Sanchez and the stork
When was the last time you read a baby announcement on the Op-Ed pages?
Exactly. So this is obviously more than baby news. It’s about how far we’ve come, and where we may still fall short.
California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez is pregnant. Ordinarily, this would not make headlines, except to the Sanchez family and maybe in a newsletter to the 39th Congressional District in southeast L.A. County, which just elected her to her fourth term. It’s no big deal nowadays when members of Congress give birth. The first was Mrs. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, 35 years ago.
What makes Sanchez’s pregnancy news is that she is not married to the baby’s father -- not yet, anyway.
You’re practically the first to know. Even her sister and fellow congresswoman, Loretta Sanchez, didn’t know until a few days ago.
The baby’s father and Sanchez’s “unofficially engaged” beau of a year and a half is Jim Sullivan, a government and PR consultant and the divorced father of three boys.
Washington is a back-fence-gossip kind of town, and Sanchez expects there to be some fuss and bother.
“I don’t know how it’ll be received,” she said. “I hope people will recognize that to be able to plan that in your life -- I don’t think that marriage and childbirth are black and white. There are certain instances in which you have to do things in reverse order.”
Twenty years ago, it simply wouldn’t have been possible -- pregnant, single and a member of Congress? Oh, the scandal! But Hester Prynne has morphed into Juno MacGuff, the culture wars have been fought to a truce of exhaustion, and “unwed mother” has been recast as “single mom.”
Who do we have to thank for that? Thousands, from Madonna to Dan Quayle. In 1992, Quayle waged moral warfare on the sitcom character “Murphy Brown” -- famous, rich, single and pregnant.
And, of course, Bristol Palin. With an act of lower-case congress, she and her boyfriend shushed a censorious chorus on the right that had demonized unwed motherhood and appeared to believe that the only thing more morally dangerous than unplanned single parenthood was Planned Parenthood.
I witnessed this speedy shift with my own eyes. The day after Sarah Palin announced Bristol’s pregnancy, I was at the Republican National Convention and saw a conventioneer wearing a homemade button that read: “Support Unwed Mothers.”
Of course, “unwed” for Sanchez, like Bristol Palin, is meant to be a temporary circumstance. What helped Sarah Palin through a potentially dicey matter could also benefit Sanchez. “I’m hopeful there won’t be this sort of ugliness about something that for me is really a blessed event,” she told me. Sanchez said she waited until after the election to break the news because she wanted the first trimester to have passed safely.
So how might Sanchez’s pregnancy play out in her district, which is 61% Latino? The national Latina teenage pregnancy rate is twice the country’s average. Could a teenager point to her and say, “If she can do it, why can’t I?”
The differences, Sanchez thinks, are substantial, and that’s a big teachable moment. She’s not a “surprised pregnant teenager,” 15 or 16, poor, jobless, a dropout. “I’m established in my life. I have a career. I’m financially stable. I have a loving, committed partner. This is something that was planned, not something that was accidental.”
Sanchez is 39 and divorced, and early this year, her doctor told her that “if your intention is to become a mother, I wouldn’t put it off.” So she and Sullivan didn’t. They haven’t yet set a wedding date. As he told me, “We have the rest of our lives to get engaged and married -- we don’t have the rest of our lives” for Sanchez to become pregnant.
There’s one point on which Sanchez and Sullivan (and President-elect Barack Obama) would agree with Quayle: fathers, and having a “supportive and nurturing environment with two parents who will love” the baby very much.
Sanchez’s mother, Maria -- a “pretty traditional Latin woman,” says her daughter -- had just about given up on Sanchez having a child. Now Maria is “over the moon.” When Sanchez and Sullivan visited her recently, she taught him to make tamales and bought celebratory beer just for him: “How about a Gwee-ness?”
Baby Sullivan is due May 21. The waiting list for day care on Capitol Hill is so long that you have to sign up long before the baby’s born. Congresswoman, the news embargo is broken -- now you can.
Do I hear a mazel tov?