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On politics, family and running out for a smoke

Fast confession - Jana Maláčová: My husband and I "took turns" courting each other

David Budai
02.Aug 2020
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8 minutes

Jana Maláčová has worked her way up from a faceless clerk to the post of Minister of Labor and Social Affairs and thus became one of the most influential women in the Czech Republic. Why? Her ministry deals with the incredible budget of over 600 million crowns. In a unique interview with she didn't only talk about politics, though. She let us see a glimpse of her private life and revealed how she'd met her husband with whom she has a five-year-old son Gustav, or what the family most prefers doing in their free time. Meeting Jana Maláčová was very nice and it became clear that her words, unlike those of many politicians, aren't "empty"; because she utilizes her vast experience from her studies and working abroad.

It's been two years since you went from being a clerk to a minister, therefore a politician. Are you regretting it already, or are you still enjoying it?

Every former minister I've ever met has asked me: "Are you still into it?" (laughs) People feel like politics is great fun, but it's quite an ordeal... But I have to say that I still enjoy it and see purpose in it.

Do you think that you'll stay in politics? Or would you rather go back to technical work?

In politics you don't know the day or the hour, that's the most interesting part. I certainly won't go back to being a clerk after this. When I became minister, many people told me that they admire me, because I do honest work and I'm not afraid to say my opinion. I pursue things that I consider to be important. But this means that you close the way back to the position of clerk or diplomat. So once I'm done with politics, I'll probably go work out of this field.

What annoys you the most about politics?

Lies and obfuscation. It really makes my blood boil.

In Fast Confession you said that you and your husband most often argue about politics. So does it permeate all parts of your life, even when you come home...

Not all. (laugh) We try to keep it separate and we did that even before I became minister. But politics is important to us, it's why we met. It was in Brussels, at a meetup of Czech with left wing leanings. So politics really are a part of our lives.

We used to both be idealists, then my husband's career really took off and he became the Secretary of State for the EU, and that practical experience changed him. And my ministerial position changed by view of the world too. We realized that things aren't black and white.

When we argue, it isn't about opinions, those we agree on, but we often disagree about how to reach a compromise to reach a good outcome. Politics is a lot about compromises, you often have to make concessions to save the end result as a whole. So that the change is really for the better, and not just a notch on your belt.

So when you and your husband put politics aside, what do you most like doing in your free time?

We love watching series or movies. We enjoy cultural outings, we like cooking for friends... Mostly my husband. (smile) Now we had to take a break from that because of the coronavirus crisis, but otherwise we enjoy inviting friends over on Saturdays for chill evenings with nice wine. And we like taking our son out to nature, traveling. We keep it really varied.

Do you have enough free time? After all, the ministerial position is quite tasking and it often happens that the politicians become estranged from their family...

There's the question of what enough free time means. I work a lot, of course, but I also think that there's some kind of limit in question. I don't think I neglect my husband and son. It also depends what one sacrifices. I used to spend a lot of time with my friends, I had "connections" even without my husband, my own hobbies. Now a lot of that's gone. (laughs)

Are you the kind of couple that has an event planner for the week? Who picks up your son, who does the shopping...

We used to do that a lot, now not so much. We have established rituals and a functioning system, so a lot of stuff is automatic. We get a lot of help from both grandmas, we couldn't do it without them. Even though my husband would probably disagree right now, for example, just recently I was reminding him in the morning whether I could still count on him going to the Smetana’s Litomyšl festival in the evening with me... I'd already told him earlier, but he'd probably forgotten and was rather irked, because he had important meetings. And had to cancel them. (laughs)

Pronájem bytu Praha 1 - Nové Město - 112m
Pronájem bytu Praha 1 - Nové Město - 112m, Praha 1

How does your husband deal with the fact that you are now a powerful woman? Some would probably not take it well..

You have to ask him, but I think he's taking it well. For us it was always this way, it was never just one of us "shooting up" and the other one staying "down". By chance it was always like climbing up a rope where the hands take turns, each time one of us would rise a little and overshadow the other, then it changed places. Maybe it's the recipe for managing that.

Well, now he can't really outshine you... Unless he becomes prime minister!

You never know! (laugh) I have to say that he's dealing with it great. It's one of the reasons I fell in love with him He's a feminist, he's very respected and successful at his job. He's happy for my success and helps me.

It must be hard balancing work and family when both parents have great careers.

I remember that it was hard when my husband's career really advanced. I was department director, he was secretary of state, we were both busy, had to organize and sort everything out. It was the first great challenge. And when I then became minister, we already had it figured out. We just adjusted details.

You've already briefly mentioned that you met while working in Brussels. Tell me more. What were the beginnings like?

At that time we were building the Czech left wing community in Brussels, so we really became friends. We were also both in different relationships at the time, but we began dating after a while.

Who did the first impulse come from?

It's a little funny. I said that we "took turns" advancing our careers, so it was similar in this case. So both of us, each at a different time, and sometimes repeatedly... But because we were both in different relationships, we kept resisting. And then it wasn't possible anymore.

Now you have a five-year-old son together. What do you most like doing with him in your free time?

We come up with various activities. We read a lot, our son is beginning to take active interest in the outside world, it's a lot about dialogue and explaining. He has this honest outlook on the world that children have. At the same time, he asks us beautiful existential questions. And with how common politics is in our life, he often deduces various things from it. So it's really fun.

We also began riding a bike, playing football. On holiday we want to teach him swimming and also try camping, so we'll go camping for our vacation.

How does he deal with his mom being on TV?

Totally normally! (laugh) It's so funny, because he grew up with it. Then there are these situations where I say that I have to go back to work. And he says: "Okay, so I'll watch you." He knows that when I'm going away in the evening or around Sunday noon, I'm going to be on TV. He views it that way.

How did the ministerial position affect your lifestyle?

It's terrible, exactly the stuff one's not supposed to do. But that's politics for you. You don't have time for yourself, because you don't want to neglect anything at work. You build relationships, so it's about trust and cooperation, and that's time-consuming. But at the same time you don't want your family to suffer, so you don't sleep enough, eat at irregular times, drink a lot of coffee. On top of that very little exercise, a company car, everything's all wrong... So yes, my lifestyle is terrible.

I have this bad habit that when I want to have a moment of peace at the ministry, I hide out on the terrace, and in order to keep everyone away, I leave my phone on my desk. The excuse - a cigarette. Even if I don't like smoking. But I'm working on changing.

Your colleague from the government, Mrs. Schiller, walks a lot, for example. So escape the car for a bit sometimes...

I try. Do you see these sneakers? (points and laughs) Sometimes I put them on and I walk home, but that's time consuming, because people stop me and talk to me. So it takes me about an hour to get home by foot, but when five people stop you, it gets quite lengthy. (laugh)

What is on people's mind when they see a minister, what do they ask?

They usually mention a concrete problem of theirs. That's one type. And for the others it's the typical, "Oooh, hello, it's you! Can I take a pic with you?" Recently I've also found letters in my mailbox on several occasions, detailing people's concrete problems. They place it at the door to our building and write "Please, put it in Mrs. Maláčová's mailbox please!" on it.

And what can you do about it as a minister?

I can listen and try to solve the problem. Even though I have to admit that with the people who write to me it's usually tough stuff. I think that our social security system is set up well, the social "safety net" works in 99% of cases. But there are cases when various adverse factors line up, and these people fall through the net. And then it's very hard to try and fix it. But I always try to help.

I read about you that you work towards giving women more opportunities in politics. Do I understand that correctly?

I'm a feminist and I'd like there to be more women in politics. To me, politics is a conflict of interests, and women make up half of the population. Feminism for me means that women aren't second class citizens and should have the same opportunities men have.

And is it harder for women in these fields? Not just politics...

Recently I've had a similar discussion with a PhD student for her research regarding the discrimination of women in politics. I told her that I'd never felt discriminated against as a politician, nobody's ever said, "Maláčová is a woman, so we'll do something to her." (laugh)

Politics is a difficult field for both men and women, the conditions are harsh for everyone. But male politicians usually have a woman standing by them as a homemaker, because it's expected of her. And when you don't have that, the continuous clashes of opinions, intrigues and time crunch get really damn hard to deal with.

But you have to adapt. When you want to play the political game well, you have to play by the established rules. It's the same as if somebody was complaining that chess has stupid rules. If you feel like the rules are too harsh, you have to find the strength to change them, or not play at all.

Pronájem bytu Praha 1 - 42m
Pronájem bytu Praha 1 - 42m, Praha 1

You have a lot of experience from abroad, you both studied and worked there. When you then returned to the Czech Republic, you could compare. What do Czechs lack compared to foreigners?

We are a bit lacking in long term and critical thinking. And also realizing that when somebody has a differing opinion, it isn't an attack. I'd love to see more attempts at compromise and agreement in Czech politics. Instead, we are all engaging in a "forceful" tug of war and say: "We were right!" Or: "It's either my way or nothing."

Do you ever consider moving back abroad with your family for a time?

I'm not planning on it. I spent a long time abroad and even when I worked in the Czech Republic, I moved between Czechia and abroad a lot because of my previous relationship. Home is home.

And what do you like most about the Czech Republic?

I'm home here. All of my family's here. The mentality, culture, customs, you don't have to explain everything so much.

That's true. Thank you for the interview.

Fast confession:

What do you most like doing in your free time?

I like reading magazines and books, tend plants, that's my newest hobby. I also like going outside, to see people, to restaurants, cultural outings.

What was the last book you read?

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

The motto you live your life by?

If you don't try anything, you can't ruin anything.

What helps you when you're sad?

Doing something for myself and taking time to myself.

What are you most afraid of?

Things I can't control. That something health-related will go wrong with me or my loved ones.

What are your bad habits?

You probably shouldn't be telling that to people... But I smoke sometimes, that's a bad habit. And I go to bed late.

What do you like spending money on?

Plants, books.

What's worse, infidelity or a political betrayal?

Infidelity is worse, because betrayal is just part of life in politics.

Can you remember any political faux pas?

There were many, they're part of life. For example when you say something, thinking nobody's going to hear.

Are the members of ministry staff scared of you?

I hope not, but I hope they respect me.

The vacation that you remember most fondly?

My first vacation with my husband when we began dating. We were in Thailand for three weeks without cell phones. We had no plan, just traveled from island to island.

What's your favorite food?

I don't have a favorite food, it depends on my mood, the situation, and context.

What do you and your husband argue about most often?

Most often it's politics.

Who's a bigger romantic, you or your husband?

Probably both about equally, just in slightly different ways.
Question by the interviewee to the editor:

Which interview did you find most interesting?

All interviews with politicians are interesting when they really open up. Then it's great.
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