As a legislator who has given birth twice while in office and brought my infant sons to work, I have been cheering on Senator Duckworth with admiration and empathy.
The image of a peacefully sleeping baby surrounded by smiling senators didn't come without a fight. Senator Duckworth and Senator Amy Klobuchar, ranking Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, spent months pushing to amend the Senate rule barring children from the floor so that new parents could bring babies younger than a year old. They had to overcome concerns from colleagues on both sides of the aisle about decorum, with Senator Orrin Hatch famously asking
, "But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?" Others suggested that voting from the cloakroom should be good enough for a senator with an infant.
The discussion highlights a tension that working moms and dads across the country know well: visibly caring for children can undermine one's perceived professionalism or credibility as a leader.
Too often, our societal norms still set up a false choice between parenting and professionalism.
As a newborn, my older son could sleep through anything so long as he could sprawl out on a flat surface, arms and legs splayed out on either side. In the weeks before our slot at the child care center opened up, I would occasionally bring him to committee hearings and let him sleep on my desk while I asked my questions. If he got fussy, I would take him back to my office and watch the proceedings over the livestream. At one otherwise uneventful hearing, a local news outlet shared a picture of the baby sleeping in front of me.
Although the public reaction was mostly as supportive, as my wonderful colleagues were, one online critic began to call for my resignation. "If she cannot devote her full attention when doing Council business, she should not serve," he tweeted on one occasion. The assertion was that a baby -- even silent and asleep -- was distracting and unprofessional. Back then, this critic tried to justify an archaic standard of professionalism by pointing to Congress as an example -- something that's no longer possible, thanks to Senator Duckworth and her colleagues.
And the reality is that a baby can be no more distracting than colleagues having a loud side conversation or engaging in many other types of multitasking. Certainly, workers in many industries do not have the privilege of being able to balance parenting at the workplace, and we must fight especially hard to support working parents in low-wage jobs. But holding up an archaic, sexist standard of decorum forces new parents (and especially new moms) to make an unnecessary and unhealthy choice between work or family. It's also a foolish economic decision to limit entire segments of our workforce and diminish the societal return on investment that would come from supporting our next generation of workers and community members when they first enter the world.
That's why Thursday's scene from the United States Capitol is so important. The ability for Senator Duckworth to openly serve as senator and as parent has impacts far beyond her constituents and beyond Congress. When one of the most storied institutions in our country has recognized that caring for a baby does not diminish a new parent's capacity to be a professional and a leader, that redefines norms of professionalism and leadership to be more inclusive. When new moms and dads can better support their families and give our youngest Americans the healthiest, most loving start to life, we all benefit.
Let this be not merely a rule change in the Senate, but the start of a sea change everywhere.