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This is what it's like to run for governor with twin toddlers ― during a pandemic

For Jennifer Carroll Foy, the balancing act of running for governor of Virginia, continuing to work as a court-appointed attorney, and parenting comes with its challenges. “I can tell you that no two days are the same," she says.  
Jennifer Carroll Foy with twins Alex and Xander.
Jennifer Carroll Foy with twins Alex and Xander.Courtesy of Jennifer Carroll Foy.

When Jennifer Carroll Foy announced she was pregnant with twins during her 2017 campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates, critics told her to drop out. Her opponent had already out-fundraised her by a steep margin, and she was attempting to flip a historically-red district blue. Some argued there was no way she could pick up the lead while serving as a public defender ― all while carrying not one, but two babies.

But Carroll Foy is used to proving naysayers wrong.

She recounted to NBC News’ Know Your Value how she was accepted into the Virginia Military Institute, and how a boy in her high school JROTC class told her, "I was going to go to West Point, but I'm going to go to VMI with you, because I want to be there to watch you when you fail.” She simply told her classmate “challenge accepted,” and in 2003, became one of the first few women to graduate from the prestigious institute.

Carroll Foy graduated from VMI in 2003.Courtesy of Jennifer Carroll Foy.

She would not back down in the delegate’s race either. Carroll Foy did pick up the lead against her opponent, diligently knocking on doors, sending postcards, and calling constituents. Even as her pregnancy required her to be on bedrest ― “pretty much upside down with twins” ― she ran her race to the finish. And in the end, she won, defeating her opponent by a higher percentage of votes than the races for both governor and attorney general.

“Even though I knew I would be outraised, I knew I would never be outworked, because organized people beat organized money,” Carroll Foy said. She gave birth to her twins prematurely on the campaign trail in 2017, a month after the primary.

She had to carve out her time wisely, as her two sons, Alex and Xander, were required to stay in neonatal intensive care. She spent her days on the campaign trail and nights at the hospital until the general election in November.

“There were no outside conversations about anything else that was happening in the world" at night, Foy told NBC at the time. "There were no phone calls regarding jobs or campaigns, it was just us and them — and it was absolutely amazing.”

Jennifer Carroll Foy at a swearing-in ceremony as a new delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates in January 2018.Amanda Maglione / Amanda Maglione

Now she’s aiming to repeat her victory in a bid for Virginia governor. If elected, Carroll Foy would make history as the nation’s first Black woman governor. The 39-year-old mother and former freshman delegate from Petersburg is up against high-profile members of the Democratic party, including former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, and Delegate Lee Carter.

Other moms in the race for Virginia governor include Republican State Senators Amanda Chase, and Jennifer McClellan, who also has two young children.

Former Gov. McAullife currently has a substantial lead in Democratic field, with Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan behind him, according to recent polling. However, about half of voters are still undecided.

As a driving force behind a House bill to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia, Carroll Foy has centered her campaign on issues of gender, criminal justice, health care, and the environment. She’s gained popularity among progressives, securing endorsements from the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate activist group, Feminist Majority PAC, and Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California.

Throughout the year on the campaign trail, her twin 3-year-old sons, Alex and Xander, are often seen right by her side, or even on her lap.

“I absolutely believe that the fact that I am a mom, and a working mom at that, helps me in my race for governor,” said Carroll Foy. “I can tell you that I see things through a different lens, and it also informs why I fight and who I'm fighting for.”

For Carroll Foy, the balancing act of running for governor, continuing to work as a court-appointed attorney, and parenting comes with its challenges. “I can tell you that no two days are the same when you are raising two rambunctious 3-year-olds who refuse to be potty-trained during a pandemic,” Carroll Foy said. As is the case for many moms during the pandemic, no one day is the same.

“It's more exhausting now during Covid-19 than it was before, because at least you would be able to drop the kids off with their grandparents, or childcare and school and have some type of respite before you pick up your job hat, or you put on your wife hat,” she said.

But she’s not complaining. She equates her race for governor with the obstacles women across the country have encountered during the pandemic. The day-to-day of homeschooling, working, and parenting all collide on one single collision course, demanding equal attention. “There's no rest for the weary. There are no breaks, there are no timeouts,” she said.

Recent election cycles have seen a surge of mothers run for political office, seating a record number of women in Congress and many state legislatures this year.

However, moms who ran for office (and all working moms, for that matter) faced a lack of child care options to fall back on once the pandemic hit, according to Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising, a nonpartisan, social welfare and advocacy organization. In the last year, 32 percent of women aged 25 to 34 left the labor force because many childcare options vanished due to the pandemic. More than 2.3 million women lost their jobs in 2020, with Black and Latina women seeing the largest share of unemployment.

“Mom candidates ― and in particular mom of color candidates ― face all these challenges: caring for and supporting their families, keeping their families safe from Covid-19, holding onto their jobs if they have them, and at the same time raising money, managing campaigns and connecting to voters, Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “It was a challenge before the pandemic and it’s even more so now.”

These challenges play a direct hand in issues of campaign financing and existing gender discrepancies. Super PACs, for example, historically contribute more to male candidates than female candidates, both Republican and Democrats. The November election was no exception. In 2020, super PACS donated over $330 million to male candidates, but $130 million to their female counterparts. As a result, women have turned to small dollar donations through canvassing and organizing.

“What women don't get in dollars, they make up with their shoe leather, as far as walking the grounds and knocking on doors,” said Simona Grace, founder and CEO of Moms in Office, a PAC supporting mom candidates.

But most mothers who ran in the 2020 elections likely filed to enter the race prior to the pandemic, according to Grace. And the move to digital fundraising and remote campaigning devastated the previous fundraising strategy for many. “It hurt women because their strength is knocking on doors and getting out in the community and meeting voters face to face, and they were not able to do that,” Grace said.

Jennifer Carroll Foy, her husband Jeff, and their two sons Alex and Xander.Courtesy of Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Grace also observed mothers displaying a tremendous amount of creativity and resiliency throughout last year’s campaigns. Many women had in-laws and extended family move in with them, while traditional child care options vanished. Zoom calls with children bouncing on one knee became commonplace.

Carroll Foy similarly makes her role as a mom an essential fixture of her campaign, sharing her day-to-day with both pride and humor. “When you need to make calls but your 3-year-old needs to cuddle. #MomLife #MomBoss,” she captioned a recent photo with her son Xander on her lap.

There’s a mantra that guides Carroll Foy from Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts: “The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.” Her story, her struggle, and her motherhood give meaning to this notion: “We need people who have the same lived experiences as so many families to be in positions of power,” she said. “What I have to do is I have to speak truth to power, and I have to make it plain.”

Natalie Johnson is a segment producer for “AM Joy” on MSNBC and an illustrator from Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter @nataliejohnsonm.