Let’s set the scene: A woman is representing constituents, changing Senate rules and raising two small children. She was a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and the first female double amputee from the Iraq War. The first in many things, including being the first sitting senator to give birth, she’s now the reason the Senate voted to allow kids under the age of 1 on the floor of the Senate.
But one thing Sen. Tammy Duckworth is not first in, by far, is being a new mom who must work after the birth of a child. She won’t be the first to face an issue about where to breast-feed or pump, or when. And judging from the comments on any internet story about her and about the new Senate rules, she isn’t the first woman to be mom-shamed. (Like the pregnant New Zealand prime minister. Or the breast-feeding Australian politician. Or any parent, really.)
She was, however, lucky enough to be in a position where she could find a way to be with her newborn and make working while being a mother just a little easier for herself.
Duckworth may have made that rule change look easy (bipartisan and without dissent, folks!), and clearly most humans can’t expect to bring a newborn to work. But one thing this crystallizes: It’s too hard to be a working parent in America.
“Just like the senator, there are so many millions of working parents who are really working hard to balance needs of families to do the work they want to do. We’re making parents make these impossible choices,” said Adrianna Logalbo, managing director of 1,000 Days, an organization that advocates for mothers and babies. Impossible choices, indeed.
Here at The Washington Post, we’ve published pieces by a mother who had to go back to work just two weeks after her premature son left the NICU, and a woman who didn’t have leave and tried to bring her baby to work. We heard from a dad who took unpaid leave when his daughter was born and was ridiculed by his colleagues and boss.
(This is the part where I remind us all that the United States is the only country other than Papua New Guinea that doesn’t offer paid leave to new parents.)
The Senate rule change, of course, doesn’t outright help your average non-senator American.
What of the office worker? Shift worker? Duckworth’s attention is “helping to normalize what it’s like to be a mother with a newborn,” said Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values at Work, a national network that advocates for family-friendly workplaces.
“I have a uterus and a brain, and I use both,” Patricia Schroeder famously said when asked how she would manage being a member of Congress and a mother to two. This was in the 1970s, and yet it is still too hard to be a mother in the workplace.
“What the #MeToo movement reminds us is things we experience make us feel it’s either our fault for not figuring it out or it’s life. Just the way it is,” Bravo says. “And moments like this remind us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and this makes it visible how many people are impacted by the mismatch between the structure and the reality of people’s lives.”
Americans still have no mandated paid parental leave. The vast majority can’t bring their newborns to work (not that that would that be most people’s first choice, anyway). Many can’t even work from home when they need to, whether for a sick child, spouse or elderly parent. And still parents twist and turn and patch things together to get it all done, just like Duckworth has. That, alone, should be enough to remind employers (and lawmakers) that they’re getting a bargain when they get a working parent.
If the Senate can allow for new parents to uphold their constitutional duties, surely we can make things easier for parents to be in the workforce. Moving to the Senate floor in a wheelchair with a little slip of a little girl in her arms so she could vote, Duckworth shows that with some creativity, employers could help make it work for parents.
It simply doesn’t have to be so hard.