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Just 37 members of Congress are mothers with minor children

The 19th

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‘Politics doesn’t make it easy to be a parent’: Mothers in office hope a new report about representation draws attention to the challenges they face. 

Moms with minor children are grossly underrepresented in Congress, according to a new report that highlights the barriers to their involvement in federal office — and are far outnumbered by the number of fathers with minor children.

Vote Mama Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies that help mothers run for office, estimates in a report released Monday that less than 7 percent of members of Congress are mothers with minor children. That’s just 37 out of 541 members in Congress, including non-voting members, and means Americans would need to elect 59 more mothers of minor children to achieve proportional representation with the general population, where nearly 18 percent of adults are moms of minor children, and 15 percent are fathers of minors.

“Congress was designed for wealthy, old White men to run for office,” said Liuba Grechen Shirley, the founder and CEO of Vote Mama Foundation, Vote Mama Lobby and Vote Mama PAC, which helps mothers run for office. “It wasn’t designed for working parents to step up and run, and yet, that’s the voice that we need. Those are the voices we need at the table.”

While only 11 mothers have ever given birth while serving in office, 11 fathers have welcomed children into their families in the past year, according to the report. In total, 24.2 percent of all Congress members are dads of minor children.

And for children under the age of 6, fathers outnumber mothers nearly 9 to 1. 

Vote Mama defines mothers of minor children as cisgender or transgender women with biological children, foster children, stepchildren, and formally or informally adopted children who are under the age of 18. The new dataset is part of the group’s research series Politics of Parenthood, which determined last year that just 5.3 percent of state legislators are mothers of minor children.

The reports are considered the first comprehensive look at parenthood as an identity in public office on the state and federal level.

“It’s a starting point,” said Grechen Shirley. “We can now understand where we are, who our legislators are and what we need to change.”

The report found a number of barriers that stagnate mothers’ representation in office: unpredictable work hours, including votes during late nights and weekends; expectations for near constant fundraising, especially for first-time candidates; and cultural and political expectations that members’ children remain residents of their respective districts instead of moving to Washington, D.C., creating long commutes for members to see their children.

It’s all a recipe for time away from families, said Grechen Shirley.

“Because of our caregiving responsibilities, we see fewer women even running, even if they might have the ambition, even if they want to run,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from California who is now running for a Senate seat, was believed to be the first single mother of young children elected to serve in Congress when she first won in 2018.

Porter said when she got to Congress, she immediately found it difficult to find people who shared her realities as a parent of three children.

“If we want people in government who understand what real Americans’ lives are like . . .  there are a lot of people out there raising young children,” she said. “And having that representative government does change how we think about policies, everything from the extended child tax credit to what it means when schools had to close during the pandemic.”

The drawn-out election of the speaker of the House in January put a spotlight on the effect of unpredictable hours. While some fathers posted on social media about the realities of bringing their small children to the Capitol for the day, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng was working behind the scenes to make sure family and neighbors could step in to watch her two children back home in New York.

“I have to plan out the meals of the week even though I’m not physically in town. And that just really disrupted the schedule,” the Democrat said. “I just had to call people last minute and cross my fingers and pray that someone would be able to pick up the gaps in the schedule.”

Meng hopes the report is eye-opening for the public.

“Politics doesn’t make it easy to be a parent,” she said. “We need to do more to elect not just parents of young children, but moms of young children.”

Vote Mama Foundation has advocated for the use of campaign funds to help candidates with caregiving needs. Grechen Shirley also recently testified in support of new regulations around when and how candidates can use campaign funds for a salary. The ramifications could mean consistent pay for candidates, who sometimes leave full-time salaried jobs for at least a year to run for office. Additional proposed rule changes would allow candidates to use their campaign funds for dependent care and health insurance premiums.

“There’s a reason we don’t have more moms giving birth while serving in Congress and more moms running for Congress when their children are so small,” she said. “There are so many structural barriers that you don’t even realize in terms of running but then also in serving.”

U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen of Colorado has a 3-year-old son whom she cares for as she commutes back and forth to her district. She said the support of her partner is paramount, as are day care and hired help.

“We’re lucky that we have great people that we are able to reach out to for additional help when I’m gone,” the Democrat said. “But it’s challenging. You’re constantly trying to make up for being gone.”

Pettersen noted that the House had become more welcoming to parents of minors during the pandemic when it allowed for proxy voting, which was recently revoked by House Republicans now in control of the chamber.

“If you have a family emergency or if something falls through with child care, if something happens while you’re away, you no longer have the ability to make that decision for your family,” she said. “You have to either miss a vote and not represent your constituents, or be home taking care of your needs as a family.”

Grechen Shirley called the contrasts between moms and dads “stark” but also not surprising. Still, she applauded men in Congress who have organized a caucus and are speaking more openly about parenting small children.

“The more men who talk about it, and the more women who talk about it, and the more we normalize what it looks like to be a mom running for office and serving in office, the better,” she said. “Because that’s how we’re going to start to change the policies that are failing families in this country.”