Why pregnant Sen. Tammy Duckworth won’t be able to take maternity leave

Korin Miller

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is poised to make history this spring when she’ll become the first sitting senator to give birth while in office. Given that she is a pioneer, things are a bit tricky.

Duckworth revealed in a recent episode of Politico’s Women Rule podcast that she’s not planning to take a maternity leave after her daughter is born. “I can’t technically take maternity leave,” she said. “Because if I take maternity leave, then I won’t be allowed to sponsor legislation or vote during that time period.”

Duckworth said that she’s working with Democratic leadership to try to figure out how she can take 12 weeks of leave and still be a part of important votes during that time. “It’s going to change some Senate rules,” she said.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth. (Photo: Getty Images)

A Duckworth spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the senator is very aware of the 51-49 breakdown in the Senate right now. “She knows that there’s a pretty good chance that she could be called on to take an important vote,” the spokesperson says. Senators aren’t allowed to vote by proxy, which is why her ability to physically show up is crucial.

Duckworth is planning to spend time caring for and bonding with her daughter during this time, but “she’ll be aware of things and, if she needs to come in for a vote, she’ll be able to do that,” her spokesperson says.

The Senate isn’t exactly a friendly place for new moms. For starters, kids aren’t allowed on the Senate floor. “If I have to vote, and I’m breastfeeding my child, especially during my maternity leave period, what do I do? Leave her sitting outside?” Duckworth said during her podcast interview.

This might be manageable for quick votes, but it can often be hard to know when a vote is going to happen, Ian Ostrander, PhD, an assistant professor of American politics at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The schedule is unpredictable,” he says. “The Senate allows for unlimited debate.” Some votes can even go late into the night, he says, and if a vote-a-rama is happening, which can occur with health care and budget amendments, there can be constant, marathon voting that lasts more than a day at a time. Clearly, that’s tough to do when you’re trying to care for an infant.

Senators are also expected to be available, pretty immediately, when they’re needed. “Senators are not supposed to ask for leave except for pretty intense circumstances,” Steven Huefner, JD, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They’re expected to be there whenever the Senate is in session.” Of course, things happen that are outside of a senator’s control, like funerals and serious illnesses, but even then, many still find a way to vote on important legislation, he says. Case in point: John McCain showed up to vote on health care while battling brain cancer.

Although Duckworth should be able to take a nanny with her to the Senate building who can probably wait outside the Senate floor, government rules prohibit her from using a staffer for childcare help if she’s ever in a pinch, Huefner says.

There are a lot of obstacles in place for a new mom in the Senate. Duckworth’s spokesperson says that the senator has been “taken aback” by how much attention her pregnancy has gotten, but that she also recognizes the importance of developing better workplace policies for new moms —including in the Senate.

“Whether she likes it or not, Sen. Duckworth is going to become a lightning rod for family leave,” Ostrander says. ”I’m looking forward to seeing the politics unfold.”

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