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California lawmaker who brought newborn for Assembly vote: Mothers, you are not alone

Know Your Value caught up with Assemblymember Buffy Wicks to talk about her recent experience on the floor, including the difficult choices working mothers face during COVID-19.
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Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland, addresses lawmakers on a housing bill while holding her one-month-old daughter Elly in her arms during the final hours of the California legislative session on Aug. 31, 2020, in Sacramento, Calif. Wicks requested permission from legislative leaders to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic because of her newborn but was denied.California State Assembly via AP file

California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who gave birth in late July, made headlines this month when she was denied a proxy vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. With her newborn in tow, the former staffer for President Obama made the decision to drive the 80 miles from Oakland to the statehouse in Sacramento for the final legislative session.

Asm. Wicks, who was told that her recent childbirth did not qualify her as high-risk for the coronavirus, tweeted a photo holding her baby before debating legislation on a housing bill.

Know Your Value caught up with the busy lawmaker and mother of two to talk about that experience, as well as the difficult choices so many working mothers face amid the circumstances.

Know Your Value: What has life been like as a mom to two young children, including a newborn, in the middle of a global pandemic?

Asm. Wicks: "Oh, it’s been madness — just like it is for every other working mom in this country. You truly don’t realize how much you’re capable of as a parent or caregiver until you’re juggling so much while everything around you is on fire. I’m in Northern California, so as of right now I’m speaking both literally and figuratively.

But — and I urge ALL moms to do this — I’m celebrating my 'wins' as they come. A few nights ago, my newborn gave me the gift of four consecutive hours of sleep: win! Then over the weekend, my husband and I managed to thrill our cooped-up 3-year-old with an indoor pizza picnic when the air quality was too bad to play outside (due to the wildfires). And last night, I made Elly smile for the first time. These moments really are the things that keep us going, and I think it’s important that we hold them up and give ourselves reason to smile right now."

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, reads to her daughters, 3-year-old Josephine and 6-week-old Eloise.Courtesy Buffy Wicks

Know Your Value: You made the decision to drive to your state's capital, with a newborn in tow, to cast a vote. Tell us your thought process and what the experience was like. Were you nervous?

Asm. Wicks: "I was certainly nervous once I learned I was not eligible for a proxy vote, particularly because of the latest outbreak of COVID-19 in the California State Senate. It set into motion a big series of decisions I had to make with my husband: Do I stay at home and nurse my child every 2–3 hours, and just sit out the end of the legislative year? Or do I go up to Sacramento with my newborn, knowing there had been a COVID-19 outbreak in the building days earlier?

It was a difficult choice, but one I had to make. No one said I HAD to be there, but colleagues were reaching out to me asking for my vote on critical legislation — like expanding family leave, eviction protections, increasing housing supply, and reducing consumer use of plastics. It’s my duty to vote on the issues that matter most to my district and our state, so without proxy voting as a tool, I felt I needed to be there to vote in person. And ultimately, my vote was needed – we passed expanded family leave by one vote.

So that’s how Elly and I ended up speaking on the Floor together — it was a whirlwind experience. All I remember is trying to get my words out about a bill I felt so strongly about, while fumbling to keep my mask in place and calm my fussy baby. I think that’s why it resonated with so many parents who watched it and especially moms — because every mom has been in that situation."

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Know Your Value: California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon later apologized after explaining that maternity leave doesn't qualify for voting by proxy. How did you feel about that and what does that say about maternity leave in this country?

Asm. Wicks: "I felt disappointed to have my request denied, but I took the Speaker at his word. I really do think he wanted to make it work, and that he was navigating legal advice in an unprecedented situation.

I think the degree to which my story struck a chord with people really exemplifies that this is a problem much bigger than the California State Legislature — it’s a policy failure on a much larger scale. My workplace is one of millions that are trying (and fumbling) to figure out the challenges of parents working remotely, all of which are part of an overarching system that simply wasn’t built for working parents. I think it’s really essential that we tackle the broader policy failure first and foremost, instead of focusing on each individual workplace one-by-one.

Know Your Value: You've said before that you've gotten pushback for serving in public office while your kids are so young. How do you respond to critics and what will it take to get more moms into public office?

Asm Wicks: "When people deliver this kind of feedback, or even ask gentle questions about why I do this when I have young kids at home, I say: 'My daughters couldn’t be the reason I didn’t run for office – they had to be the reason I did.'”

It was the election of Donald Trump that lit a fire under me to run for office in the first place, and so much of that was motivated by his treatment of women, and my firm belief that we owe a different kind of leadership to the next generation. Plus, it’s really important to me that my girls feel surrounded by strong female role models — women who will take charge, make change, and be fierce advocates for the things they care about. Why wouldn’t I give them the gift of having that example start at home?"

Know Your Value: You've become the image of the working mom who is juggling it all. What do you hope people will take away from your recent experience bringing your newborn to the statehouse for a vote during this uncertain time?

Asm. Wicks: "Our working parents, and especially moms, are under enormous stress right now — so on a personal level — I hope my experience will help remind them that they’re not alone. I’ve heard so many stories from parents across the country since that night on the Floor with Elly, and it’s really underscored for me how many behind-the-scenes heroes we have living in communities across America.

My hope coming out of this is that we will elect leaders who truly care about each and every one of these families, leaders who will actually step up and push for solutions to support them.

Most Americans don’t have access to comprehensive paid leave, paid sick days, or affordable child care. During COVID especially, this translates into missed hours, missed wages, or working while sick and potentially infecting others. This also lends additional weight to our nation’s equity failures, since low-income families and families of color (particularly women of color) are disproportionately impacted by the absence of these policies that protect working families.

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So if there’s one final takeaway, it’s that we ALL need to go to the polls or mail in our ballots. We can do better for working families!