As More Women Take Office, Outdated Family Leave Policies Surface More women are becoming state lawmakers, but many legislatures still don't have family leave policies. That leaves new mothers little choice but to miss out on the lawmaking process.

With More Women In State Office, Family Leave Policies Have Not Caught Up

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More women than ever are serving as state lawmakers across the country. But in most capitals, family leave policies have not changed. That leaves new moms with few options when having children. Abigail Censky has more from member station WKAR in Lansing.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Mallory McMorrow was part of 2018's so-called Year Of The Woman, when a record number of women were elected to office. She flipped a Michigan state Senate district in the suburbs of Detroit.

MALLORY MCMORROW: Your first interview - and you're very hungry.

CENSKY: Seven weeks ago, she gave birth to her first daughter, Noa.

MCMORROW: This is Noa. She's like the size of the microphone. We know.

CENSKY: Like many parents, McMorrow is taking time off to be with her newborn. But while state employees get 12 weeks of paid time off, there's no parental leave policy for lawmakers. They answer to their constituents. And their pay is written in the state constitution. So they can technically take off as much time as they want, the catch being they missed votes.

MCMORROW: I can't vote remotely. I can't proxy vote. I have to physically go to Lansing. And I have a newborn who naps for 20 minutes and then is up again and ready to eat and be changed.

CENSKY: Michigan is one of a handful of legislatures where lawmakers work full time. Senator McMorrow said she spoke up because she could already envision attack ads criticizing her for not being in the Capitol to vote - votes she missed, so she could spend time with her baby.

MCMORROW: Are we comfortable with the idea that we don't want working moms in the legislature? Because that's the message unless we change the system.

CENSKY: She says this is a conversation she's had with many women, that women can have it all, just not all at once. And that feels true for her in the legislature.

MCMORROW: The rules of the institution are arbitrary. And they are clearly set up by men who don't have those shared responsibilities. And it's been their wives who have stayed home with kids or their grandkids.

CENSKY: McMorrow and state Senator Stephanie Chang are the only two women who have ever given birth during their tenure in the Michigan Senate. Inside of her Capitol office with pictures of her kids and a sign that says mom boss on her desk, Chang says she planned to have her first daughter at a very specific time of year.

STEPHANIE CHANG: I had her actually sort of intentionally. Like, I know it sounds crazy. But we actually did try to time it to have her during the summer recess because we knew that the legislative work would be lighter at that time.

CENSKY: Chang took five weeks after having her baby and says it's challenging. But she's felt mostly supported during her time as what she calls a mommy legislator. Jean Sinzdak is the associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She says conversations about parental leave are brand-new because three quarters of all elected officials are still men. And women have historically run after they had children.

JEAN SINZDAK: This is, like, the first time in the last few years we feel like there's been real movement in any kind of way. And it's not coincidental.

CENSKY: Sinzdak points to wave elections in 2018 and 2020, when women like McMorrow were elected. They're part of a group of younger women who are challenging the status quo.

SINZDAK: We're nowhere near parity. But we're a lot closer than we have been. And when you talk about one of these women raising this issue, it would not have gotten raised probably if she wasn't there.

CENSKY: Back in the suburbs of Detroit, McMorrow says after she returns from maternity leave, she'll introduce legislation to allow remote or proxy voting. But for now, she's spending time with her daughter. For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in Lansing.

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