Updated: Oct 31, 2020
In the few short weeks since she was nominated to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett has completely recalibrated what women can believe about themselves.* She is a brilliant student, teacher, and judge of the law and accomplished in each of these areas, and she comports herself with humility, grace, and dignity. She somehow manages to make it look easy to balance being at the very top of her field with being a mom to her large, multiracial family. And not only is she an example for the next generation of girls (and boys), but yes, for our generation as well: I know I am far from alone (evidence here and here) in finding her a tremendous inspiration who gives me a new vision of what I can accomplish in my life.
On some levels, Judge Barrett might seem to be a model that no one else can achieve (and not just because she gets up at 4am to work out!). She even said in her opening statement that she doesn’t think marriage is hard (but then, showing her sense of humor and self-deprecation, related that perhaps it might be hard for her husband). But she is certainly human as well: Judge Barrett says that her favorite word is “chocolate,” and she was forthright that she needed a glass of wine after her first day of Senate testimony.
As Judge Barrett has said, her family is her “greatest joy,” and she believes, like Primerrily, “What greater thing can you do than raise children? That’s where you have your greatest impact on the world.” While Judge Barrett has not (yet) written a how-to on parenting, I imagine it would fly off the shelves were she to publish one. No doubt she has much to share given her tremendous experience and expertise raising her seven beautiful children: Emma, Vivian, Tess, Liam, John Peter, Juliet, and Benjamin.
"She believes, like Primerrily, “What greater thing can you do than raise children? That’s where you have your greatest impact on the world.”
Until we might be lucky enough to read a parenting book penned by Judge Barrett, we’ve pieced together some insights into her parent philosophies and tips. From her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (in the midst of her brilliant answers about originalism and textualism, all while setting new fashion trends in pink!), as well as from her prior speaking engagements (linked below), she seamlessly weaves parenthood into addressing her professional and personal character:
1. She learns from her village.
As Judge Barrett told Senator Joni Ernst, “[I]t takes a village to raise a child, and I think it takes a village to mentor anyone into who they become as an adult.” And then she also acknowledged that she is “very grateful for the whole village that [she has] had that’s brought [her] to this point.” As just one example, Judge Barrett talked in her testimony about how she and her husband, Jesse, were inspired to adopt by couples they met in the course of their premarital counseling. One couple had adopted a child with special needs, and another couple adopted internationally. Convinced, Judge Barrett and her husband did not wait until they had all of their biological children to adopt internationally, and they ultimately had a child with special needs as well.
As Judge Barrett told Senator Joni Ernst, “[I]t takes a village to raise a child, and I think it takes a village to mentor anyone into who they become as an adult.”
2. She “improvs.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, now infamous for stating in Judge Barrett’s Seventh Circuit confirmation hearings that “the dogma lives loudly” within Judge Barrett, this time congratulated Judge Barrett on her well-behaved children sitting behind her (all but the youngest, who was at home naming all of his siblings while watching on television). Senator Feinstein asked with admiration, “You don’t have a magic formula for how you do it and handle all the children, and your job, and your work, and your thought process -- which is obviously excellent -- do you?” Judge Barrett responded, “improv.” While this answer embodies her humility, it also shows her humor and flexibility in parenting, as any parent knows that we can’t plan for everything.
Senator Feinstein asked with admiration, “You don’t have a magic formula for how you do it and handle all the children, and your job, and your work, and your thought process -- which is obviously excellent -- do you?” Judge Barrett responded, “improv.”
3. She and her husband share responsibilities.
When Judge Barrett accepted her nomination, she said, "I couldn't manage this very full life without the unwavering support of my husband, Jesse. At the start of our marriage, I imagined that we would run our household as partners. As it has turned out, Jesse does far more than his share of the work. To my chagrin, I learned at dinner recently that my children consider him to be the better cook. For 21 years, Jesse has asked me every single morning what he can do for me that day. And though I almost always say 'Nothing,' he still finds ways to take things off my plate. And that's not because he has a lot of free time—he has a busy law practice. It's because he is a superb and generous husband, and I am very fortunate." Senator Ted Cruz asked her how she handled virtual school for seven children in the midst of the pandemic. She said that her oldest three could take care of themselves, and with the younger four, she said “Jesse and I just tried to take a divide and conquer approach for the younger four. And yeah, it was quite challenging I assure you.”
In a 2019 talk, she explained that she and Jesse “were open to either one of us staying home at different points. . . . What’s really made it work is that it’s very much a team effort. . . . Right now . . . Jesse is really doing much more of the heavy lifting . . . the cooking and kids’ doctor’s appointments during the day.” But she recognized that “[w]e’ve gone in cycles and right now . . . he’s doing a little bit more of the home stuff. . . . We evaluated at every step whether things were working well for the family, for the job I was in . . . but it was always working and it worked well: the kids were very happy, I loved teaching.”
Judge Barrett also inspired a charming story from Senator Marsha Blackburn in a lovely colloquy. Senator Blackburn shared that she had been earlier that day talking to her own son, Chad, to wish him a happy 40th birthday. Senator Blackburn said, “[W]e were laughing about how when I wanted [my kids] to do something that they didn’t necessarily want to do, I would remind them that I was the chief mama in charge.” She asked Judge Barrett if “the law of Amy prevails at the Barrett household over those children,” but Judge Barrett responded humbly, “50-50.”
She and Jesse also encourage responsibility among their kids, telling Senator John Kennedy in response to his question about who does laundry: “We increasingly have been trying to get our children to take responsibility for their own, but those efforts are not always successful. So we run a lot of loads of laundry.”
4. She understands her kids’ different cognitive levels of understanding.
After Senator Dick Durbin asked her if she had watched the video of George Floyd, she responded yes, with her voice cracking:
“Senator, as you might imagine, given that I have two black children, that was very, very
personal for my family. Jesse was with the boys on a camping trip out in South Dakota,
so I was there and my seventeen-year-old daughter, Vivian, who’s adopted from Haiti,
[and] all of this was erupting. It was very difficult for her. We wept together in my room,
and then it was also difficult for my daughter, Juliett, who’s ten. I had to try to explain
some of this to them. I mean, my children to this point in their lives, have had the benefit
of growing up in a cocoon where they have not yet experienced hatred or violence. And
for Vivian to understand that there would be a risk to her brother or the son she might
have one day of that kind of brutality has been an ongoing conversation.”
Judge Barrett is a parent willing to discuss tough issues such as race and police brutality with her children, but paying close attention so that she does at the right time in their cognitive development. (As she told Senator Feinstein, “I have eyes in the back of my head, so I’m good at watching.”)
5. Her motherhood leads with empathy, and extends it beyond her own brood.
Just as she showed empathy with her children in these conversations on race, she brings empathy to her overall parenting style, and she models empathy in every aspect of her life. She told Senator Josh Hawley that having a multiracial family “has shaped me as a person. It has certainly, whenever you have a life experience it makes you acutely aware in your interactions with other people, it gives you empathy for them. The same is true of our having a son with a disability.”
"[Having a multiracial family has shaped me as a person. It has certainly, whenever you have a life experience it makes you acutely aware in your interactions with other people, it gives you empathy for them. The same is true of our having a son with a disability.”
As the oldest child growing up with six siblings, and the oldest of twenty-nine grandchildren, Judge Barrett has honed maternal skills over a lifetime. In a response to Senator Kennedy’s somewhat facetious question about whether she supports children, she said, “I support children. Seven of my own and then support others. Obviously, I think children are our future.”
Judge Barrett humbly said in 2019, “I hate to think of myself as a role model,” but said she likes to mentor as a professor and a boss because she believes it is her responsibility to do so. She believes being a mentor is about “time spent,” just as her own English professor in college took the time to meet and encourage her. She said that she still talks to many of her students about career changes and personal decisions, and she “hope[s] that I lay the groundwork when I’m teaching them and the law clerks I now have well enough they still feel free to view me as a mentor even when outside my classroom or chambers.” While noting that “life is so busy” and she has a “full life juggling” and “it’s sometimes hard to take extra time,” she strongly believes that “time is the most precious thing that we have that we can give to other people.”
“Time is the most precious thing that we have that we can give to other people.”
As one powerful example, her former student, Laura Wolk, provided testimony in support of Judge Barrett. Wolk is blind, and when she started at Notre Dame Law School, the software disability accommodations were not provided, and her own computer was failing. She went to then-Professor Barrett for help and felt safe to open up to her. She testified, "When I finished, Judge Barrett leaned forward and looked at me intently. ‘Laura,’ she said, with the same measured conviction that we have seen displayed throughout her entire nomination process, ‘this is no longer your problem. It’s my problem.’” Professor Barrett quickly got Wolk the help she needed, and Wolk thrived in law school and went on to clerk on the Supreme Court (not to mention, the first blind woman to achieve this title).
6. Her family is “all in” together.
As Judge Barrett said, “We knew our family would be attacked [in the confirmation process]. And so we had to decide whether those difficulties would be worth it, because what sane person would go through that if there wasn’t a benefit on the other side. And the benefit, I think, is that I’m committed to the rule of law and the role of the Supreme Court in dispensing equal justice for all. . . . And my family is all in on that because they share my belief in the rule of law.” After discussing how her son, Liam, had to leave early on day one of questioning because he got “very upset” to see her attacked, she went on to explain to Senator Thom Tillis: “in many ways the children are the reason not to [go through this process], but they’re also the reason to do it, because if we are to protect our institutions and protect the freedoms and protect the rule of law that’s the basis for this society and the freedom that we all enjoy, if we want that for our children and our children’s children, then we need to participate in that work.”
“In many ways the children are the reason not to [go through this process], but they’re also the reason to do it, because if we are to protect our institutions and protect the freedoms and protect the rule of law that’s the basis for this society and the freedom that we all enjoy, if we want that for our children and our children’s children, then we need to participate in that work.”
7. She is real and authentic about the fact that parenting young children is a difficult stage . . . but one that passes quickly.
In a 2019 interview, she talked about how she found out she was pregnant with her fifth child the same day they were supposed to decide if they would pick up their sixth child from a Haitian orphanage following the 2010 earthquake. She took a walk to a nearby cemetery on Notre Dame’s campus, sat down, and thought “Well, if life’s really hard, at least it’s short.” She knows to treasure each moment we have, and she is not afraid to lean into difficulty. Professor Barrett said in another 2019 talk, “Some people receive the news of having a child with Down syndrome and completely take it in stride. . . . That was not our experience. It was very difficult for us . . . I’ve learned so many lessons about myself and what’s important in life . . . It’s difficult, but this is our path.”
“It was very difficult for us . . . I’ve learned so many lessons about myself and what’s important in life . . . It’s difficult, but this is our path.”
She underscored the advice to treasure each moment as she stated in her testimony to “live life to the fullest, seize all of the opportunities you have, and do your best. But at the same time, never let work crowd out all of the other precious things in your life, like friends and family and faith and exercise.”
In 2019 talk, when asked how she wants to be remembered, she said simply, “She loved well.” I think, based on what we have learned, we can feel confident she will have achieved this legacy.
Thank you, Amy, for these lessons, and thank you, Amy, for your inspiration.