Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman

State Sen. Mallory McMorrow had a child at the start of 2021. The challenges she’s faced have only deepened her commitment to issues facing women in the age of COVID.

ROYAL OAK, Mich.—Pregnancy while having a full-time job is complicated. It only gets more complicated when that happens during a pandemic. And if your job is a state senator, that situation is even more complex. 

State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) returned to working full-time last week following the birth of her child. She told The ‘Gander that giving birth while in office didn’t change her beliefs or priorities, but gave her the experience to know the importance of those priorities. 

“I was always someone who had advocated for paid family leave, sick days, all of these sorts of things before, but until you experience it I don’t think you feel it as deeply,” she said. “If anything it has reinvigorated my desire and need to push for these things, because we are leaving so many people behind.” 

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Addressing some of those issues on a national level is already underway. McMorrow called the American Families Plan outlined by President Joe Biden a good starting point because it finally tackles concerns like paid family leave, which hits home for McMorrow in a way it didn’t just a year ago.

“We’re finally getting to a point where we see the conversation changing, and I think that’s a combination of federal leadership, [and] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing more and more women getting into office and starting to lead that conversation,” she said. “We’ve got to keep pushing and we have to keep going, and I think that it’s the start of a conversation.”

She’s a fan of the American Families Plan, but there’s also work for Michigan to do, even within the Legislature itself, to really help Michigan women. And though she’s always known that, her new perspective ignited her passion for change brighter than ever.

“It didn’t change my views, necessarily, I just feel it more gutterally now,” McMorrow explained.

Giving Mothers a Voice

McMorrow’s experience prompted her to look online, and as she compared what pregnancy and the postpartum period was like for her, she found she was far from alone. She specifically cited a conversation on NPR’s Fresh Air as particularly informative. Her experiences were reflected in everyday women who didn’t have the kinds of opportunity to make change directly that she has. 

“I got pregnant and had my first child during a pandemic, which is not something I had planned, and I experienced postpartum depression like a lot of women do,” she explained. “Many women are struggling, and don’t talk about it nearly enough.”

McMorrow said that she sees a direct connection between the lacking services promised to working women and how dramatically the pandemic has impacted women, which has led to the COVID-related economic decline being called a “shecession” thanks to the sheer number of women out of work.

READ MORE: Biden’s COVID Relief Plan Is a Huge Deal for Women. Here’s How.

“The best economic chip right now is to fix this for anyone who is a caretaker,” she said. “Women still are primary caregivers, but it goes beyond me just having a kid. It’s how many people are at home with their parents because there are not affordable in-home care workers, or not safe nursing home conditions because we’re not paying care staff nearly enough considering they are responsible for people’s lives.”

The American Families Plan addresses the caring economy as a whole, from birth to aging. Not only does it include paid parental leave, it also provides free preschool for American families, helps fund college education, and provides in-home care to aging Americans.

That, McMorrow says, will help bring the “shecession” to an end and let Michigan women return to work. She thinks that if the Republican effort to hold back COVID relief in Michigan ends, adding state grants to helping finance those services would help the national family plan immensely in letting Michiganders get back to work.

But things like paid parental leave are only the beginning—just because leave is available doesn’t mean it isn’t still stigmatized. That, too, is something McMorrow learned. 

What it’s Like to Have a Child in Office

McMorrow is keenly aware that other women don’t get the kind of family leave she took, but even in her case that leave doesn’t come without consequences. For instance, she recounted that within three days of giving birth, while she was still barely able to move, a lobbyist called her office requesting a private meeting with her that week.

“Even with maternity leave, there’s an unspoken expectation that women will work through it,” McMorrow said. “It’s like a badge of honor.”

And she’s aware that not taking that meeting, or missing votes, or more broadly not immediately returning to the state Senate, could hurt her politically in 2022. The fact that she even considered having kids and being a legislator led her to lose a vote in her first election, from a woman who didn’t trust her ability to have both kids and do her job.

“My opponent owned another business and split his time with his role as a legislator. But the implication was that a mom couldn’t do it,” McMorrow wrote on Facebook after the birth of her child. “I think about this conversation every day. It eats at me.”

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There’s also the fact that, technically, her family leave wasn’t protected by the state of Michigan as an employer. State employees are offered 12 weeks of parental leave, but as an elected official, McMorrow didn’t qualify. And making the political challenges harder, Michigan wouldn’t allow McMorrow to vote on legislation without being in the Capitol in person, regardless of circumstances. 

“There was no way that I was going to be able to turn around and drive the hour and a half commute to Lansing immediately after giving birth,” McMorrow said. “Also anybody who is a caretaker—I know we have members who care for their parents or their spouses, we also have a couple members who are active-duty military—if they’re out for any reason you can’t vote. You miss a vote, and leaves constituents unrepresented.”

All that being the case, McMorrow doesn’t regret taking the time to be with her child even a little, but stresses that both legislative policy and broader culture need to change. She wants the Legislature, for instance, to adopt proxy voting like Congress uses that allows votes to be cast when extenuating circumstances keep someone from attending. She also wants to make sure these conversations don’t end with the American Families Plan or proxy voting in Michigan.

“My fear is we always start these conversations and they go away at some point,” McMorrow said. “We can’t afford that now.”