Washington Post: A record number of congresswomen are mothers. Here’s a glimpse inside their first-ever caucus.

April 16, 2019
In The News

How are your kids doing?

It isn’t the question itself that bothers Katie Porter. The freshman Democratic congresswoman from California, a single mom of three children, is perfectly aware that inquiring about another person’s family is just polite small talk.

But there’s something about the way some people ask her, the subtle emphasis on that last word — “how are your kids doing?” — that makes her bristle.

“As if they’re suffering,” Porter said. Her colleagues surrounding her in the stately room at the Library of Congress nodded knowingly. “As if they’re not thriving and doing great.”

The nine women who had gathered for an early breakfast on a recent morning — fellow mothers and members of the House of Representatives, joined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel — could tell variations of this same story, about the myriad moments when they felt questioned or judged for living publicly as mothers who hold particularly high-profile jobs.

How are your kids doing?

It isn’t the question itself that bothers Katie Porter. The freshman Democratic congresswoman from California, a single mom of three children, is perfectly aware that inquiring about another person’s family is just polite small talk.

But there’s something about the way some people ask her, the subtle emphasis on that last word — “how are your kids doing?” — that makes her bristle.

“As if they’re suffering,” Porter said. Her colleagues surrounding her in the stately room at the Library of Congress nodded knowingly. “As if they’re not thriving and doing great.”

The nine women who had gathered for an early breakfast on a recent morning — fellow mothers and members of the House of Representatives, joined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel — could tell variations of this same story, about the myriad moments when they felt questioned or judged for living publicly as mothers who hold particularly high-profile jobs.

Then came the 2018 election and its historic influx of female lawmakers — led by women who touted their motherhood bona fides with pride — and Wasserman Schultz, who came to Washington in 2005 as the mother of twin 5-year-olds and a 1-year-old, decided the time had come to launch what she calls the "Moms in the House" caucus. She invited the 25 mothers of school-age children in the House (21 Democrats and four Republicans) to join the group, the first of its kind in congressional history.

“We are doing these jobs differently than the majority of Congress,” Wasserman Schultz told the group gathered around the breakfast table. “I want this to be a vehicle, not only to be supportive of one another but also to help each other be successful, to use it as a way for us to advance an agenda and collect our power, to move things forward.”

She smiled and added: “And to just maybe have some comfort, where we can come together, because we’re living through the same experience.”

Of course, it isn't exactly the same experience. Among the Moms in the House caucus are mothers of sons, and of daughters, older children, younger children and stepchildren. Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) is the first lesbian mom elected to Congress; Reps. Ilhan Omar (D- Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) are the first Muslim moms. Even among the handful of women gathered recently over breakfast, differences were apparent.

“I have an incredibly supportive husband, and that’s really the only reason I’m able to do this,” said Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.).

“I have a very, very supportive spouse,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) echoed. “When women ask for advice about ‘how can I do it all,’ number one, I say, ‘you gotta find a great partner.’ ”

Then it was Porter’s turn. “I don’t have any spouse,” she said, “and I’m happy that way.”

Even though there are more women and more mothers in Congress than ever before, being a single mom — a circumstance shared by about 1 in 4 American mothers — is still rare enough here to feel isolating, Porter said later.

“It was a moment of my realizing how different I am,” she said. “And until we have a lot more women in Congress, there are still going to be those moments.”

Although the 2018 midterm elections brought the proportion of women in the legislature to an all-time high, nearly doubling the number of working mothers, the percentage of women in Congress — 24 percent — still falls far short of mirroring the American populace.

All of the new additions were in the House, and most were Democrats — though motherhood is a role that has increasingly been emphasized by members of both parties. (Kelly Ayotte, former Republican senator from New Hampshire, often spoke about her children and the challenges of running for office when they were young; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington — who in 2013 became the first woman to give birth to three children while serving in Congress — has frequently discussed her son with Down syndrome and founded a Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus.)

So far, only Democrats have attended the monthly Moms in the House events, which began in January, though Wasserman Schultz says Republican members have expressed interest. There is also an active text group, she says, in which members frequently turn to one another for advice: Should the whole family move to Washington? What are the best summer camps in D.C.? What to do with visiting kids when Mom has to be on the House floor to vote?

Ultimately, she says she hopes the group will use “the strength in our numbers” to push family-focused issues — affordable child care and stronger parental-leave policies, for instance — to the top of a legislative agenda. But the main purpose is to serve as personal and professional support, she says, to empower members to embrace their dual roles as parents and lawmakers.

So when Rosenworcel brought up the issue of net neutrality and the digital divide over breakfast, the congresswomen around the table discussed the challenges facing children who can’t complete their homework because they don’t have Internet access.

“What I’d like you to do,” she told Dimon, “is provide a way for families to make ends meet.”

For many years, mothers in Congress have supported one another behind the scenes, Wasserman Schultz says, but the current moment felt worthy of something more.

“It was always really important to me, the bits of advice that I was able to get from more-experienced, veteran moms in Congress, and that was advice I’ve quoted through the years to women who were thinking about running,” she says. “So it’s really been a gradual crescendo for me to reach this point.”

After the caucus was announced, a flurry of questions followed, about what it meant — practically, symbolically — to see these women assemble, to proudly identify themselves as mothers.

“When people ask me, ‘What is the significance of so many women and mothers being in the U.S. Congress?’ you know, it’s great for young girls that they see this representation,” Craig said. “But maybe it’s even more important that my four sons grow up in a world where women are fully representing them. This is the new normal for them, that women are at the policymaking table.”

But even the new normal is still far from equal, says Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics.

“The fact that this moms’ caucus has to exist continues to demonstrate the incredibly disproportionate share of household labor and child care that women, even in the top tier of professional accomplishment, remain responsible for,” Lawless said. “There are a lot of men who have had young kids, and never has there been attention on how to focus those dual roles. So it’s in some ways a double-edged sword. It highlights the need to figure out a way to be able to balance your home life and your profession, but the downside is that it’s reinforcing this idea that this is a problem only women face.”