealthy people. We have no real ability to live in a 50,000-square-foot mansion with servants after this is over, so you really don't want to get used to that."
Take root beer, for example. At home, Amy and Annie have three drink choices: milk, water or juice. On special occasions, such as when the governor takes Amy to a Cubs game, Amy drinks her favorite pop, Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer. Someone in the governor's mansion found that out, and suddenly the refrigerator there was stocked with root beer-not something Blagojevich wants her kids drinking every day.
Blagojevich also wanted to stay near her family. Her parents live in Chicago, where her father, Richard Mell, is an alderman. That, though, has posed some challenges of its own as political squabbles between her dad and her husband have exploded into the headlines this year.
Protecting her kids
"Ow, ow, ow!" Annie runs toward the couch where her mom is sitting, rolls up her pink pants, grabs her shin and hands Blagojevich a Band-Aid.
"You want me to put it on your leg?" her mom asks. "Yes? Where is it?"
She unwraps the Band-Aid and sticks it over Annie's invisible wound. "It's just for effect," Blagojevich confides to a visitor. She turns to Annie. "You got a boo boo?" Annie nods. All better, she runs off to play, like any typical kid.
A typical mom, Blagojevich wants to protect her kids from harm. That's never easy. Living such a public life makes it even harder. But what Blagojevich fears more than nasty headlines or schoolyard bullies is real harm coming to her kids.
"Obviously, you always have that in the back of your mind about some crazy person wanting to hurt your kids to get at your husband," she says.
Someone sent a death threat awhile ago, Blagojevich says. Typed on a public library computer, the threat was untraceable. Security was tightened. Amy didn't understand why.
What's a mom to do?
"You just try to handle that the best you can," she says. "It's a balancing act, when you go from code yellow to code orange. You try to be alert and figure that most people, if they want to hurt [the governor], would hurt him and not your kids, but you can't rule it out. So that's obviously something that we live with now."
Passing along values
On a day-to-day basis, though, Blagojevich is more concerned with the cues her kids absorb from their environment. And when it comes to the big issues-from sex to smoking and drugs-she wants her kids to hear it from her first.
While sex isn't a part of Annie's 2-year-old vocabulary yet, Blagojevich figured this year was the time to have the "facts of life" talk with Amy.
So she pulled out It's So Amazing, a children's book that uses cartoons to explain sperm, birth and babies.
The book also gave Blagojevich an opportunity to talk about homosexuality-something she considers important because her sister, Amy's aunt, is a lesbian. At the end of the book, she says, is a section on being gay. After reading it, Blagojevich asked Amy, "Who do we know that's gay?"
"I don't know," Amy said.
"Aunt Debbie," Blagojevich prompted, explaining that was why her aunt had a girlfriend.
"Oh." Amy paused, then said: "I just have one question, Mommy. If they get married, who's going to wear the tuxedo?" Blagojevich laughs as she remembers her relief that the question wasn't a tougher one.
Amy even answered the question herself: "I think it would look better on Aunt Debbie because she's got shorter hair."
Smoking is another hot-button issue for Blagojevich; her mother-in-law died of lung cancer when Amy was 2.
"Smoking is the entry drug for other drugs," she says. "You really have to get in there. You want to start these discussions before they even think about it. Because once they've done it, it's too late."
Dad and governor
But what about dad? How much is he there?
When he was a U.S. congressman, her husband was often in Washington, D.C. for days at a time, Blagojevich says. Now, as governor, he usually works downtown. If he travels, he tries to be gone no longer than two nights at a time.
"Being gone so much with Amy has made him want to be here more with Annie," she says. "He'd come home from being gone for just two or three nights and say, 'Amy looks different. … I think she's grown in just three days.' He'd come home and think he'd missed something."
Recently, Annie came down with a case of the sniffles. Rather than leave her home with a sitter while they spent the weekend in Washington D.C., the first parents skipped a White House dinner with the president.
"There are things that you miss out on because you set those priorities," Blagojevich says. "In the long run, looking back, nobody ever writes on their tombstone, 'I should've spent more time at work.' It's 'I should've spent more time with my kids.' They're worth it."
While Blagojevich supports her husband's career in politics, it's clear his absence takes its toll.
"We don't talk about how we miss Daddy when he's gone, because there's no point," she says.
And though the governor hasn't said so publicly, the first lady thinks he'll run for re-election in 2006. And she'll support him. At the same time, she says, their family's survival doesn't ride on the outcome of the election.
"Having a political life is not the be-all and the end-all," she says. "The initiatives I'm working on, they're very fulfilling. Having my husband like what he does and enjoy his job is a good thing. But if for some reason the people of Illinois chose not to re-elect him, it's not the end of the world. … Come what may, we always have each other. Your circumstances may change, but if you have each other, it doesn't really make a difference."
In fact, Blagojevich says she'd rather her kids not pursue a political future. "Politics is a rough business. I'd rather them be doctors," she says, laughing.
And while her family's ups and downs often make the front page, Blagojevich says she's no different from other moms: She hopes the lessons she's trying to teach will stick with her kids; that Amy and Annie will grow up well adjusted, despite their not-so-normal environment.
"I feel like I'm not a role model, I'm one of you," she says. "I'm trying to figure out what on earth is for dinner at 5:30, when they're crabby and want to eat [and there is] homework to be done. … I certainly don't feel like I have any answers any more than anybody else."
Lorien Menhennett is associate editor of Chicago Parent.