Tracey Quillen Carney: Parenting & Politics in Delaware
Whether it’s serving the public or raising children, you give it your all.
Tracey Quillen Carney with sons Sam, 17, Jimmy, 15, and their dog, “Z.”
Photograph by Congressman John Carney
The experience of serving 15 years on the staff of then-Sen. Joe Biden—with a close-up view of people who sought and held public office— certainly has informed my perspective on campaigns and public service. So did growing up in a family that put service and ethics at the center of our identity. One result, for better or worse, is that I am what my friend Terry calls a “cynical idealist.” Loosely translated, I know we’re not going to live up to our ideals, but I still get upset when people don’t try to.
At this point, I would love to say “enough about me,” but my purpose is to write about how we’ve experienced life in our political-public service family, and that experience, like all family things, is very personal.
From my husband John Carney’s first campaign for lieutenant governor through his first year in Congress, I have had unqualified enthusiasm for his running and serving. I think the project—the work—could not be more important. I think that John is really good at it and that he does it for all the right reasons. I don’t know how much credibility I have, but the footnote is that I’m a harsh critic of people in this business, and not inclined to give false praise—wifely or otherwise. So there. I am deeply proud of the guy and of what he contributes to the world.
At the same time, you could accurately characterize my role in John’s campaigns and public life as low profile. That wasn’t planned or calculated or, heaven forbid, based on principle, it just emerged as what felt right.
Our sons, Sam and Jimmy, were 4 and 2 when that first campaign started. I had this reflex of determination that their needs were going to be met well, and met by me (with considerable help from my mother).
But in other ways, the first campaign was the point when I was least protective. The boys weren’t old enough to feel intruded upon by the attention. They still liked being in parades, although Sam did not want any part of a children’s fashion show—he actually chose to go to church to avoid it. Back then, they didn’t absorb the negative stuff—and there was less of it—nor did they focus on the idea of a campaign as a competition, something they definitely get now. I had just gone back to work after a couple years at home, and I had a part-time schedule in the senator’s office.
I’ve played harder defense every year since. Those who have traveled with children to adolescence—or who have the courage to remember their own adolescence honestly—know that the weight of parenthood shifts but doesn’t lighten into the teenage years. All along, I’ve had this instinct that children deserve to be at the center of their own identities, and that it’s my job to make that happen. Nothing intellectual or noble about it—pure mother bear stuff. It just feels right for me. We’ll find out in 20 years if it’s been good for the kids.
Lest I give the impression that I think this is “all about the boys,” I am well aware it is not. I’ve evolved, too, and shockingly, I have limits. Parenting, with its incomparable rewards, consumes some resources. At least for me, it makes for some added vulnerability, as well as causes for celebration out there in the world. Emotional equilibrium can be a hard-won condition, and I am a bit protective of it.
I went back to work full time as an administrator at Friends School in 2002. It’s wonderful, inspiring work. Like public service, I value the mission, so it’s an investment in my identity.
Working full time again meant that the boys were in after-school care at the ages of 4 and 6. It was a great program, but it still wasn’t me providing the care—and I wanted to do that for myself as well as for them, as much as I could. And that’s still how I feel.
Political campaigns, absolutely, are life-defining big deals, singular investments, and unique opportunities. Much more extraordinary is the opportunity to serve. But, as much as I value public service, I’ve learned that it’s not the only thing that’s like that. Everything that involves our kids, to me, is once-in-a-lifetime.
It’s probably some kind of a sin to paraphrase Mother Teresa, but compulsive editing is something of an occupational hazard for me. So as Mother Teresa almost said, When we think about doing great things, we should also think about doing “small things with great love.”
Tracey Quillen Carney is director of communications at Wilmington Friends School. She has been married to Delaware Congressman John Carney since 1993.