The Senate Shows It Cares About New Mothers, Assuming They're Senators

Lawmakers leaped into action to help Sen. Tammy Duckworth and her new baby. What about the millions of women still waiting for help?

After years of failing to do anything to help new mothers in this country, the U.S. Senate finally got it together to help one woman on Wednesday ― a fellow senator.

Legislators voted unanimously to allow infants on the Senate floor during votes. The measure was crafted for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who recently had a baby, becoming the first senator to give birth while in office. Duckworth isn’t officially taking a maternity leave, she said, because that would mean she’d be prohibited from voting during her time off. She wanted to figure out a way to be present for important work and still breastfeed. Her colleagues made it happen. There were some ridiculous grumblings, but many lawmakers appear quite proud of the new rule.

“Being a parent is a difficult job, and the Senate rules shouldn’t make it any harder,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Rules Committee.

It was a rare female-friendly move from a deliberative body dominated by men ― and it was hard not to delight in the sight of Duckworth bringing her newborn to the Senate floor on Thursday. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the women of the Senate didn’t even have a place to pee.

Still, forgive me for not wildly cheering.

While these senators snapped into action to solve a work-family issue for one of their peers, they’ve left millions of American families twisting in the wind for years. The United States is the only developed country that does not offer paid maternity leave to new mothers; we’re one of only a handful of nations on the planet that offers new moms essentially bupkis.

It’s cool that the Senate made something happen in this instance. Duckworth herself spoke of “leading by example.” But the nation’s women are still waiting for their turn.

Great that the Senate has unanimously agreed to stop banning babies from the floor,” said Ellen Bravo, the director of Family Values @ Work, a nonprofit coalition of groups pushing for paid parental and sick leave in the U.S. “Surely now a majority can agree to paid family and medical leave insurance for all working families, so no one has to face financial disaster for being a good caregiver.”

Many high-income women can access paid leave through their jobs, but women at the lower end of the pay scale are less lucky. And the lack of leave is brutally punishing.

Far too many women must return to work quickly after giving birth, and the consequences are devastating. Women who go back to work too soon are more likely to experience depression, and less likely to breastfeed. Their babies can also suffer. Researchers have even found an inverse correlation between the amount of leave a woman takes and infant mortality rates.

Almost no one, of course, is letting women bring their infants to work with them. That’s just not going to fly. Imagine your Starbucks barista snuggling an infant while she makes a latte. Not feasible. 

Many of these new mothers are stuck running out to the car with a breast pump on their breaks, or giving up on breastfeeding altogether, running on far too little sleep and fumes of empathy from their equally overworked colleagues.

Some women can’t go back to work quickly, since giving birth often comes with complications. And some lose their jobs simply because they’ve had a baby. Many workers do get job protection through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act ― the law that Congress begrudgingly passed 25 years ago that offers unpaid time off to new parents and caregivers. But the law doesn’t cover all workers. This means many women, out of work, are forced onto public benefits simply because they’ve had a child.

Lack of leave doesn’t just hurt individuals. The whole economy suffers because women are forced out of the labor market. It’s no coincidence that the percentage of women who participate in the U.S. labor market is among the lowest of all democratic countries. Motherhood also helps drive the wage gap between men and women in this country.

It’s not like the Senate lacks for ideas on how to fix this. There are a couple of bills floating around, from legislators on both sides of the aisle, that address the issue.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is looking at a proposal that would basically have new parents tap into Social Security money to float leave. It’s a bad idea that would weaken the social safety net, according to a report released Wednesday from the Urban Institute. However, it is a flashing sign that even conservatives who deplore government spending want to do something. Even President Donald Trump ― hardly known for his feminist agenda ― has mentioned the need for paid leave twice in major speeches.

Senators laughing before a March 2017 news conference to introduce (again) the FAMILY Act.
Senators laughing before a March 2017 news conference to introduce (again) the FAMILY Act.

On the Democratic side, most legislators are into the FAMILY Act, which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) first proposed in 2013, and which would fund leave for new parents, as well as those who need to care for a sick relative or handle their own illness, through a small payroll tax.

Paid leave is not controversial. Most Americans want this. According to a Pew study from last year, 82 percent of Americans say mothers should receive paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child. Sixty-nine percent want leave for fathers, too.

Increasingly, states and cities are taking the lead on leave. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have laws that look a lot like Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act. My home state, New York, just started offering paid time off to new parents. And twice a month, the state takes a small amount out of our paychecks to make that happen ― about $1 a week, on average. The amount deducted depends on your income.

Hardly a punishing tax increase, particularly considering the Senate just gave most of the country a big tax cut.