It is so common that it likely will have happened at least once somewhere in the United States by the time you finish reading this sentence. But it took more than 230 years for it to happen to a senator in office.
On Monday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., became the first sitting senator to give birth, challenging Senate leaders to face just how ill prepared they may be to accommodate the needs of a new mother.
Duckworth, 50, and her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, announced she had given birth to a daughter, Maile (MY-lee) Pearl this week. Their first child, Abigail, was born in 2014, while Duckworth served in the House of Representatives.
“As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a Senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent,” Duckworth said in a statement, “and my children only make me more committed to doing my job and standing up for hardworking families everywhere.”
First, Duckworth is seizing the opportunity to call for adjusting Senate rules to accommodate new parents.
There are changes that could help make a pregnant senator less remarkable in the future, especially as record numbers of women set out to run for office. A recent Associated Press survey found that 309 Democratic and Republican women so far had filed paperwork to run for the House — a new high.
Duckworth says the most problematic Senate rules generally prevent anyone who isn’t a senator, a designated aide, or other official from being on the Senate floor. Because a senator must be on the floor in order to vote, she argues that she should be allowed to bring her young child with her.
“For me to find out that there are issues with the United States Senate’s rules where I may not be able to vote or bring my child onto the floor of the Senate when I need to vote because we ban children from the floor, I thought, ‘Wow, I feel like I’m living in the 19th century instead of the 21st,’ ” she told CNN last month.
A spokesman for Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment on Duckworth’s proposal.
The Senate has bent its rules to make accommodations for senators before. Those examples tend to favor legislators battling serious illnesses, a fact that is not surprising, given that the average senator in January 2017 was about 62 years old. Exceptions have also been made for members with limited mobility. In 1997, for instance, some steps on the Senate floor were replaced with a ramp to assist Sen. Max Cleland D-Ga., a disabled veteran who used a wheelchair.
Bill Dauster, who advised Democrats on Senate procedure for decades before retiring last year, says senators sometimes ask their colleagues for permission, with unanimous approval, to bring aides onto the floor. Duckworth may be able to follow that example with her newborn, he says.
“I think it would be wonderful theater if she went to the floor, asked consent that I be allowed to bring my infant child to the floor for brief periods of time for the rest of the session of Congress,” Dauster says, “and see who objects.”
Some people worry there is a lingering stigma among voters against female lawmakers with young children who need to take leave. Many women have postponed or ruled out a career in politics because of it. “We’re asking women, in some senses, to take on a third part-time job,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
At least two women running for office this year are tackling the stigma head on. They have footage of themselves breastfeeding in their campaign ads.
When mothers do run, they may offer a unique perspective. After having her first daughter, Duckworth introduced legislation that would ensure safe, clean and convenient lactation rooms in large- and medium-sized airports. Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), the mother of twins who at 38 became the youngest woman elected to the Senate and later the first woman to chair the Senate agriculture committee, championed more nutritious school lunches in the late 1990s.
While she is the first in the Senate, Duckworth is among 10 women who have given birth while serving in Congress, five of whom are currently in office. And at least two former senators adopted children while in office: Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Kay Bailey Hutchison R-Texas.
Progress toward family-friendly policies has been slow on Capitol Hill — and primarily female-driven. The Office of the Attending Physician opened Congress’ first designated lactation room in 2006. After California Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House in 2007, she opened more lactation rooms — enabling staffers and members to better adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children be breastfed for at least the first year of life.
Duckworth has faced many challenges in her life, including being one of the first women to fly in Army combat missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and she lost her legs during one mission there. She is also no stranger to the challenges facing a new mother in Congress. In 2014, pregnant with her first child and under a doctor’s orders not to travel, Duckworth petitioned House Democratic leaders to allow her to vote by proxy in a round of internal party elections. They refused, citing the problems it could cause when members request absences for other reasons.
Unlike the Senate, though, the House allows children on the floor. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., brought along her then-7-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, as the House passed legislation in 2014 to help those with disabilities and their families save money for their care.
But Congress does not have a blanket parental leave policy. McMorris Rodgers, who is the only member of Congress in history to have given birth three times while in office, missed three weeks of votes while her son, born prematurely, was in intensive care.
“We need more women and moms in Congress — both in the House and in the Senate,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement to Kaiser Health News. “So we should make sure that the congressional workplace reflects the needs of working moms.”
“My kids, and having all three of them while serving in the House, have made me a better legislator,” she adds. “Being a mom makes politics real.”