‘Inhumane’ to Require Return to Work After Pregnancy Loss

  • In 2018, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois became the first sitting senator to give birth.
  • This summer Duckworth introduced a bill that would provide paid leave after pregnancy loss.
  • Duckworth recently appeared on a podcast to discuss her path to motherhood.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois encourages her staff members to pursue passion projects, advocating for causes that are meaningful for them. When one staff member approached Duckworth about paid family leave after pregnancy loss, Duckworth understood the cause deeply.

Duckworth had had a miscarriage while campaigning for office. But working and staying on the campaign trail meant she had no time after the loss to heal or grieve, she said.

“It’s inhumane,” she said on a recent episode of the podcast “Me Becoming Mom.”

This summer Duckworth introduced the Support Through Loss Act, which would provide three days of paid leave to people after a pregnancy loss, failed adoption, or medical diagnosis that affects fertility. A House version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. The bills have been referred to committees and haven’t been voted on.

Family delayed by service

When her daughter Abigail was born in 2014, Duckworth became one of only 10 people to give birth while serving in the US House of Representatives. When her daughter Maile was born in 2018, Duckworth became the first sitting senator to give birth.

But even before she had children, Duckworth’s career affected her family planning. As a helicopter pilot in the US Army Reserve, Duckworth knew that if she became pregnant she would have to stop flying for at least six months before the birth, so she delayed having children, she said.

Duckworth and her husband were starting to think more seriously about getting pregnant when Duckworth was deployed to Iraq in 2004, and they decided to try when Duckworth returned. But in November 2004, the helicopter Duckworth was flying was attacked; she was seriously injured and lost her legs. She spent the next few years recovering.

Trying to conceive at 40

Once Duckworth was able to think about having children again, she was 40. She said she tried for about a year before getting a referral to a fertility specialist.

At the time, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides healthcare to veterans, didn’t provide fertility treatment, she said, so Duckworth went to a civilian hospital.

There, she said, a doctor met with her in the waiting room and delivered a blunt message: “You’re just too old.” Duckworth had less than a 5% chance of conceiving, the doctor said. Duckworth said the doctor told her to “go home and enjoy your husband.”

Duckworth was resigned. But she said that after a congressional event where she spoke about how her focus on her career had cost her an opportunity to have children, a woman came up to her and suggested a doctor, who was eventually able to help Duckworth conceive.

Mom and senator

Duckworth continued to serve in Congress while going through several failed rounds of IVF. Finally, she got pregnant. She said her doctor initially recommended a C-section because of Duckworth’s amputations, but she wanted to attempt a vaginal birth. She also knew she wanted an epidural.

“I’ve been in a lot of pain in my life,” she said. “I want the painkillers.”

After a long labor, the baby got stuck, and Duckworth needed an emergency C-section, she said. When she was pregnant with Maile, Duckworth had planned a C-section but had a fast, spontaneous labor and ended up delivering vaginally without any pain medications, she said.

Just 10 days after giving birth, Duckworth voted with Maile in her arms on the Senate floor.

“It meant so much to be able to cast a vote as a new mom, to do my job and be able to take care of my baby,” she said.

Duckworth encouraged other women to let go of the idea of balance. “Work-life balance is a lie,” she said, adding: “Women who work outside the home need to just be honest with ourselves about that and stop trying for the perfect and go for the 80% solution.”

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