Senator Tammy Duckworth On the Fallacy of Work-Life Balance: 'It's a Lie We Tell Families in This Country'

Host of Your Political Playlist, Emily Tisch Sussman, sat down with Senator Tammy Duckworth to talk about being a mother and a senator—and why it's time we do away with the term "work-life balance."

An image of Tammy Duckworth on a colorful background.
Photo: Getty Images.

Tammy Duckworth has broken a lot of barriers. She is an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient, former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and mother of two young children. She details her incredible story in her new book Every Day Is a Gift.

Now, as a U.S. Senator, she joined me on Instagram Live to talk about her experience working in the Senate while being a woman and mother. Here are some of the big topics we covered.

The Myth of a Work-Life Balance

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the challenges of parenting and exposing the blurred lines between work and life. Senator Duckworth made it clear that, for her, a work-life balance does not exist.

"I've gotten so tired of the message 'work-life balance.' There is no work-life balance," she says. "It's a lie we tell families in this country and it's a lie we especially tell women who work outside of the home. We cannot do it all."

Her struggles mirror the experiences of many parents today. She told me, "When I was running my campaign, I felt like I wasn't doing enough for my kids, and I was abandoning my baby. And then when I was with my baby, I felt like I was being a really terrible candidate, not running hard enough for Congress."

She has since adopted the 80/20 rule that she learned in the military and is passing it along to fellow parents: "If you spend 100 percent of your time trying to make a mission perfect, then you have no time to rehearse or carry out the mission."

The January 6 Insurrection

Senator Duckworth was in the tunnels under the Capitol on her way to give a speech, just minutes before the rioters breached the capitol, when she was stopped by Capitol police who told her she could choose to continue onto the Senate floor or turn back. But as a trained veteran, she knew she had to get herself to a secure location.

"I went back to my office," she says, "and my IT person and my body person and driver—we just barricaded ourselves and waited a couple of hours."

The shocking events that unfolded created another challenging topic for parents to tackle with their kids. Like many families, Senator Duckworth had to decide how to navigate the conversation, not only as a traumatic event in history, but also as someone who experienced it. Ultimately, she chose not to tell her young children about the insurrection, but made it clear that it is not a topic she will shy away from in the future.

Advocating For AAPI Representation

At the beginning of his presidency, President Biden promised to appoint and nominate a diverse and representative cabinet. However, nearly 100 days into his presidency, he has yet to put forward an AAPI candidate. Senator Duckworth has continued to be vocal about the need for Asian representation in all offices.

In March, she vowed to block any nominees from the White House until they nominated an Asian-American candidate.

"I voted for every man, every woman, every Black person, every Latinx, every LGBTQ, every Native American; I voted for everyone that they put forward. And I watched the cabinet build up. And then I also watched my nominees for those positions were never even interviewed. And that's when I was starting to get annoyed," she recalls.

As a result of her efforts, President Biden added an Asian American Pacific Islander liaison to the White House staff. She still believes there is enough room for everyone at the table and will continue to be a staunch advocate for proper representation at all levels of government.

"I'm tired of Blacks, Latinx, Asians, and LGBTQ being forced to fight over the one slice of pie that's labeled the diversity slice. There's enough pie for everyone," she says.

Children Do Belong in the Senate

As the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth while in office, she played an instrumental role in allowing babies on the Senate floor, including her very own newborn. As a sitting member of the Senate, she had a duty to her constituents to represent them through her vote and was committed to making sure she could do so.

"I had to bring my daughter to D.C. at 10 days old to be able to vote, so I couldn't even take maternity leave," she says.

Last year, I interviewed Senator Amy Klobuchar and talked about voting rights from polling places on the ground to the right to vote in the Senate. She played a key role in helping Senator Duckworth "fight that fight."

Senator Duckworth didn't mince words, making it clear what the real issue was with changing the rule. "They didn't want me to breastfeed on the floor of the Senate," she says. Nevertheless, she was committed, saying "I'm doing it to vote and do my job."

The Trials of Women's Health

Despite the advancements in women's health, many women struggle in silence with their reproductive health and the stigma surrounding in vitro fertilization (IVF). The senator opened up about her experience with IVF and the challenges she encountered in the medical system. After receiving discouraging news from a doctor who met her in the waiting room and told her that she had less than a 5 percent chance of conceiving through IVF at 42, she made sure to inform women that it is possible.

"I don't want some other woman who doesn't have the right information, or who will be 44 and think, 'Oh, I can't get pregnant,'" she says. "Yes, you can."

As an elected official, Senator Duckworth is well versed in the role Congress can play in women's health. She notes, "Unfortunately, it really affects low-income women and women who are in federal service who get their health care through the federal service."

Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States still has one of the highest mortality rates for women, with Black women being three times more likely to die from childbirth.

The senator is expected to introduce legislation to cover fertility treatments for active duty and veteran families. Senator Duckworth emphasizes, "We need to make sure that access to health care is available to all."

Get Involved

Having never considered politics or running for office, Senator Duckworth found her path in advocacy after being wounded in Iraq and recovering at Walter Reed Hospital. During her time in recovery, she could see problems around her, and as the highest-ranking officer there, she took action, saying, "It's really typical for women in politics and moms in politics to get involved in politics by confronting a problem."

The Senator urged parents to step up and get involved in office. She called on more women, in particular, to get involved because it "makes our nation stronger."

"If we can all participate and bring our voices to the table, we make a difference," she says.

To get involved in more political conversations check out Your Political Playlist. To listen to the full interview with Senator Tammy Duckworth, click here.

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