Editor’s Note: Tammy Duckworth is a Democratic senator from Illinois. She is an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient and former assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Two weeks ago, I announced that I am pregnant. Since there are only 22 female senators – and none has ever given birth while they served in the United States Senate – I knew my announcement was going to get some attention. To be honest, I was a little surprised and overwhelmed by just how much attention our good news received.
I was congratulated everywhere I went. I was asked to do tons of interviews. People even said nice things on Twitter, which is not always the friendliest space. Everyone wanted to know about my daughter-to-be – and how I balance being a working mother and a legislator.
I know it all came from a good place. With everything that’s going on in Washington right now, people need some good news and a reason to smile. And I really do appreciate all the good wishes I’ve received from my colleagues, from the media and from people all across the country.
But let’s be real: It’s 2018. Women have been having children since the beginning of humanity and I’m nowhere near the first person to be a working mom. Millions of women do it every day and women have been balancing the demands of their jobs and their families ever since female trailblazers first joined the working world.
But you wouldn’t know that based on the policies we’ve adopted as a country. Across our nation, working parents face barriers to staying in the workforce. Lack of access to affordable child care and to paid family, medical and parental leave forces people to choose between taking care of their children or a sick family member and losing their job and their health insurance.
That hurts our country. When people are forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of their children, our economy loses some of our best and brightest workers – and those workers lose out on a paycheck and any wage increases or promotions that might have come down the line.
Instead, they are more likely to end up needing public assistance and relying on programs like food stamps to help them get by. And if they end up attempting to rejoin the workforce down the line, they face higher barriers to employment when they start looking for a new job.
The United States is one of two countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave and one of the few industrialized nations that doesn’t offer paid parental or family leave.
That’s why, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, known as FMLA, which gave some new parents the opportunity to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, we should pass common-sense legislation to make the workplace more accommodating for working parents.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has a great bill, the FAMILY Act, that would do just that by creating a universal family and medical leave insurance program that would cost employers and employees less than $1.50 per week for a typical worker.
I have previously introduced legislation, the Military Parental Leave Modernization Act, which would ensure every service member, regardless of their gender, can take 12 weeks of paid parental leave if they are a parent of a newborn, adopted or foster child.
Sen. Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act would ensure every family has access to affordable and high quality child care. And my Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools Reauthorization Act would increase access to on-campus child care for student parents, who make up more than one-quarter of all college students in America.
These bills are a great place to start and I urge my colleagues in Congress to take them up quickly.
After all, the FMLA passed in 1993. At the time, it was an important step forward for our country, but it is nowhere near enough. For instance, the law is not comprehensive; many workers across the country are ineligible under the law and don’t qualify to receive unpaid time off, and the FMLA does little to help Americans who cannot afford to take unpaid time off.
Over the past few months, I’ve been reflecting about how those of us who are members of Congress are lucky. When my new daughter is born, I’ll be able to take paid time to care for her, but most people aren’t so fortunate; they have to rush right back to work. A 2015 report from In These Times found that one in four employed moms returned to work within two weeks of childbirth.
We need to do what we can to change that and make it easier for new parents to stay in the workforce.