Meet Bethany and Seth Mandel, the D.C. power couple out to popularize ‘Big Family’
With five kids and nearly 200K followers on Twitter, the couple uses social media to promote their brand of family values
SILVER SPRING, Md. — Utah may have the largest families in the nation, but on the East Coast, the beating heart of Big Family Inc. resides in the gloriously messy family room of Bethany and Seth Mandel.
It’s there, surrounded by toys, books and kids, that Bethany writes and tweets on a gray sectional couch, in between nursing her 3-month-old baby, shuttling two preschoolers to activities and homeschooling her two oldest children. Has she mentioned the dog? Truman is the springer spaniel-poodle mix always in search of a lap. But they’re usually taken.
Bethany’s husband, Seth, executive editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine, toggles between his Washington, D.C., office and their home, where he works on a laptop on the kitchen table, or wherever a space opens up. The couple have no home office; the bedrooms are all occupied by children. Their home is the domestic expression of chaos theory, the idea that astounding disorder can exist within an ordered structure of patterns and laws.
Married for 10 years, the Mandels are comfortable with mess. People who’ve delivered a baby in a car know that life can emerge and thrive in circumstances that aren’t sterile. The couple have more important things to worry about than whether the baby’s nasal aspirator is on the front steps, and whether there’s room to fit a drinking glass on the coffee table.
They have five children to raise, tens of thousands of Twitter followers to educate and entertain, and a nation to convince to have more children.
Bethany, a Deseret contributor, wrote about the pleasures of large families for Deseret Magazine earlier this year. “I look at my (then) four kids, and by golly, I like them. It makes me want more,” she wrote. After reading the piece, some people wrote her to say they’d decided to have another child.
Advocating for families — large families, in particular — has become a sort of mission for the couple, faithful Jews who traveled markedly different paths to arrive at this stage of life. “I joke that I see myself as PR for Big Family, like Big Tech or Big Oil,” Bethany said.
‘I have white privilege?’
Bethany, 35, grew up in New York, the only child of parents who separated when she was 3. She was a latchkey kid who was often alone, and she lost her mother to complications of lupus at 16 and her father to suicide at age 19. “This,” she says, swirling her hands in the air as one child plays the piano and another runs through the room in a Halloween costume, “is very different from how I grew up.”
The couple’s current life is more familiar to Seth, 39, who grew up with two sisters in a middle-class neighborhood in New Jersey, the sort of place where children were sent outside early in the day with instructions to be home by dinner. At one point, both sets of grandparents and four sets of aunts and uncles also lived nearby. “I was surrounded by family,” he said. His parents are still together and just recently sold Seth’s childhood home.
Seth grew up reading Commentary magazine in a conservative-leaning family that helped to inform his views as an adult (despite voting for Democrat Al Gore for president when he was 18). Bethany, who had initially adopted her mother’s liberal views, found conservatism in college, where she said professors lectured her about her “white privilege.”
“I had a social-worker mom who became disabled when I was a teen. We lived in a single-wide trailer park. We had nothing. We were extremely poor, and then my mom died when I was 16, and I’m the one who removed her from life support because my dad wasn’t around anymore. And then I bounced around; I was on my own. Nobody in my family helped me. And I have white privilege?,” she recalled. “I would sit there seething.”
She worked full time throughout college — one year at City College in New York, the rest at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was at Rutgers where she became friends with conservatives for the first time, and by the time she graduated with a history degree, she had come to realize that her beliefs were more in line with theirs than with liberal Democrats. She decided that she’d one day like to work in politics.
After leaving college, she worked for a year as a development assistant at a synagogue and then moved to Cambodia to teach fifth grade. In Cambodia, she became a denizen of Twitter, then just three years old. She used the social media platform both for entertainment and career advancement. “I followed everyone on Twitter that I thought I might want to work for.”
This included conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, and the strategy paid off when she landed a job at Heritage that she saw mentioned on Twitter.
Mandel’s Twitter presence also led to her subsequent job, after Commentary editor John Podhoretz reached out and said, “I don’t know what I want you to do, but I want you to come work for me.”
A few months later, he offered jobs to both of them; Seth became an editor and Bethany handled the magazine’s social media. “Commentary is very cerebral and very intellectual, and that’s not who I am, but that’s what Seth is,” she said. “They came for me, but Seth was the better fit.”
That’s why Bethany was happy to step away when she got pregnant with her first child, a daughter, now 8. Though she hasn’t had a full-time salaried position since then, there’s been no shortage of work: freelance writing and editing (to include a children’s book series called “Heroes of Liberty” that features people such as former President Ronald Reagan and economist Thomas Sowell) and editing for the conservative website Ricochet. A podcast and a book are forthcoming.
Seth, too, left Commentary and went on to become op-ed editor for the New York Post before joining The Washington Examiner to edit its magazine. Like Bethany, he’s a graduate of Rutgers, although they weren’t there at the same time.
Attack of the ‘Grandma killer’
On social media, Bethany is witty and blunt, and, in her words, snarky. She had no problem, for example, embracing the moniker “Grandma killer” when she trended on Twitter in May 2020 for arguing against lockdowns. Her tweet even made the news in Israel and the U.K. She has 86,000 followers on Twitter; her husband, nearly 100,000.
You can call me a Grandma killer. I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers in order to make other people comfortable. If you want to stay locked down, do. I’m not.— Bethany S. Mandel (@bethanyshondark) May 6, 2020
She’s also been upfront on social media about the challenges of married life, at one point writing a Twitter thread about a time when she was considering divorce. The couple got help from a counselor who helped them improve their communication and identify where the problem began. Eight years later, Bethany described the couple as “disgustingly in love.”
“Our marriage took work,” she said. “I’m glad we did it.”
Seth, like his wife, tweets a mixture of news, commentary, jokes and snippets of family life. Other than describing himself as the father of the “five Irishest Jewish kids on Earth” (Bethany’s mom was Irish), he doesn’t reveal much about his children in public. Because their work is sometimes controversial and brings out the haters, and because the internet is forever, the couple doesn’t identify their children publicly or allow their faces to be shown in photographs that are published. When the children are mentioned on social media; they have code names; for example, the son born in the car goes by “Altima,” the model of the car where he took his first breaths.
They are determined that their children have childhoods; no screens are allowed, except for special occasions.
“Because we are a homeschooling family, there is meaning in everything we do,” Seth says. “We realize that our days together are a chance for all sorts of learning opportunities.”
Dinner (a no-phone zone) is at 6 sharp each evening; bedtime at 7:30. The older children help with their younger siblings, even collecting the baby from his morning nap. “My kids are very well-behaved and that’s by training,” Bethany says. “It’s an expectation that we have.”
When they have dinner parties, which they do frequently, the children are present at the table. “People have told us, ‘Your house is very real. And everything in this town is very fake.’ We are not fake. We don’t try to be something that we’re not. Our house is a mess, welcome to it.”
True to form, many of their friendships have originated on Twitter. For example, the Mandels became friends through Twitter with Matt Whitlock, a communications professional who once worked for Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, and invited Whitlock and his wife for dinner before having met them in person. “They’re really good friends now,” Bethany said, despite being served challah that had been “decorated” with glitter by a child.
The couple, who were introduced by a friend, jokes that they only have children in off-election years. Does that mean another is forthcoming?
“Well, you do the math,” Bethany says. For all their interest in politics, neither Mandel plans to run for public office, believing that they can have the most influence through media.
For now, they are content with what they have, what they do and where they live, a leafy neighborhood close to what Bethany calls a “really cool city.” Not that Seth doesn’t occasionally think about how great it was in the Orthodox Jewish community where he grew up, where his family members lived for more than a century. “There are aspects of that life they are doing right and everybody else is getting wrong,” he said.
For her part, Bethany sees the shrinking American family as something many people are getting wrong. The CDC announced earlier this year that the U.S. hit a record low fertility rate — 1.64 babies per woman — which is under the so-called “replacement rate” of 2.1 births, the number necessary to maintain the current population. Family policy experts say that the declining fertility rate could cause economic problems for the country, both in terms of worker shortages and fewer people paying into Social Security. But there’s also a personal cost, not only in the potential for loneliness and poverty in old age but, according to Bethany, what children miss while they’re growing up.
“It’s heartbreaking that this has become so counterculture, this family that we have. I know the difference. It was just me and my mom until I was 16. And I see the difference in our upbringings, the difference between my kids’ upbringing and my own. I don’t want to demean my childhood; my mother did the best she could. But it wasn’t good. It wasn’t what a childhood should be,” she said.
“I feel very strongly, because I know the difference, that this is a better way to live.”