Senator Tammy Duckworth on breastfeeding, preschool drop off and the importance of your village

Senator Tammy Duckworth (Illinois) is one of the most prominent mothers in American government today. In 2014, at the age of 46, she gave birth to her first child, Abigail, and became one of only 10 women in history to give birth while serving in Congress. In 2018, she once again made headlines after giving birth to her second child, Maile, this time becoming the first U.S. Senator to give birth while in office.
In addition to being a groundbreaking politician, a purple heart recipient and veteran of the Iraq War, Senator Duckworth is a powerful advocate for veterans and working families.
Senator Duckworth spoke with Liz from the Senate offices in Washington, DC and chatted about how motherhood opened her eyes to the important policy changes needed to better serve working families, as well as her own difficult journey to motherhood.


Liz: Senator Tammy Duckworth, welcome to The Motherly Podcast.

Tammy: It's good to be on Liz.

Liz: So, something I'm always curious about when I talk to a fellow mother, is what was your view of motherhood before you became a mother yourself?

Tammy: I think it depended on what age I was, you know in my 20s it was something that I, it was completely foreign to me. It was like how, why would you choose to do that, when you could do this? You know when I was in my 20s I was just becoming a helicopter pilot and I was living this life where I was just starting on that career ladder, and it never was, it was something I could never understand choosing that. And then in my 30s I was so busy trying to gain seniority and gain rank as a military leader that it was something that I thought "Okay, well someday I might like to do that." And then by the time I was 40 it was something I was yearning for. And so I struggled through 10 years of infertility and now I'm just, I'm loving it. This is the best time of my life, and it's exhausting, but I find myself I think a better person now that I am a mom.

Liz: You became a mother while you were serving in Congress in the midst of this rising political career. What was it like to know that you were going to become a mom but also going to have this incredibly demanding job, that would take you away from home?

Tammy: Well you know it was scary, and I think I was also really optimistic. (Laughs)

Liz: Tell me why.

Tammy: With my first daughter, 'cause I thought I could do it all. I thought you know I"m a Congresswoman, I you know I run my own office, I have my own schedule, I can make this work. I just juggle it all and it'll be fine. And I've been able to do all of these other things, and um, boy was I wrong. (Laughing)

Liz: How did that experience open your eyes to what the average American mother goes through?

Tammy: Well it really did because I had my mom live with me. My mom actually ended up moving back in with me to help care for my older daughter Abigail. So that there could be somebody there. ANd I realized how lucky I was to have this, and most people don't. And I couldn't imagine, you know what it would be like to have to take my daughter at 6 weeks old, or 3 months old, and leave her at a daycare. And I didn't have to do that 'cause I had mom, my mom, living there. And it just broke my heart that we don't have a better system to support working families, and mothers especially as they try to you know balance taking care of their family, but also being breadwinners as well.

Liz: And you've talked about how important representation is in government, especially for women and mothers. And in this new class in Congress, there's a record number of mothers, especially mothers of young children, coming into office. How do you think this critical mass of mothers will both help to reshape Congress, but also the country?

Tammy: Well I think two things. One is of course just the awareness, the awareness of issues that mothers today face. Because mothers today face issues that aren't even very different from what our own mothers experienced, or our mothers you know, from 20 years ago or 15 years ago or 30 years ago faced. So having people who are currently moms who are currently raising young children, and are facing issues of, gun violence, what it means to have children in school today and how scared you are and terrified you are that your child may go to school and not come home because of gun violence, or talking about issues of healthcare and issues of preexisting conditions and what this would mean if the Affordable Care Act gets thrown out in the court in Texas. You know, all of these things, and also just the awareness of challenges that moms face and trying to do both, you know do everything that they can to be good at both their jobs and then also being good moms at the same time.

Liz: How do you think motherhood has inspired you in your work in Congress?

Tammy: Oh well it's actually resulted in me passing legislation that I never would have passed before or even thought about. The first of which of course is my breastfeeding legislation. Until I was a mom myself and trying to express breastmilk in airports, I did not realize the horrendous situation that breastfeeding moms are in when they're trying to travel. I don't have a problem breastfeeding my daughter in public, however, I don't particularly want to express breastmilk sitting on the toilet, you know the handicapped toilet, in a public bathroom, because that's where people told me to go express breast milk. Or, I actually had someone say "Well you need to plug in your breast pump? Right there! There's outlets. See where all those other people are charging up their phones? Just go plug in your breast pump there!" I was like "Really? You want me to express breastmilk next to strangers who are charging their phones?" So I would never have even experienced that had I not been a breastfeeding mom myself and figured out you know how awful it was, and I was able to then pass legislation to provide the breastfeeding rooms or private rooms at all airports.

Liz: What other family friendly policies do you think would make the biggest difference for American families?

Tammy: Well not just American families but for our economy, I think that a universal family leave policy is critical for our nation. We're the only developed nation in the world that does not have a paid family leave policy. I think we need to have 12 weeks of paid family leave so that you can take care of a loved one who is ill, so that you can take the time to be with a new child, whether that child is someone that you just gave birth to, or someone that you just adopted, or someone who is just, you're fostering, if you're a dad, you should be able to stay home with your child just as much as the mom is staying home with the child as well, so. And I think it's an economic detriment that we don't' have that. I think we're competing with European nations and Asian nations that actually have this, and it makes us less competitive on a global scale to not have this for our workers.

Liz: Absolutely. So you yourself have been through a lot in your life that made you who you are. Growing up you talked about how your family experienced real poverty at various points in your childhood. Your helicopter was shot down during the Iraq War, you endured this amputation and rehabilitation following that attack, and you also became the first female senator to give birth while in office. So, what I'm wondering is how do you think that all of these powerful life experiences have influenced your parenting of your own children today?

Tammy: I think it's given me patience. I think if you talked to me when I was in my 20s, I don't think I would have made a very good mom when I was 25, 'cause I don't think I would have had the patience, I don't think I would have faced all of the difficulties other than the poverty in my life like I have since then. I think you know, I had my second child at 50, I was 50 and two weeks old. So I joke that I'm a new mom, not a young mom. But I am infinitely more patient now and more pragmatic now with my kids, and I think the experience and facing difficulties and learning resilience and how to step up and just keep picking myself up and keep working hard is making me a better mom and I hope a better role model for my daughters.

Liz: I love that. could you help paint the picture a little bit for us? LIke, what's a real parenting moment where you've drawn on that resilience and patience with your daughters?

Tammy: Oh I mean, just trying to be on a phone conference call, as I'm driving my daughter to preschool, you know and I've got other senators or some, a cabinet secretary on the phone 'cause you know they want to meet at 9 but that's when I drop my daughter off, and she's screaming in the background, yelling at me. In the meantime I've forgotten her show and tell object, and I'm trying to sound professional as I'm driving the minivan through traffic to get her to preschool in time, 'cause I don't actually want to get there, if you get there late then you actually have to get out of the car and walk her in as opposed to the teachers meeting at the door and taking her in themselves, so you know it's just all that craziness and you know my daughter yelling "I want my juicebox!" in the background as I'm trying to talk to somebody about national policy on veterans or something.

Liz: That is such a real life example that I know all of our moms can relate to even if we're not also talking to senators at preschool drop off. But the patience that we need for that moment is so real. So, Senator Duckworth, one thing we talk a lot about here at MOtherly is the idea that Motherhood helps draw out these superpowers within us, and maybe we didn't even discover them before we had children. Have you discovered new superpowers since becoming a mom?

Tammy: I am remarkably able to function on a lot less sleep. (Laughs) I mean I thought I would, you know, I spent 23 years in the army., I've had sleep deprivation, but it's amazing how long I've been able to survive and function on you know 2 or 3 hours of sleep at a shot, so. But you keep doing it, you know, and you still wake up, you know my 8 month old still wakes up at 3 am and I"m exhausted but she looks at me and she you know starts giggling at 3 am and it's like "Oh," and I fall in love with her again and you know, then I just start working'. It's a good thing.

Liz: You've talked about how dealing with infertility has changed your experience of motherhood, that you were yearning for these children. Can you tell us what it's like after the struggle that you did go through to get pregnant, to have these two daughters right in front of you, even if it is at 3 am?

Tammy: Oh they're gifts, they're gifts from the heavens in fact my older daughter Abigail Okelani, her middle name, Okelani is Hawaiian, and among other things it means a gift from heaven, and I look at them both and I think you know, they're little angels who came from heaven to live with mommy and daddy. And they truly are that.

Liz: Well Senator Duckworth, thank you so much for joining the Motherly Podcast today.

Tammy: Thanks for having me on.
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Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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