OPINION: Progress at the state House, one baby at a time

State Rep. Lauren Daniel, R-Locust Grove, with her baby, Zane, speaks at the Georgia House of Represenatives.

Credit: Georgia House feed

Credit: Georgia House feed

State Rep. Lauren Daniel, R-Locust Grove, with her baby, Zane, speaks at the Georgia House of Represenatives.

A Republican woman, surrounded by mostly men, had a breakthrough moment this week that her colleagues won’t soon forget. It wasn’t Nikki Haley on a debate stage, but Georgia state Rep. Lauren Daniel, a first-term Republican from Locust Grove.

Daniel has been noticeable on the House floor for most of the last two weeks because she has had her infant son, Zane, wrapped tightly on her chest at nearly all times. Usually sound asleep and unaware of the animus around him, Zane didn’t seem to know that he was in the well of the House Thursday afternoon as his mom gave a speech about how they both got there.

“At 17 years old as a junior in high school, I found out I was pregnant,” she said. “My (first) son was born at the beginning of my senior year, and I was told by school administrators that I should no longer attend school in person because I was a distraction.”

Daniel said she was also discouraged from applying to college since administrators didn’t think she would finish. She applied to Georgia State anyway.

She now has that college degree, four children (Zane is her youngest), and a new job as a state lawmaker.

“I want girls to know if they find themselves in that situation, that it’s not it’s not the end of their life, like they could still go on to accomplish things,” Daniel said in an interview after the session. “I think sometimes our culture says that women can’t work and have kids, that you have to sacrifice one or the other. And that’s not what I believe.”

Still recovering from an emergency surgery to deliver Zane, Daniel hadn’t expected the House to be in session this month. But when Gov. Brian Kemp called the special redistricting session to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional maps, she knew she’d need to bring him with her.

“Speaker Burns asked me one day if I was going to bring the baby and I said, yes. He said, ‘Well, good.’”

That’s a major change from the day 24 years ago when state Sen. Sally Harrell, who was then a member of the state House, got a call from the late House Speaker Tom Murphy to ask if she was planning to bring her newborn baby to the House for the upcoming session.

Terrified of Murphy’s potential reaction, she had not planned to discuss it with the speaker at all. “He said, ‘Miss Sally, I’ve been here almost 40 years and we’ve never had this problem before.’”

She explained to both Murphy and a second House leader who was uncomfortable with the idea of her bringing her child with her that she had to because he was too young for daycare.

After a smooth session, when she eventually nursed on the House floor in order not to miss votes, she said the leader who had worried about her bringing her child thanked her. “He said you taught the House how to have babies.”

A handful of other moms followed over the years, but Daniel is the first Republican.

“I think people learned that it can work,” Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat said. “It just warms my heart to see someone doing it again.”

Appropriately, Harrell and Daniel met this week at a maternal health summit.

Above and beyond the novelty of seeing an infant snooze through tense partisan debates, Harrell and Daniel both said it’s crucial to have young moms serving in the Legislature — and they’re right.

A young mom knows the cost of her grocery list better than the back of her hand. She probably knows that Georgia does not have universal Pre-K because she tried to enroll a child and couldn’t get a space. Young moms know the wait time at a children’s ER can stretch to four hours or more, and that most communities in Georgia have no children’s ER within 100 miles.

They know it may be possible to get a spot at daycare, but it’s hard to afford, and even then you may pay more for child care than your own salary.

The struggle is real, so real that I once had an iPhone case with that exact phrase when my children were toddlers and I simultaneously worked as a campaign reporter. I took a call for this column when I was waiting in the carpool line. It never ends.

Daniel said she thinks being a teenage mom made starting a campaign easier since she had to learn time management very early.

“Everybody kind of had the same sentiment. Are you overwhelmed? Is this going to be too much?” she said. “Honestly it was easier for me to run for office than for me to finish my college classes.”

More young women are running for office, but Harrell said having a baby or young child while serving in the Legislature is nearly impossible for women outside of Metro Atlanta since the time away from home stretches from hours to days.

And even now, Daniel said the reception from her male colleagues has been “a mixed bag.” Many seemed to think Zane would come to work only for the first day of the session.

“The second day I brought him, a representative from my area said, ‘Oh, you have him again,” she said. “I told him, ‘He was my baby yesterday. He’s my baby today.’”

By the last day, Speaker Burns said he thought Zane had behaved better than some of the members during the special session.

“People said, ‘We’ve never had a baby in the well,’” Daniel said. “I was just doing my job. I think it’s also a great picture of what it looks like to be a mom, regardless of anything else. Your life keeps going.”

000217 ATLANTA: Rep. Sally Harrell (C,cq) and her two-month-old son Joseph (cq) attend the legislative session Thursday 2/17/00 as she manages being both mother and lawmaker. Harrell often brings Joseph to the House chamber as she conducts business. (DAVID TULIS/Staff)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

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