As one who grew up in a political family and now is raising two daughters in the same type of environment, Patricia Blagojevich knows what she doesn’t want Amy, 12, and Annie, 5, to be when they grow up.
"I don’t want to see them go into politics. It’s a rough-and-tumble life. Politics in Chicago is like a blood sport,’’ says Blagojevich, 43, daughter of longtime Chicago Alderman Richard Mell and wife, since 1990, of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
"It’s mean,’’ she says of the political arena. "It’s not really anything you want your kids to get involved in. We do a lot of good things for people, but sometimes the cost is too high.’’
Although she is called first lady, Blagojevich is clear the two young women at home come first in their parents’ lives and that other families should follow that philosophy even though, at times, it has led to criticism.
The governor, 52, who took office in 2003 and previously served as an Illinois state representative and congressman, has taken heat over the family’s decision to live in Chicago and not in the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield, unlike his predecessors.
During a state budget crisis in 2007, he was criticized for making daily commutes between the two cities at taxpayers’ expense; a practice he subsequently stopped.
"Our biggest challenge is to keep the girls’ lives normal as possible in a very abnormal situation. That is one of the reasons we decided not to move to Springfield,’’ she says.
"Amy was about 6 the first year my husband was governor and then Annie was born in April that first year. We decided that if we wanted to take Amy out of the preschool she’d been in since she was 3 years old, to a 50,000-square-foot mansion with butlers and chefs and all that kind of thing, that she’d be known as the governor’s daughter. At her school (in Chicago), she was just Amy.
"She still has her friends so that was a good decision.’’
Still in the spotlight
But the limelight, controversy and scrutiny that have marked her husband’s administration still confront the family, despite being able to stay in the neighborhood they call home.
"We try to keep the pressure and scrutiny out of the house. Everybody has a job they can be crabby about when they get home. It takes discipline on our part not to bring that home and let it affect family life,’’ Blagojevich says, adding the family copes by "doing a lot of cocooning.’’
"We rent old movies and sit on the couch and watch. My husband likes to take the girls out and to Cubs games. We like to hang together and spend time.’’
There are no nannies in the household. The children attend after-school programs when their parents are not at home.
The state fair is a popular Blagojevich spot. The family also travels to ice skating competitions to see the girls perform and in recent years has taken trips to Mackinac Island and to Mexico, although "it’s been a couple years since our last trip,’’ the first lady says.
She adds the governor learned a hard lesson from associates that reinforced his desire to be around the children as often as possible.
"When my husband was a congressman, two of his colleagues had children commit suicide. It made a deep impression on him," she says. "A lot of politicians have troubled children, since they are so wrapped up in themselves and where they’re going that they’re not paying enough attention to their children.’’
But sometimes the attention the children get from the public can be burdensome, unwanted.
"Funny thing, being the child of a politician, everybody knows you and remembers you, but you often don’t know who they are (in later years),’’ Blagojevich says of her experience, one she is certain her daughters will encounter.
"Amy’s friends and their parents have known her as Amy for nine years. Annie came to school more as the governor’s daughter, which has been more of a novelty for her friends. Once, at a skating event, a bunch of girls were whispering and pointing and finally a girl came up to Amy and asked if she was the governor’s daughter. That upset her. She said, ‘Why can’t they leave me alone? I just want to compete.’ ’’
Keeping kids grounded
That incident not withstanding, Blagojevich says one of the greatest challenges is to prevent the girls from getting "an exaggerated sense of their own importance.’’
The first lady says she plays the disciplinarian role at home, more than the governor.
"My husband is a pushover (for the girls).
"... We want them to stay down-to-earth. As a parent, it’s always a fight against them being spoiled. We try to bring home to them that they are fortunate in so many ways.’’
But there are ways in which they are not fortunate. That’s where some of the "we do a lot of good things for people’’ examples Blagojevich described are illustrated.
"Annie has multiple food allergies—milk, eggs, nuts, sesame seeds—and we have tried to raise awareness of this incredibly growing problem,’’ Blagojevich says.
This year, she launched "Ask Before You Eat,’’ a food allergy awareness campaign, to educate families, schools and the food service industry about the dangers and ways to prevent fatal reactions in children.
The program, with support from the state Department of Public Health, Children and Family Services and the Board of Education, has begun outreach programs to schools, communities and food services.
In 2005, Illinois, with the first lady as spokeswoman, became the first state in the nation to offer "All Kids,’’ described as an affordable, comprehensive health insurance vehicle, that works with schools and hospitals to pre-register families. A total 1.4 million children are enrolled.
In 2004, Blagojevich spearheaded the Illinois Pediatric Vision Initiative and made Illinois the first state in the union to target Amblyopia, also known as "lazy eye’’—the most common cause of preventable vision loss.
"It is 100 percent curable if caught early enough,’’ Blagojevich says. "If you wait too long, you won’t get the vision back.’’
Among other programs are Children’s Reading Club, launched in 2005, and Breast Cancer Awareness, in 2007. A somewhat related program, Medicaid coverage for genetic testing and counseling for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, was announced in October.
"Breast cancer is a family disease. If mom gets breast cancer, it’s everybody’s problem. Women need to look out for their families by taking care of themselves. I lost my mom almost two years ago. We want to make sure we’re here for our children as much as possible,’’ Blagojevich says.
Helping other children
Contrarily, she has seen examples of children whose parents aren’t around much because of other circumstances.
Blagojevich, who also has spent time in the real estate business, recently began work as development director for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, a state-funded operation.
She calls the experience humbling.
"You see children who don’t have that support, because their parents weren’t engaged (in the youngsters’ lives) or they might not have a father around. It has made me realize how fortunate children are to have two parents that are there for them.’’
Twenty years from now, Blagojevich sees herself and the governor "retired, with a nest egg, traveling a lot.’’
"I’m looking forward to the day he’s not in politics,’’ she says.
As for how Amy and Annie will view their parents two decades hence: "I hope they are two well-adjusted, self-sufficient women who say we were there when they needed us and paid attention to all the little problems they had growing up,’’ Blagojevich says.
"As parents, we need to put our priorities on our children. Everything works around that.’’
Bill Bero is a father of two and freelance writer living in Northwest Indiana.
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