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Lawmaker mothers with children in tow are still few in numbers but bring often missing perspective

Credit: iStock

by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
May 10, 2024

A lactation pod at the state Capitol. An official “baby of the House.” A makeshift nursery in a small office once reserved for freshman senators.

The landscape at the Georgia Capitol is changing as more women have been elected to the Legislature and as the work of caregiving is increasingly shared among spouses.

But the number of women serving in Georgia’s Legislature is still out of proportion with the state’s overall makeup, with women making up 34% of both chambers but half of the population. Women lawmakers with young children also continue to be a relatively rare sight under the Gold Dome, where decisions affecting education and families are being regularly made.

“When there are more women serving in the institution, the legislative body, then accommodations are made for those women, and accommodations are made for the women voters and the families of the women voters they represent,” said Melita Easters, the executive director and founding chair of Georgia WIN List, which is a political action committee focused on electing more Democratic women who support reproductive rights.

“Because in numbers, they can force consideration of special concerns. They can, as they often have, join hands across the aisle and make sure that something like the maternal mortality crisis is addressed,” Easters said.

Easters said her organization has long focused on recruiting more women with young children to run for office. She said it’s not uncommon for women to cite concerns like child care or wanting to wait until their children are adults as reasons to stay on the political sidelines.

The many miles between Atlanta and legislative districts in south Georgia can also be a barrier.

Rep. Anne Allen Westbrook stands out for not only having middle-school aged children but also because her family is 228 miles away when mom is in Atlanta representing her Savannah-based district.

Living that far away from the Capitol does not just mean long days for her. It also means spending as many as five days away from her family at a time during the three months Georgia’s Legislature is in session.

“That is hard, and you have to believe that it’s worth it,” Westbrook, who is also an attorney, said in an interview. “And I do think it’s really important that we have the voices of mothers at the Capitol. We do most of that care work. We often are the ones most intimately involved in issues like education. We were the ones mostly sitting at those dining tables trying to figure out pandemic learning.  

“And on a personal level, in our family, we think it’s important for our boys to see that moms do this work too, and there’s value in that, and also that dads can be nurturers as well,” she said.

When the freshman Democrat first ran for public office in 2020 as part of a crowded field for an open House seat, she had two sons in elementary school and another in high school. She lost that race by a razor-thin margin but then won when the seat opened up again two years later.

But running for public office wasn’t always part of her plan. Concerns about local gun violence drove her to join Moms Demand Action and push for changes on the state legislative level. She said she was surprised by the lack of diversity she saw in the Legislature and the issues that were being prioritized. After the 2016 presidential election, Westbrook said she applied for the Georgia WIN List leadership academy “on a whim.”

“Like most women, I was doing most of the caregiving work in my family,” Westbrook said. “So, that was just something that I had to really consider. Yes, I want to do this. Yes, I think I might be good at this. But can I even do this given the caregiving responsibilities that I have?”

For Westbrook, having a husband with a flexible work schedule and a mother who lives nearby who helps with caregiving has made the stints of lawmaking in Atlanta possible. She is running for reelection this year unopposed. 

‘Hard choices’

Sen. Kim Jackson and her wife are raising two small children, including a 3-year-old boy and a baby who was born the week before the 2024 legislative session’s frenzied end.

But being a state lawmaker while being a mom to young children was not by design, she says. Jackson decided to run for office in 2020 after attempts to start a family were unsuccessful.

“I don’t know that I would have run for office if we had been successful,” Jackson said. “This is hard. Doing both with a newborn, it’s rough.”

Things changed last year when Jackson, who is also an Episcopal priest, encountered a woman through her church who was no longer able to care for her then 2-year-old son. As a lawmaker who has worked to improve the state’s foster care system, Jackson scrambled to find alternatives – and then her wife suggested they step in.

In January, the couple learned the biological mother, who is incarcerated, was pregnant.

That’s how Jackson and her wife became “fast parents,” as Jackson calls it. Now the children’s permanent guardians, Jackson recently wrapped up her first legislative session as a parent.

“A lot of legislative business happens in the evenings, like a lot of conversations with legislators and with lobbyists. A lot of that stuff happens around bedtime for my kid,” Jackson said.

“So, this was my first year of navigating those hard choices about would I miss bedtime, when would I come home? It was the first time where I left home before he was awake, and I didn’t get home until after he was asleep again.”

Jackson, who is a Stone Mountain Democrat, is on the ballot again this year for another term. Even though juggling lawmaking with parenting was not her original plan, Jackson says her homelife has given her a deeper understanding of some of the thorny issues that come before her as a lawmaker. She points to child care as an example.

“I knew abstractly that finding child care can be a challenge and that it can be expensive. I have friends who have kids, so I’ve heard the complaints. But it’s a whole other story when it’s you trying to find child care,” she said.

She is also noticing things that may have escaped her notice before, like the lack of changing stations in the bathrooms of the legislative office building. She and others this year turned a small office that was empty into a nursery.

“It’s more than just lactation. People need a space to literally change their baby, maybe even let their baby lay down on the floor and have some tummy time. They need more than a pod,” she said.

These conversations are happening as the state is developing plans for a new legislative office building and an overhaul of the state Capitol building. State lawmakers added $392 million to this year’s budget for the massive project.

The current legislative office building was built in the 1930s and last renovated in the 1980s.

“The goal for the plan – and this is for the new legislative building and for the existing historic Capitol – is to make it completely more accessible. To make the rooms more accessible, make these facilities more accessible,” Gerald Pilgrim, chief of staff to the state property officer.  

That’s particularly true when it comes to improving accessibility for people with disabilities, he said. For example, some meeting rooms at the Capitol today are located on a mezzanine level and are inaccessible to those using wheelchairs.

But Pilgrim said the projects would likely also add wellness rooms that can be used as a nursery.

Georgia now allows campaign funds to go toward child care

Georgia candidates and officeholders can now use campaign funds to pay for child care when they are on the job. That makes Georgia one of 31 states that have authorized the use of campaign funds for child care, according to the Vote Mama Foundation, which is pushing for the change in every state.

That change came about in Georgia as the result of a bipartisan inquiry to the Georgia State Ethics Commission. Concord Republican Rep. Beth Camp and Atlanta Democrat Rep. Stacey Evans teamed up to request the advisory opinion.

The all-male commission approved the change unanimously last summer, but not before one member voiced concerns about potential abuse.

Camp, though, argues that there are rigorous reporting requirements that will ensure campaign funds, which is money candidates must raise from their donors, are not being used for personal child care expenses.

The second-term lawmaker, who is a former local school board member, no longer has children at home. But she said she thought it was odd that federal candidates could use campaign funds for child care expenses but candidates in Georgia could not, and she said she hopes the change will encourage more parents with children at home to run for office instead of waiting until they have an empty nest.

“I think that would give us a larger pool of candidates going forward of all ages, so you don’t end up with a situation where it’s only retirees running for public office,” Camp said.

Camp said she found herself educating some of her colleagues who assumed the change was only a benefit for women. And she said she was surprised when she heard negative feedback from some colleagues who questioned why the change was needed when candidates had not used campaign funds for child care in the past.

“Well, honestly, we probably would have had more parents – not going to say women or men but more parents – enter into elected office if they’d had the opportunity,” Camp said. “When you start looking at how expensive it is to provide child care, there are some people who make the decision not to take that out of their family household budget.”

Jackson, the state senator, said she has dipped into her campaign funds to cover child care expenses on days during the session when her 3-year-old’s daycare was closed and when she has campaign events in the evening.

“It allows me to be more present for my constituents,” Jackson said.

The recent advisory opinion at least provides another option to help remove a major barrier to public service, Evans said.

“The life of most Georgians is going to include children, and to not have the voices of parents generally, but especially moms of young kids, it’s just a blind spot,” Evans said.

Evans has two younger children, including a 12-year-old who was born the day the state House passed the now-replaced 20-week abortion ban in 2012. Georgia law passed in 2019 now bans most abortions after about six weeks, which is before most women know they are pregnant.

She recorded video remarks that were played in the chamber during debate on the 2012 bill, something she was allowed to do because she was scheduled to be induced the day of the vote.

“Trust me to make these decisions. Trust the women of Georgia,” Evans said. “Because that’s really how I was feeling, just frustrated that there’s so much care and attention and love and trust (toward a pregnant woman) except for you to make a decision about what’s right to do in a situation if you find out some news that none of us would want to find out.”

Evans now also has a 5-year-old son who was born shortly after she lost the Democratic primary for governor in 2018. Her son was six months old when she decided to run in 2020 for an open seat created by a longtime lawmaker’s retirement, giving her a chance to return to the Legislature.

She and her husband are both attorneys and rely on a nanny and Evans’ parents to help with child care, including during the legislative session.

When asked to reflect on the changes under the Gold Dome since she was first elected in 2010, Evans said additions like the lactation pod are more than just window dressing. She can remember pumping in the bathroom.

And she cheered her colleague across the aisle, Locust Grove Republican Rep. Lauren Daniel, who regularly brought her baby with her to the House floor during last year’s special session and this year’s session. Daniel’s son was given a badge identifying him as the “baby of the House.” Daniel did not respond to requests for an interview.

“I don’t see it as a ‘Oh, Republicans are so much more family friendly, or Democrats,’” Evans said. “I see it as a sign of the times. I just think that we are a softer, more welcoming and understanding society than we were five, certainly 10, certainly 20 years ago.

“We’re getting more used to women in the workplace, and the Legislature is a workplace,” she said. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence.

This story is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.

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