Pumping From the Dais: A Working Mom in Public Service

A few weeks ago, I faced a dilemma familiar to many new moms. I was about to go into in a long meeting at work, and I knew I was going to need to pump before it was over. So, I decided to pop in my Freemie cups, bring my pump and push through. It was a typical day for a new mom who works full time, but in my case, being a D.C. Councilmember whose meeting was a public hearing on homeless services, I made the news.

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The struggle to find balance as a working mom is well documented. I was back at work five days after my daughter was born and didn’t take a maternity leave. I have more control over my schedule than most new moms, so I got some downtime and slowed down a little bit at work, but I also brought my daughter to the office regularly, and when I was home with her, I was still constantly connected to my staff and colleagues. This was not how I had pictured my first weeks with my child.

I’m not complaining – it’s a privilege to have the job I do. But it’s also important to know that I don’t consider myself a role model. There’s no prize for powering through when your body needs rest. There’s no blue ribbon for being the first one back to work after giving birth. My hope for all new parents is that they have the time they need to recover and to be with their child, and that they can come back to work when they’re ready. And even though it has been hard for me to juggle being a mom with being a public official, most new parents have it a lot harder than I do. I’m lucky enough to have stable employment and housing, a supportive partner and some flexibility in my schedule and workplace. Because of my own privilege, I’ve never had to pump in a bathroom stall, or worry what my colleagues would say if I nursed in a meeting.

I pumped from the dais not because I wanted to make the news, but because I’m a new mom working to balance my child’s needs and my professional responsibilities. I believe that as a public figure, I have an opportunity to help normalize the challenges working moms face. As a woman in public office, I have a responsibility to raise and pursue the issues that women deal with every day, whether they are moms or not.

"I believe that as a public figure, I have an opportunity to help normalize the challenges working moms face."

We still don’t have enough women in office. Organizations like She Should Run are trying to change that with their #250KBY2030 campaign. What we have seen, is that when women run, women win, and when women take office, they give voice to the issues that they have uniquely experienced. How is this playing out in DC? Here are some examples.

Living in the city for more than 15 years, I have become well-acquainted with the issue of street harassment. “Why do you dress that way if you don’t want me to comment?” one harasser asked me. Another spat on me when I politely declined to give him my number. Women deal with these issues every day, but until recently, didn’t really talk about them. The harassment was just part of our daily lives. As Councilmember, I directed our government’s attention to the issue. We know that street harassment is particularly targeted at young people, members of the LGBTQ community, people from communities of color, and people from low-income communities. For the first time, we held a public roundtable, got stories on the record from victims, and are moving forward with legislation that focuses on training and education to eradicate the behavior without criminalizing it.

Although we’re making strides in protecting and supporting many women and families, the District can do much better to support our new moms, especially those who are young or have few resources. We are making progress on our infant mortality rate, but it’s still too high. For policy inspiration, I looked to a strategy that has been in place in Finland for more than 80 years – the Baby Box. My legislation would send new families home with a box full of essentials, that, once emptied, turns into a bassinet. My daughter tried out our sample box and loved it. My niece slept in hers for 4 months.

  Councilmember Nadeau with her daughter Zoe trying out a Baby Box. 

Councilmember Nadeau with her daughter Zoe trying out a Baby Box. 

Education and healthcare for children ages 0-3 is critical to their long term development and achievement. In DC, we use home visiting to connect parents who have few resources to programs that help prepare kids for school, give nutrition training and food, screen for developmental and health issues and ensure our children have a strong start. The evidence shows us the program is working, but our reach has been too narrow. I introduced a bill that would expand those services through a public-private partnership.

The District now has a Universal Paid Family Leave law, which I championed. It would give all new parents eight weeks of paid leave, and caregivers six weeks to take care of sick family members. It also has two weeks for personal medical issues.

These are just a few examples of what happens when women lead. I was proud to partner with Councilmember Elissa Silverman on Paid Family Leave who, along with my colleague Councilmember David Grosso, led a successful coalition. I also worked with Mayor Muriel Bowser on both Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reform – to ensure very low income families aren’t pushed off assistance into homelessness and kids never lose benefits – and homeless services reform: revamping a decade-old law to preserve the District’s right to housing, while shoring up the emergency homelessness system and moving people more quickly from emergency shelter into housing. We bring issues like these to the forefront and make them a priority for all.  

"I pump at my desk, I pump on the dais. I nurse in public meetings, sometimes standing up. I do what I have to do." 

I’m the first DC Councilmember to give birth in office. There’s no handbook for this. When I was pregnant, people asked me: what will you do for maternity leave? How will Council business in your committee proceed in your absence? I didn’t have the answers then, and like many new moms, I’m still adapting as I go. Mainly, I’m present in my office during the day and out in the community in the evenings and weekends. My daughter ended up in a great daycare, and I pick her up early on days when I work in the evenings, so I can spend time with her before she goes to bed. I pump at my desk, I pump on the dais. I nurse in public meetings, sometimes standing up. I do what I have to do. And I hope someday my daughter will be proud of me for doing this work for her, for the DC community, and for all the other women who will come behind me.

Brianne K. Nadeau is a Councilmember in the District of Columbia representing Ward 1.