Michelle Wu: Too often, moms are forced to choose between parenting and leadership
By bringing my baby to work with me, I hope to bring visibility to the issue, she writes
Editor’s Note: Michelle Wu is the president of the Boston City Council. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
When I gave birth to my second child three months ago – in the heat of summer and a re-election campaign – I found myself in a situation that women across the country face. I needed to go back to work, but many childcare centers won’t accept babies until they’re at least three months old.
So these days Baby Cass comes to work with me across the city, just as his older brother Blaise did as a newborn.
Many parents need to go back to work, but have nowhere to take their child. For them, as for me, the questions were complex and stressful: Do I leave my job and stay home entirely? Can I find family or friends to step in? Do I go through the process of vetting someone to hire privately? Can I afford to pay that person a living wage and benefits?
Ultimately my family chose to bridge the gap between parental leave and childcare by keeping our baby with me for a few weeks. Every morning, I take the double stroller on the subway, drop Blaise off at City Hall’s on-site childcare center, and bring Cass with me to meetings and events. Sometimes I’m the only one standing during a discussion, bouncing Cass to sleep. Often I reach for the nursing cover to breastfeed, whether I’m checking in with my staff or speaking before an audience. I always have a burp cloth nearby. I’m tired but grateful: choosing to blend parenting and public service has made me a more confident mother and a better legislator.
Thanks to the City of Boston’s paid parental leave ordinance, which I was inspired to push for after bringing Blaise to work with me, city workers get six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.
I know that many parents do not have the options I do. It motivates me further to fight for better solutions, especially for moms who don’t have the option of bringing their babies to work or the resources to make other arrangements. It spurs me to push for all workplaces to be more family-friendly.
Medical evidence confirms that babies do better when they’re kept close, able to breastfeed, attended to by caring adults. Mothers with paid parental leave are less likely to experience post-partum depression and more likely to breastfeed for longer. For children, the benefits of breastfeeding last far beyond infancy. Employers who offer paid parental leave report less turnover and higher productivity. Yet our society and laws force a different reality for too many working parents.
Women especially are often asked to choose between being a mother and being a leader. Without adequate policy support, too many women face not only financial barriers to balancing motherhood and leadership, but cultural stigmas too. Last week, for example, the Eau Claire City Council in Wisconsin voted to ban children from the dais where legislators sit in order to block Councilor Catherine Emmanuelle from breastfeeding her 11-month old son during meetings. As outrageous as the legislation was, it was equally inspiring to see a groundswell of grassroots support that arose in response, with social media hashtags including #StandwithCatherine, #LactateandLegislate, and #LetMomsLead.
The United States is the only industrialized nation without a federal law guaranteeing paid maternity leave. Only 13% of American workers have access to paid leave through an employer; low-wage workers and disproportionately women of color bear the burden of unpaid leave. And in a majority of states, childcare costs are higher than in-state college tuition, forcing women out of the workforce to care for kids. The lack of paid leave and affordable quality childcare contribute directly to income inequality and gender wage gaps.
We must do better by investing in families and empowering working parents. The tax plan and child tax credit expansion recently proposed by President Trump do not come close to offering workable solutions.
Working families need daily access to affordable, quality early education and childcare, not just an annual tax break for wealthier families. We need the Child Care for Working Families Act, to expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare and boost wages for underpaid community providers. We need federal legislation guaranteeing paid family and medical leave. In juggling two young kids and a public service career, I see that we need something else too: more legislators who live the struggle.
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In bringing my baby to work, I am happy to be a visible reminder of how messy and difficult it is to be a working parent. And I’m lucky to be surrounded by partners in the work: this legislative term is the first in Boston’s history where four mothers are serving on the City Council at the same time. Together with our male colleagues who express support as fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers, we in Boston are fighting for working families.
As motherhood ceases to be something done only in private, at home, and as more mothers come to the table and are welcomed as decision-makers, our society will become more equitable, our economy more vibrant, and our world more loving.