A Tough Legislator; A Gentle Parent

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the August-September 2000 issue of African American Parent Magazine. We’ve revisited the Conyers family in the November 2016 issue of BLAC with a column from Monica Conyers here.

He’s a venerable congressman who has dined with heads of state, helped shape foreign policy and fought diligently for civil rights. But, for now, he’s racing down the stairs, eagerly rifling through an envelope and waving what appears to be a thin, slightly rumpled document. Excited, he holds up the paperwork and points out the key highlights.

A proud politician? A diplomat clutching peace treaties or a newly passed bill? Maybe some other time, but not today.

This is John Conyers, the beaming dad, showing off grades on his child’s homework.

It’s a scene familiar to many households. But to U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., now in his 18th term in the House of Representatives, this is pretty heady stuff. Now 71, he married for the first time 11 years ago and is the very involved father of two energetic young boys: 9-year-old John III, and 4-year-old Carl. It’s his most fulfilling, if daunting, role yet.

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“It’s actually the most beautiful experience,” he says, as Carl playfully tugs on his shirt. “I mean, it’s changed my life completely. Listen, these guys have the capacity to drive you nuts. But then they can do things that give me feelings that no one else can give. It’s wonderful.”

The Conyers’ northwest Detroit home – he and his wife, Monica, have another by necessity in Washington, D.C., — sits on the Palmer Park Golf Course. It is comfy, and spacious; the boys have plenty of room to romp. On a buffet, sit various photos of John and Carl with none other than President Clinton, known also to them as Uncle Bill. Tonka trucks, train sets and other toys lie on the floor nearby. What’s it like being buds with the leader of the free world? “It’s okay,” John says, shrugging, as only a 9-year-old can. One gets the feeling he’s been asked that before.

Conyers watches quietly then smiles, and it is official: the distinguished, urbane congressman is, indeed, a family man. Though he has zero plans to retire and admits that his sights are set on one day heading up the powerful Judiciary Committee, what he loves most is hanging out with his wife and kids, the only children he’s ever had. And the feeling’s clearly mutual; Carl and John pop in and out, interacting with dad throughout the interview. For one thing, they’re glad he’s home. Long known for his interest in, among other things, international affairs, Conyers recently returned from a Spring trip to observe the presidential elections in Haiti. And he flew in the night before from New Jersey, where he spoke in support of a fellow congressman. Before that, there was the China trade vote on the Hill.

“It is difficult, but they know I’m never away if I don’t have to be,” he explains, bending down to tie Carl’s shoe. “Although Carl did call me once when I was in Haiti, and demanded that I ‘come home right now!”

If it were only that easy, even during a regular week. But to the madness there is a method. Tuesday through Thursday night, it goes, the parents are in Washington where Monica, who’s in her late 30s, is winding up law school. After that, they try to be home with John and Carl, who otherwise have a full-time housekeeper. Once or twice monthly, the boys fly to Washington. They soon will spend entire summers there. Handling school is tricky, too. But this is where technology comes in. The boys’ teachers at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Academy, for example, e-mail Monica daily, and John faxes his homework to Washington for his parents’ review. They speak with them by phone several times a day.

“The commuting can be complicated because, you know, I’ve got to be at John’s soccer games, his T-ball games, his band events, all of that,” Conyers explains, while Carl mugs expertly for the camera, a true politician’s kid. “But by plane I’m only an hour away, so sometimes I’ll take a late flight after an early school event. At least I don’t have to fly to one of the coasts.”

Right now, though, he’s grounded, at home for a week, where he will spend more time considering this whole family thing. It is quite a contrast from the global concerns that have occupied his time and captured his attention for years. The eloquent, popular 14th district Democrat (he’s never really had a tough election) was instrumental in the Clinton and Watergate impeachment hearings. No wall flower, Conyers has called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq, and is essentially responsible for the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. A civil rights leader, Conyers was the recent recipient of the NAACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He also penned the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, and was the original sponsor of the national Voter Registration Act. He’s been a strong advocate of health care reform, and has authored subsequently enacted procurement reform legislation.

All of which pales in comparison to trying to raise a kid.

“Parenting philosophy? That’s a very, very complex area,” he says as John, a very good student, stops playing to offer that he wants to be a basketball player, entrepreneur and lawyer. “And it’s more difficult than it used to be, in that there are so many more challenges, like technology. Monica and I, for example, recently made the decision to take cable TV out of our home. It’s just too much for these guys.

“So, the question of how you bring kids up in the 21st century is complicated, and it’s never ending. Now summer is coming up, and the question for us is, how do we best use these next three months? Do we just have a regular vacation, or do we find a way of mixing in educational development and physical development and learning social skills, or do we just turn them loose? And how much is too much?”

Conyers also frets these days about public school systems – he dislikes block grant programs, saying they only end up reinforcing educational disparities – and wonders aloud about the effect of mostly white schools on his kids.

“At Cranbrook, they’ve got a good system, about 15 motivated students per class,” he says. “In the city, you get 35 kids, some of whom have all sorts of problems. The schools can’t handle that, it’s impossible…So, as a policymaker, I’m trying to find out what can be done for everybody, those who can’t afford schools in Bloomfield Hills.

“And then I think, on a personal level, what’s the downside of going to a school where your kids are the minority? I’m in all the schools quite a bit, and I’ve had a lot of parents anguishing about that. They get to be 12, 13, 14 years old, and all their friends are out in the suburbs. What’s that going do to them?”

That’s one thing Conyers’ parents didn’t have to worry about. Along with his three brothers, the Wayne State University graduate was raised in Detroit, and attended public school. His dad, John Sr., was a well-known international representative for the United Auto Workers union. A disciplinarian, he traveled a lot and was not too involved in the day-to-day activities of his kids. Although Conyers has great love and respect for his late dad, and appreciated his support, he says he hopes to remain closer to his clan, than his dad did with them.

According to Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Vonda Evans, Conyers’ kids undoubtedly will have all the love they need. “They are excellent parents. They take time with their children and explain things to them in a way they can understand. They’re a very responsible, God-centered family that believes in Christian values,” she says.

Agreed Rep. James Clyburn, head of the Congressional Black Caucus of which Conyers is a founding member: “He had one of his kids with him on the floor the night before last,” he said, chuckling. “He waited a long time to enjoy fatherhood, but when I look at him it seems he’s making up for lost time.”

Indeed, the Conyers boys seem to be perpetually in tow. There they were recently at the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, nearly tackling keynote speaker Clinton as he came down the aisle. Dad just wants to expose them to as much as he can, within reason. For example, while Carl just wants to be with dad wherever he goes, his brother John, on a Friday night, say, would just as soon pass on a 14th district meeting. And that’s fine with dad, who says he never takes them with him if they don’t want to go. And if they do go, well, it can be risky business.

“A few year ago, Bishop Desmond Tutu was at the airport – I was part of a special delegation meeting him when he came to Detroit. And there was John, and he keeps yelling, ‘Do-do! Do-do!’ and the press were there and everything,” he laughs, chalking it up to kids being kids.

And he should know a little bit about that. In his quest to be the best dad he can, Conyers devours parenting books. He’s particularly interested in what experts have to say about learned behavior.

“Nature versus nurture. It’s scary, and unresolved,” he says quietly. “How much exposure is too much? When is it permanent? I’ve got two little wide-eyed kids that are excited and confident and happy. And we say, just how do we keep that spirit…how do we contain that and make sure that little flame keeps going?

“They’re thinking about things. John asked me in the car the other day about menstruation. Menstruation! He’s talked about Monica Lewinsky, all of that. And Carl, he’ll say, ‘dad, is stinky a bad word?’ He’s always trying to find the limits of what’s acceptable and unacceptable. See, I see their minds working, and I encourage it. It’s not, shut up and sit down. I feel sorry for those parents. I do encourage the thinking, but I want to find out how to keep it all going.”

In that, he’s likely not alone. Many other older males are raising kids for the first time. There’s sixtyish Harvard psychologist Dr. Alvin Pouissant who recently fathered a child. And psychologist like Dearborn-based Amy Trabitz expects that as people continue to live longer, the phenomenon will grow. According to the 1998 U.S. Census data, 65 and 74 had 13,000 children under the age of six. That’s compared to 8,000 such children in 1990.

“I guess I don’t feel like an older dad, even though I am,” Conyers says, reflectively. “And they’re coming into fashion these days. I even formed a little club in Congress for us. I’m just so very blessed to be working at something that I love so much that the years have gone by so quickly. And I still love my work. I just feel so happy that I’ve come up on fatherhood at this stage of my life. I can enjoy them now. Before, when I was younger, I was busy going here and going there, trying to get to there. I wouldn’t have had time. It would have all flown by me. The while thing now is so full of meaning.”

He understands it now, sure, but not so much in the past. Conyers laughs in amazement at how he used to chide his friends for not being able to do something for lack of a baby sitter. Lame excuse, thought Conyers. “I’d go, ‘please don’t dive me that,” he recalls. “A babysitter problem? Give me a break.’ Now, I wish I could put ashes in my mouth of every time I said that. I mean, my mistake — getting a sitter is a very serious undertaking.”

Serious indeed, but Conyers is thinking ahead, too. He wonders what career paths his kids will choose. A huge jazz fan who also collects musical instruments, the congressman privately hopes his equally musical kids eschew what he considers a corrupt recording industry for something in politics or law. Not that those fields are prefect, he adds.

But then those decisions are a long way off. True, time will, no doubt, fly by. However for the moment, the squeals and giggles filling the Conyer’s household belong to two bright, mischievous little boys.

“What really gets you,” says Conyers, his voice trialing off. “…Carl is the affectionate one. He’s always, ‘dad, I love you.’ John goes hot and cold. He can sometimes be angry at something and he’s going around snapping his head, letting you know that he’s’ ticked off at the system. See, 9-year-olds are going through this man/boy thing. John’s reading now about all his athletic heroes and so on. And so, there’s a little mannishness there.

“But then, the times that really get you are the times he comes to you as just this little boy, and he wants to sit on your lap, doesn’t want to talk, just wants you to put your arm around him. He just wants to be a little guy.

“Now that, what is there that’s better than that?”

Mary Chapman is a Detroit freelance writer and a frequent contributor to African American Parent Magazine.

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