The first time I gave birth, I was in labor for 23 hours. My daughter was sunny-side-up, positioned head-down but facing my stomach, her skull pressing against my lower spine. I was in intense pain even between contractions, and at 3:58 a.m., Mila was born via an emergency C-section. I was crying, shaking, and speechless, and I still remember the anesthesiologist telling me to “use my words.”
I was hospitalized for four days after that delivery. It took about three weeks before I could sit down or get up by myself, and a full four weeks before I could simply walk around our apartment. It took me two months to physically heal from Mila’s birth.
At the time, I was working as the director of operations of a research institute at a major university, but I did not have one single day of paid family leave. I used all my sick leave, and then did the unthinkable: I quit. I gave up a job I loved, because I was not ready to leave my infant and go back to work.
One in four American women are forced back to work just 10 days after giving birth. I had the privilege to be able to quit, to survive on my husband’s salary. I was one of the lucky ones.
Twenty-three months later, I gave birth to our second child, Nicholas. My husband took the two weeks of paternity leave his company offered, and on the day he went back to work, I spiked a 105-degree fever while home alone with our two babies. I felt myself slipping out of consciousness and called a friend to come get me.
She got me to the hospital, where my mom and husband met us, and I was admitted. I was told to send my infant home with my husband and with formula. I refused and had to fight to keep my baby with me in the hospital so that I could nurse him. They only allowed it because my husband stayed with me to take care of Nicholas while the doctors were taking care of me. Mila went home with my mother, and I cannot imagine what I would have done if I had been a single mother.
I had retained placenta from Nicholas’ birth and got a massive infection. I was hospitalized for one week and then sent home with IV antibiotics for a week after that. At four weeks postpartum, I was sick as a dog, with an IV in, nursing two babies. I was in no shape to put on some pants, hand over my infant to strangers, and head into the office. And yet, that is what American women do every day.
Childbirth is no joke. Recovery is no joke. Paid family leave is not a vacation.
We are sending women bleeding, swollen, in stitches, in agony back to work across this country. We are sending their infants to exorbitantly expensive, overworked, understaffed child care centers.
When Nicholas and Mila were 1 and 3, I ran for Congress against a Republican incumbent who had been in office since I was 12. It was the least planned thing I had ever done, but my representative was consistently voting to hurt people in my district and across the country, and frankly, I was pissed.
He voted against paid family leave, voted to defund Planned Parenthood 17 times, he was against a woman’s right to choose even in cases of rape or incest, and he had voted to take maternity coverage away from 13 million American women, even though we have the worst maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world.
I launched that campaign with two babies and no child care. My mom is a teacher and would watch my children every day after 3:30 p.m., but I spent the first five months campaigning with my baby strapped to my chest and my toddler by my side. I eventually asked the Federal Election Commission if I could use some of the funds I was raising for my campaign on child care.
There is a reason we have so many millionaires and so few moms in Congress. Even though 88% of American women are mothers by the time we’re 44 years old, only 6% of members of Congress are moms with children 18 or younger. Congress was not designed for working moms to run and win.
While I was warned that my FEC request was “political suicide,” I became the first woman to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on child care, and now more than 100 candidates across the country have used this resource. This one small structural change has the opportunity to transform the political landscape, and transformation is exactly what we need.
Even after the past 21 months, as child care centers closed down and the lack of paid leave combined with lockdown and virtual school forced more than 5 million American women out of the labor force, we still can’t pass four measly weeks of paid family leave.
President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework would be a huge investment in American families, including universal pre-K, an expanded and extended child tax credit, and a 7% cap on child care costs for families earning up to 250% of their state’s median income.
Because not one single Republican will support this framework, the Democratic caucus needs unanimous support from its members in the Senate to pass Build Back Better via a process called reconciliation, which would allow them to pass the legislation with support from only a simple majority of senators. Twelve weeks of paid family leave was originally included in the proposal but had to be cut in order to try to gain support from the two Democratic senators holding it up. Those two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, unsurprisingly have never given birth.
The Democratic moms in Congress fought back: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Katherine Clark, Katie Porter, Grace Meng, Chrissy Houlahan, Mikie Sherrill, Cindy Axne, Nikema Williams, and more. Thanks to them, four weeks of paid family leave is back in the proposal for now. But anyone who’s ever given birth knows that four weeks is not nearly enough, and still leaves us woefully short of the global average of 29 weeks of paid maternity leave. Moms need more, dads need more, babies need so much more.
Our policies have failed women and children for generations. To pass meaningful reform, we need to change who has a seat at the table. After my campaign, I launched Vote Mama PAC, to help elect Democratic mamas from school boards to the U.S. Senate, and our nonpartisan nonprofit arm, Vote Mama Foundation, to break down the cultural and structural barriers moms face when they run and when they serve.
By the time moms realize just how bad our policies are, we are trying to survive new motherhood, while maintaining some semblance of our careers. We don’t have time to go out and fight for systemic change, but that’s what Vote Mama is doing.
We are the wealthiest nation in the world. American billionaires added more than $1 trillion to their wealth during the pandemic, and we STILL can’t pass paid leave. We have the money. We don’t have the willpower. We don’t have enough moms in Congress.
Mothers bring a unique perspective to policymaking and use their lived experience to inform what they fight for in office. We need to elect more of them and change the damn country.