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Law & the Courts

Amy Coney Barrett on Work and Motherhood

President Donald Trump and Judge Amy Coney Barrett depart after holding an event to announce her nomination to the Supreme Court at the White House in Washington, D.C., September 26, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

At an event hosted by the Constitutional Studies Department at the University of Notre Dame last spring, Judge Amy Coney Barrett discussed her experience working and being a mother to seven children.

“We have seven children. Five of them are biological, and then we have a son and daughter that we adopted from Haiti. So it’s a very full house,” Barrett said. “I was one of seven growing up, and I loved having a big family, so I always wanted to have a big family. My husband was an only child and had been very lonely growing up so he too wanted a big family.”

Next, Barrett was asked the inevitable follow-up question: “How do you do everything?”

“When Jesse and I got married, I didn’t foresee — and you can’t, I mean, you can’t see what the future’s going to look like — but I had no idea what traits he had that would enable the life that we have now to be possible,” Barrett replied. Here’s some more of her answer:

I didn’t have a preconceived idea of how it would look. As it unfolded, as we had additional children, as we decided to adopt — and our adoption of John Peter was a little spur of the moment — as things unfolded, Jesse really stepped up. We didn’t really have a conversation like, “Hey, we’re going to be locked in. You’re going to do X and I’m going to do Y.” We just each shifted and assumed different responsibilities as it made sense. At some point, Jesse started doing most of the cooking and grocery shopping. At first I kind of resisted it because I like it, and I do still enjoy cooking, but he just said, “You know what, I think this will make your life less stressful. I’m going to take this on.” So he does that.

We live in South Bend where traffic is light. . . . He does most of the driving, the carpools and the kids’ doctors’ appointments, and then we’ll switch. When he gets busy with work, now he has changed jobs and he’s traveling more so I’m doing more of that when he’s gone. So I think the thing that’s made it possible is it really being a team effort and having a husband who has been willing to be a complete all in partner in doing all the things around the house and child-rearing and everything.

Barrett was also asked about the process of adopting their son John Peter, the second child she and her husband adopted from Haiti. After several complications with the adoption paperwork spanning a couple of years, they were told they would no longer be able to adopt him, but last minute, because of the earthquake in Haiti, they were given the option of proceeding with the adoption. By this point, the Barretts had four children, the youngest of whom had been born recently, and they had just discovered that they were expecting their fifth. Nevertheless, they decided to adopt John Peter.

“I can distinctly remember throwing on my long winter heavy coat, walking up to the cemetery, and sitting on one of the benches, and just thinking two things,” Barrett said. “Well, if life is really hard, at least it’s short, looking at all the graves. And then I thought, but in context, when you think about the value of people and the value of life and what’s really most important, what you can pour yourself into, that raising children and bringing John Peter home were the things of the greatest value that I can do right then, rather than even teaching, being a law professor, which I was at the time. That was what was really most important.”

Barrett also spoke about their youngest son, Benjamin, who has Down syndrome. “I think it’s probably the thing in my life thats helped me to grow the most and pushed me to grow the most, having a child with special needs,” she said.

“We weren’t expecting it and we didn’t know what it would mean,” Barrett added. “It has been challenging. There are definitely hard things about it. . . . I think I’ve learned so many lessons about myself, about what’s important in my life. Every night before bed, our three youngest children John Peter, Liam, and Juliet have to say one thing they’re grateful for, and I would say that six out of seven nights, they all say Benjamin. There are obvious difficulties, and the therapies we have to do, and trying to teach him to communicate, things that are really hard. But I think that the effect that it has on my other children, what it teaches Jesse and me about unselfish love, it’s really valuable.”

“Sometimes we see things that are very difficult or that are burdens,” she added, “and Benjamin’s diagnosis definitely derailed us off what we thought life was going to look like, what we thought his life was going to look like. But in a way that we can’t really understand or appreciate but that we see unfold every day, it will be the most important thing that we do probably.”

You can watch the full video of the event here.


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