With elections in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, new members of the legislature will take their seats and navigate an environment like nothing they've previously experienced. Whatever training exists will focus on office management, parliamentary rules, and political caucus roles. Very little, if anything, will be mentioned of the landmines awaiting families who stand beside those whose names appeared on the ballot.
I was recently asked what would be the most important piece of advice I would offer newly elected politicians. It's an easy answer, but one I took for granted when I was first elected. Put your family first. And even when you think you are putting your family first, make sure you really are.
The political world is a weird environment.
The political world is particularly cruel to families. Macleansreported only a few years ago that 85 per cent of federal MPs were divorced. That's a staggering number. Dwarfing numbers in the general population. But sadly, not surprising, as the skills you hone to survive politics, are potentially damaging to families.
Once elected, you find yourself drawn into a new family -- the political party. It's easy to believe you are present at home, or completely committed there, but your time is taken by the dinner circuit, meetings, community functions, and now, with accessibility so easy through social media, private messages. If I didn't respond right away I felt as though I was not serving my constituents properly. By responding quickly, and regularly, and to every message, it gets worse, and your family is left further and further behind.
The political world is a weird environment. Adoring fans appear when you are doing what people want. Anger, threats, and insults, that would have no place in any other environment, when you don't. People (including politicians themselves) wanting pictures and selfies. Then there's the soul stealing experience of watching people eulogize you on social media when you leave office, regardless of whether it's by choice or not.
I'm fortunate. My wife has been beside me since the day we campaigned for and won our first election in 2004. She's been there as my absolute rock through the highs and lows of both our personal life and our political life. I say "our political life" because having now left office, I realize it was something she lived through as much as I did. She endured living with a politician, because, like being a church minister, few people master the art of leaving the politician at work and opening up at home.
Family time becomes tied to work -- a date night at a function, or people stopping you to talk about the issues of the day during a family trip. So I, like many trying to make up for our own inadequacies in balancing home and work, tried to demonstrate my devotion, and tried to hold things together, with trips, gifts, a little actions like reaching for my wife's hand, or building a project with my son.
Despite that, putting away the phone and e-mail, even on a family trip, was difficult. My constituents expected me to be there. Or at least that's what I told myself. I lived in a world where I was absolutely committed and in love with my wife and son, and would do absolutely anything for them to make them happy, but also lived in another life trying to make everyone else happy and be the best Member of the Legislature I could be.
Therein lies the risk they don't tell you about when you run for office. Every politician becomes a different person on the job and in their political world than they would otherwise be. In politics, you are unreasonably expected to be perfect. You are expected to always have a smile and be "on your game." You can't ever show doubt in what you are saying. Politicians have to demonstrate the confidence they believe (and know) they are right. They have spin for every argument. They learn to fill the gaps in conversation.
Silence is an opportunity to make another argument in favour of a position. Listening is something politicians just are generally incapable of doing when they are in that mode (have you ever watched question period or a parliamentary debate?). Those are traits which, if managed well, project a confident leader in politics, but when they drift into your personal life, create issues of doubt and trust, on even the smallest issues.
My political personality drifted into interactions my family.
In today's over connected world, it's easy to not put aside the smart phone and keep responding to constituents at all hours. It's easy to believe you are spending quality family time when you are not, or brush off concerns of your spouse or children by saying "it's just work." It becomes too easy to miss your family saying "we love you, and would rather you actually spend your time with us, not your phone." Politicians develop weird relationships with constituents, some of whom they have never met in person. If you tend to be overly empathetic like me, you start feeling you have to solve their problems for them. But what about your own family? They get taken more and more for granted.
I've lived it. For every hug or kiss that warmed my heart, I missed out on hundreds more. For every time I saw my son before bed, I missed many more opportunities. Looking back, there were plenty of times I convinced myself I was doing everything I could to be present and put my family first. I know now as much as they are my priority, I did not show it. How can you when you multitask your family?
My political personality drifted into interactions my family. My wife would sometimes tell me I was spinning, or remind me I was lost in replying to messages. She never complained, though had every right to, when I was so deep in work and talking to constituents I became a visitor at home. My 10-year old son told me recently he felt he couldn't bother me when I was in politics, but is happy to have me home, involved, to play cards, or build Lego. He says he can interrupt me now if I'm working. He's seen something change. I didn't recognize that my work as a politician was impacting my relationships with my wife, my son, and those around me, even though they tried to tell me. Making me, at times, a different and detached person.
Over time I did start to make choices putting family first. I declined more invitations to attend events to spend time with my family. I chose not to seek a federal nomination because I didn't want to risk losing my wife and son to the federal political world. When I was approached about taking on a leadership role with the Nova Scotia Green Party in 2016 I told federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May I wouldn't take the position because I wasn't sure whether staying in politics was the right for my family, and I wouldn't risk losing them.
My family had been through hell and back in politics (some certainly of my own making). I'd come to realize the only thing that really mattered was my deep love for my wife and son, and commitment to them.
I'd like to think I did improve balancing life over time, though I never got it right. As the 2017 Nova Scotia election campaign got underway, I came to a harsh realization that the political life was still impacting how I interacted with my family and others. It was hurting me and my family. It was an easy decision to put my love for my wife and son first. I knew going in politics isn't (and shouldn't be) forever, but unwavering commitment to my marriage and family is.
Andrew's new book Bloodsport: Confessions of a Recovering Politician is expected to be released later this year. The preceding essay is based on excerpts from it.
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