Politics & Policy

A Real Housewife of Wisconsin

Rachel Campos-Duffy talks about motherhood at home and on the campaign trail.

The self-help aisle is generally one I’m not drawn to. Not because I don’t need help; heaven knows I do. But I know there’s no wheel-reinventing to be had. So I’m headed for classics — spiritual and otherwise.

Which is why a book like Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood, by Rachel Campos-Duffy — which will wind up in the self-help section, if we’re lucky —  is so welcome. The author is looking to preserve that which many prominent women — and men — ran away from for all too long, and have paid a price for losing. And she is living, breathing credibility: a young, Catholic, Hispanic mother of six. Who — for a pop-culture reality check — was once on MTV’s The Real World (she and her husband met at a Real World reunion, as it happens) and was almost a co-host of The View (she has been a guest co-host). And she may also be spending time in Washington come January, when her husband, Sean, hopes to be sworn in to the seat of Rep. David Obey, an appropriations powerhouse who has been in office since 1969 (longer than Duffy has been alive). Obey is now retiring, Duffy having run him out of the race.

#ad#KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When did you decide to become “a self-described advocate and cheerleader for at-home moms”?

RACHEL CAMPOS-DUFFY: I was a finalist for co-host of ABC’s The View twice. The second time I narrowly lost out in the competition, it occurred to me that I was already doing what God was calling me to do — being home, taking care of my kids. Before that, I sort of thought I was “between gigs,” waiting for my next big break. My oldest was five at that time, and I was starting to see the fruits of my time at home with them — their manners and sense of compassion, the things that happen when you parent well. As I began to appreciate what I was doing as a mom, I simultaneously became aware of how little the culture values it. I’m grateful that Sean verbalizes his appreciation for my choice to be home, but so many other women don’t get that validation. Even if we feel good about our days and choices, we still crave that outside validation. I guess I hoped that by writing this book I might in a small way help elevate this noble profession.

LOPEZ: Isn’t it a betrayal of the women’s movement to announce that a woman can stay home and be happy?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Absolutely not! I’ve heard old-school feminists refer to the trend toward at-home motherhood as the “recolonization of women back into the home.” It’s so patronizing. They say our education and degrees are wasted on our children. The truth is that, despite the hard work and long hours, there are many pleasurable aspects of motherhood, and women derive very real satisfaction from feeling like they are doing it well. I think there’s a certain type of feminist who finds that truth threatening to the movement. It’s silly. I have made a choice to fully enjoy my kids and this particular season of my life. It’s a very conscious, powerful decision. In some ways, it takes more guts to buck the financial rewards and adulation that come from a professional career to pursue something so culturally undervalued as at-home motherhood.

#page#LOPEZ: What made you think that you were the holder of “secrets” about motherhood?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: They really aren’t secrets. They are ideas and techniques for enjoying motherhood that have worked for me. They aren’t complicated. The real secret is internalizing the fact that we all need to constantly recommit, sometimes daily (even hourly!), to whatever principles or techniques make our daily lives more enjoyable and joyful. It’s very easy as moms to get caught up in to-do lists and forget to indulge in our child’s particular laugh or smile. If having my book or any other book on your nightstand helps remind you of that, then it’s serving its purpose.

#ad#LOPEZ: How often do you run into fellow thirtysomethings with six children? And how often do people say inappropriate things about the fact that you have them?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Not too many thirtysomethings with six kids these days. People always wonder how we do it. I don’t know how we do it. It’s our normal. I do know people who have been chastised by strangers for their big brood and yes, sometimes I worry about environmental fundamentalism and its propensity to see and treat children of large families as environmental “terrorists” guilty of violating some arbitrary carbon-footprint quota. Look no further than the Internet comments on the Duggar family. The vitriol hurled at them is off the charts.

My sister has four kids, and we both find that kids from small families love to come to our houses. One little girl, an only child who was playing at my sister’s house, didn’t want to leave when her mommy came to pick her up. When her mom insisted she get her shoes on, she said, “No, I want to be one of them!”

LOPEZ: You were on a totally different track — Los Angeles and glamour. How did you wind up in Wisconsin and Walmart, and when did you realize you were happy with that life?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: I have MTV to thank for that. Only on The Real World would a conservative Latina from Arizona meet an Irish-American lumberjack attorney from rural Wisconsin. We fell in love and married while I was auditioning for The View. The deal we made was if I got the job, we’d move to New York City. If I didn’t, I would move to Hayward, Wisconsin, his hometown. I didn’t get the job, and I moved from Beverly Hills to rural Wisconsin. I have fallen in love with the people of Wisconsin for the same reasons I fell in love with Sean. They are kind, unassuming, good-natured, and honest. In a nutshell — so not L.A. There is truly no better place to raise kids. As for Wal-Mart, well, I’m not above admitting that most of my date nights with Sean end with a trip to Wal-Mart to pick up diapers and anything else I need. Shopping sans kids is a luxury for me these days!

#page#LOPEZ: You and I grew up with the “we girls can do anything” — and everything — mantra. Is part of your motivation with the book to step back and say “let’s be sane about this”? In some ways, is your life a little bit of a fleshing out of what “having it all” means in a responsible sense?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Yes. I think our generation seeks balance between professional and family life. Thankfully, taking time off to be with your young kids no longer always means the end of your career. However, it will most likely involve redefining what success means.

#ad#LOPEZ: You talk about things like “self-validation.” Aren’t there bookshelves full of books on this alone? Why would you find it important to mention? And how do you go about it without being self-indulgent?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Everyone needs to feel validated. Praise motivates and sustains us. For at-home moms, there is no salary, no raise, and no bonus — not even an “employee of the month” award next to the bathroom door. I think it’s okay to toot your own horn once in a while. For me, writing this book and using it as a platform to elevate motherhood has been empowering, and I hope it’s helped other moms too. If that’s self-indulgent, then so be it!

LOPEZ: You write, “I know that I am in the presence of a real girlfriend when I feel energized and uplifted after being with her. If I feel drained or anxious, I know that it is not a relationship I should expend energy on.” There’s something necessarily liberating about that, isn’t there? And there’s nothing mean or unchristian either, is there? It’s necessary and healthy detachment, isn’t it? And not just for moms?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Yes, there’s a difference between an emotionally draining person and a person who is genuinely in need. A person in need is not necessarily a drain. In fact, when I serve others through volunteer work or some charitable gesture, I don’t feel drained. I feel great! Not so with an emotionally draining person. Let go of relationships that leave you feeling down, anxious, or even depressed. Stop beating your head against the wall wondering if it’s you. Let it go. You may actually be doing you both a favor by freeing up your lives to find other, more edifying friendships and experiences.

#page#LOPEZ: You spend a good amount of time talking about the dad’s role in the life of the at-home mom. Has the feminist movement been damaging to the life of the husband and wife at home? Beyond academic arguments, is it impossible not to see damage that has been done even in fairly conservative family life?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: In some ways, feminism has helped. 1950s dads rarely “partnered” with their wives in matters of home and kids. Boomer dads talked the talk, but ultimately, their wives were “super moms” who ended up burnt out from the double shift. Gen X husbands like Sean walk the walk. Sean’s as comfortable in the courtroom or wielding an ax as he is changing a diaper. He may not always know what I want or need, but he’s genuinely open to being a partner in the relationship and in the division of labor in our home. Clearly, there are some gender differences. For example, Sean splits the wood to heat our home, and in the winter, he also brings it in from the porch every morning and evening. He’s better suited to doing that, and frankly, I don’t want to do it. I’d rather stay in and cook. And that’s okay too. I think today’s men are a big reason why being a wife and mom is getting better. In many ways, men are better. I guess we have their moms to thank for that.

#ad#LOPEZ: What’s been the importance of prayer in your life? How do you even do it with kids running around, a busy husband, and your various projects? Isn’t it one of those things that could easily find itself getting dropped?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: I need prayer for sustenance. As a busy mom, I can’t get picky about when or where it happens. I take the moments when and as they come. My prayers include short appeals to God to get me through a difficult “toddler moment,” or our chihuahua peeing on the carpet . . . again! I also learned to count the time I spend with my kids or in service of my family as prayers. We’re driving a lot these days for Sean’s campaign events, and those are perfect times to pop in a CD of the rosary and pray together as a family. It’s easy to let your prayer life fall by the wayside, and sometimes it does. But again, the secret is to remind yourself of the benefits. When I take excellent care of myself from the inside out, I have more to give to my family.

LOPEZ: You write about embracing technology. We’re all supposed to be freaked out about “sexting.” Your children, mercifully, aren’t in that age range quite yet, but I suspect that doesn’t keep you from worrying. What’s your attitude about these things? Whatever the next dark story from inside some suburban school might be?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: I do worry about those things, but I realize I can’t control pop culture or what other parents allow their kids to do or be involved in. Ultimately, my kids will have to navigate this culture on their own. All I can do is build a good foundation and instill in them the values I think will help them make good choices: character, honesty, manners, love of family, and intellectual curiosity. These are the best defenses against our culture’s worst offenses.

LOPEZ: Are there TVs and computers in your house? Do you worry they’ll infect the children?

#page#CAMPOS-DUFFY: Our kids are all under the age of ten. We are very vigilant of their TV habits. We limit it, and we use TiVo to control what they watch. As a result, my kids are totally retro. They watch what I watched . . . The Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prairie, Bewitched, and The Beverly Hillbillies. They love it. I don’t like much of what I see on the Disney Channel these days, and I don’t like the idea of girls looking up to Hannah Montana. My girls read Nancy Drew. She’s a much better role model. My kids do not have their own computers, Facebook pages, e-mail accounts, or cell phones. They rarely play video games. Truthfully, I sometimes worry that they are not as technologically savvy as most kids their age. I figure (and hope) they’ll catch up to it all in time. Right now, they prefer to be creative, to draw and play outside. One of the advantages of living in rural Wisconsin is that our house is surrounded by five acres of woods. They climb trees, log-roll, and set up lemonade stands to make money for Dairy Queen. Like I said, they’re kind of retro.

LOPEZ: You’ve had another child since writing the book. Does this guarantee another book, since the littlest one didn’t make the cover?

#ad#CAMPOS-DUFFY: LOL! My five-year-old keeps telling me that we need to take a new picture to include the new baby. Maybe we can Photoshop her in.

LOPEZ: Your husband, Sean, is running for Congress. How can that possibly work with six children?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: It’s very tough, and there have been some serious sacrifices. Sean’s a very hands-on dad, and the kids miss him a lot. Sean hits the trail by himself so I can stay home and try to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. In many ways I’m operating like a single mom, and I’ve gained a new respect for at-home moms. . . . Parenting is definitely meant to be a two-person job, and I believe I’m a better parent when he’s around. I hope that as the weather gets warmer, we’ll be able to do more events together as a family. Right now, the kids are looking forward to parade season this summer. I figure they’ll either start to enjoy the campaign more, or they’ll start to hate parades.

LOPEZ: Do you ever look at the worst of the reality shows and think, “I contributed to this” by being a part of the reality-TV culture?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: No. I had no idea what I was getting into. Frankly, I hate sitcoms and laugh tracks, and I’m not entirely disappointed by their demise. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to enjoying guilty pleasures like Project Runway and The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I’m human.

#page#LOPEZ: Have you found conservatives reticent to embrace you, your book, your husband, because of the Real World history?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Conservatives who react negatively to The Real World probably never saw our episodes. Sean and I were cast as the “conservatives” on the show. Sean has taken a few hits for it, but by and large, it’s been a positive. When you are on a reality show, it’s a different kind of celebrity than, say, an actor has. If you were on reality TV, people feel like they really know you, and in some ways, they do. Often, they’ve seen your hometown, your family, and your best and worst moments. It’s very humanizing.

#ad#When I was promoting my book, I had no problem getting booked on The View, Dr. Phil, and many mainstream-media outlets. The mommy-blogger world was a different story. My publicist had a hard getting them to review my book because my conservative views apparently offended many of them. A lot of them refused. It really surprised me.

LOPEZ: Didn’t you first meet Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan on The Real World?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: Yes. He was working at Empower America, and I brought my roommates to one of their conferences at Stanford, I believe. We also met Jack Kemp, who did not disappoint. I received a lot of mail after that show aired from young conservatives who were so excited to see someone like them on MTV.

LOPEZ: What has surprised you most about the campaign-spouse life?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: I knew it would be hard on the family and on the kids, but I never realized how hard it would be on me to hear things said about Sean that are untrue and hurtful.

LOPEZ: What’s been the most surprising feedback you’ve gotten about the book?

CAMPOS-DUFFY: I’ve been amazed by how many single women and moms without kids have read and enjoyed the book. They tell me the same thing — that my book makes them look forward to being moms. That’s a serious compliment to me because that’s what I set out to achieve. We ought to talk more about the pleasures of mothering. Motherhood isn’t just something we do for our kids and family. It’s also something we do for ourselves.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review.

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