Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz is trying to make the transition to Congress a little easier for newly elected mothers, with plans to create an informal caucus called "Moms in the House."
Wasserman Schultz, a mother herself, says some of the longstanding rules and accepted protocol in Congress—like late-night votes—can make balancing work and family difficult for mothers with young children, and those who serve as their children's primary caregivers.
“We don’t want to have divorces or kids who are dropping off the edge in school,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview with Politico. “Your family is always your No. 1 priority. And you can structure your schedule, I tell members, around your life to make it work. It just requires a lot of organization and a lot of family cooperation.”
Wasserman Schultz has already reached out to California Representative-elect Katie Porter, Virginia Representative-elect Abigail Spanberger, and Florida Representative-elect Debbie Mucarsel-Powell—all of whom have three children—to offer advice on how to navigate their new lives as both congresswomen and mothers. Wasserman Schultz and other incoming female members of Congress have also begun developing plans to request that Democratic leadership in the House not schedule any votes past 6:30 PM, which can drive up child care costs for parents and put a strain on breastfeeding mothers.
"Congress wasn’t built for members like me,” Porter told Politico. “For those of us who have young children, which is a minority, there’s definitely the built-in assumption of a two-parent model… There is no template for how to do this in my situation as a single mom.”
Congress has only begun to adjust to the reality of having mothers in its ranks in the last decade. The first major change came in 2007, when House Minority Leader, then House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi installed a lactation room in the House. And though the House has long allowed children on the floor—so long as they're accompanied by their parent—it wasn't until earlier this year that the Senate followed suit, doing away with its ban to permit Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth to nurse her newborn daughter while in the chambers.
"By ensuring that no Senator will be prevented from performing their constitutional responsibilities simply because they have a young child, the Senate is leading by example and sending the important message that working parents everywhere deserve family-friendly workplace policies," Duckworth said in a statement at the time, adding that the lift on the ban was a step toward bringing the Senate "into the 21st century."
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand chronicled many of the difficulties she ran into as a young mother and freshman senator in her 2014 memoir Off the Sidelines, where she recalls immediately running into one of the obstacles Wasserman Schultz is working to preempt, and the one Duckworth ultimately overcame. When Gillibrand was first elected to the Senate in 2009, she was asked to preside over the Senate chamber from 5 to 7 PM, which was for her a huge problem, considering she had just given birth to her second son, Henry, whom she would need to breastfeed during that time.
"I tried to explain to the young male Senate staffer who issued my orders that these hours were impossible: I had an infant whom I needed to nurse at that time, and if I didn't feed him, I'd be extremely uncomfortable," Gillibrand writes. "The staffer didn't care."
Almost 10 years later, Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics, says women don't seem to be having as hard a time getting the accommodations they need to serve in Congress. She told Broadly last week that, for example, she expects incoming Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar—one of the first Muslim women ever to be elected to Congress—will have no problem passing an amendment to House rules that would allow her to wear her headscarf to work.
Congress is changing with its members—and it's likely to keep changing, she says.
"The issue here is that the rules don't change until someone needs them to," Lawless says. "The good news is that we now have the kind of diversity that requires these rule changes. It really highlights how archaic some of these rules are and how long it's taken to generate the beginnings of the diversity we would expect from the US Congress."