On the desk of Senator Stephanie Chang’s basement office in the Lansing Capitol, Michigan, USA is a nameplate that reads “Mom Boss”. Framed photos of their daughters sit around him.
She was pregnant when Chang began her tenure at Michigan House in 2015, and then when she began her tenure in the Michigan Senate in 2018. In her official role, she is the minority floor leader for the Democrats. Unofficially, she branded herself as a #mommylegislator.
Prior to that year, Chang was the only woman in the 184-year history of the Michigan Senate to have a child during her tenure.
“I know it sounds crazy, but we actually tried to plan it around to have her over the summer break because we knew the legislative work would be easier at that point,” said Chang of the birth of their first daughter .
Chang took five weeks off after their first baby. She says balancing motherhood and her job as a legislator has been a challenge, but she feels most supportive of her constituents and colleagues in the legislature.
Seven weeks ago, Senator Mallory McMorrow gave birth as the second woman in the Senate.
Like many parents, McMorrow planned to take time off with their new daughter, Noa, but she was surprised she hadn’t qualified for the 12 weeks of paid time off that Michigan state’s 49,000+ employees received in 2020.
Since McMorrow is not an employee of the state of Michigan, but an elected civil servant whose pay is enshrined in the state constitution, she is not entitled to parental leave. Michigan has no actual parental leave policy by state lawmakers.
Technically, legislators can take as much or as little free time as they want. The catch: You’re missing out on votes, both on committee and on the ground, and Michigan is one of about 20% of the states that work full-time. With the exception of a brief summer break, lawmakers work all year round.
McMorrow, who became legislator in the auto and advertising industries after some time, says the lack of vacation policy in the legislature is archaic, even compared to the male-dominated industries it came from.
Have a nice Friday and have a nice 3 weeks with this little burrito. It was exhausting, insightful, wonderful and the greatest challenge we have ever accepted. It can be both isolating and incredible at the same time. We get the hang of it every day. pic.twitter.com/0aMLKep8iU
– Mallory McMorrow (@MalloryMcMorrow) February 19, 2021
“The institution’s rules that people keep hearing about are arbitrary. And they are clearly set by men who do not have these shared responsibilities,” says McMorrow. “Either it was their wives who stayed home with children or it was their grandchildren and they just didn’t have to think about it.”
McMorrow says she feels unsupported as a working mom in the legislature under current conditions.
“I cannot vote remotely. I cannot vote by proxy. I have to go to Lansing physically. And I have a newborn who naps for 20 minutes and then gets up and is ready to eat and change.”
I cannot vote remotely. I cannot vote as a proxy. I have to go to Lansing physically. And I have a newborn baby who naps for 20 minutes and then gets up and ready to eat and change.
She says it’s a version of the conversation she’s had with female leaders and friends that “women can have it all, but not all at once”.
McMorrow says options for remote participation need to be put in place, or at least a vacation policy needs to be codified.
“Are we comfortable with the idea that we don’t want working mothers in the legislature? Because that’s the message if we don’t change the system,” she says.
It’s not just Michigan. There are no set guidelines for parental leave or mechanisms for participating in committees or remote meetings for full-time lawmakers in Ohio. And while there are temporary remote participation regulations in Pennsylvania this year, there is no policy there either.
These conversations about parental leave guidelines are new, according to Jean Sinzdak, assistant director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. One of the reasons: three quarters of all elected officials are still men.
In California, women make up nearly 36% of state lawmakers, according to the CAWP. In the past, because of restrictions such as childcare, women have waited for their children to run for office.
“If there are no guidelines that create a level playing field and make it easier for people to participate, the institutionalization of the barriers will of course continue … so that people simply cannot overcome these hurdles,” says Sinzdak.
But she says things are changing. After the wave elections in 2018 and 2020, when women like McMorrow and Chang were elected, concerns about parental leave policies are being raised in many places for the first time.
Women in state legislatures are no longer subject to superlatives such as “first” or “only”.
“Now we come to a point where [there’s] a bit more of a fundamental wave among the women who served, but also younger women who just weren’t ready to take it for what it is. You are ready to interfere and ask these questions [and] Say, ‘Wait a minute, why are we doing this? Can we imagine alternatives? How is it that we cannot get parental leave? ‘or whatever the problem is, “says Sinzdak.
McMorrow plans to introduce laws to facilitate remote participation in cases where lawmakers may need to be absent, such as maternity leave, care, or duties as a military on active duty.
She is not yet sure whether this will be done by remote or proxy voting. Right now she is taking the rest of her 12 weeks to be with Noa, whether it’s official or not.