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OUR VIEW: Duckworth's leave should inform national conversation

THE ISSUE: Sen. Duckworth returning to work after maternity leave

OUR VIEW: Her experience should induce Congress to review family leave legislation

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is used to being the first. She was the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress from Illinois, the first member of Congress to be born in Thailand and the first woman to become a double amputee as a result of service in the war in Iraq. Earlier this year she became the first senator to give birth while serving in office, a fact that came to light again Monday when her 12 weeks of maternity leave ended.

Duckworth, of course, wasn’t off the job entirely. Her staff supplied her with reams of briefing material, and she has cast several votes on the Senate floor with her newborn daughter in tow — something that could only be possible because the Senate changed its rules to allow for children one year and younger to come to work with their parents.

Rules were different when Duckworth’s first daughter was born in 2014, when she was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was good for the Senate to change its policy, and good for Duckworth to make the issue not just about herself but all working parents.

“Parenthood isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue and one that affects all parents — men and women alike,” Duckworth said shortly after her daughter was born in April. “I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent, and my children only make me more committed to doing my job and standing up for hardworking families everywhere.”

We don’t doubt Republicans differ sharply from Duckworth when it comes to political positions, but we think all her constituents should at least understand the challenges working parents face in trying to support a family financially as well as emotionally. It can be quite difficult to do both at the same time.

Even in families fortunate enough to have one stay-at-home parent, the struggle for balance is consistent. Making enough time for work, children’s activities, family events, adult relationships and all the other obligations of life often is a daily difficulty. Juggling these needs is tough in regular time, but especially so when a newborn is in the mix. And very few of us have resources similar to those afforded a sitting U.S. senator.

Still, we encourage Duckworth to continue to use her experience as an entryway to analyze whether federal workplace laws adequately support families, especially in the crucial weeks following a birth. There is no logic in allowing systems that actively make it more difficult for young parents to nurture their children during these stages of development, and if we as a society are serious about raising future generations to improve upon the world we give them, we must accept how much can be shaped in early childhood.

As Duckworth herself said two weeks after announcing her pregnancy, America has a long way to go to catch up with its peers on the global stage.

“Working parents face barriers to staying in the workforce,” Duckworth said, according to CNN. “Lack of access to affordable child care and to paid family, medical and parental leave forces people to choose between taking care of their children or a sick family member and losing their job and their health insurance. That hurts our country. When people are forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of their children, our economy loses some of our best and brightest workers — and those workers lose out on a paycheck and any wage increases or promotions that might have come down the line.

“Instead, they are more likely to end up needing public assistance and relying on programs like food stamps to help them get by. And if they end up attempting to rejoin the workforce down the line, they face higher barriers to employment when they start looking for a new job.

“The United States is one of two countries in the world that doesn't offer paid maternity leave and one of the few industrialized nations that doesn't offer paid parental or family leave.”

Duckworth is among a few senators who have introduced legislation to address these matters, and we think they at least merit congressional discussion. State laws can intervene where federal rules don’t suffice.

If nothing else, it’s a good thing to have parents of young children actively serving in important government positions so that demographic is directly represented when it comes time to take up these concerns. We wish Duckworth well in her return to full-time work and hope her Senate colleagues will consider the value of her first-person experience.

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