It was built without washrooms for women. Portraits of premiers past, mostly older men in suits, overlook the rotunda. But now, more female ministers walk the halls of the Alberta legislature — some with babies on their hips, part of a shift that is changing the face of politics worldwide.
Service Alberta Minister Stephanie McLean jokes that her baby Patrick might be the first human ever to pee on the wall of the legislature.
McLean, who’s also minister for the status of women, is one of three Alberta government ministers to have had babies while in office. To make it work with maternity leave, her husband put his career on hold and her mother and mother-in-law help with child care. Even a former chief of staff’s wife chipped in one day when she was in a bind. At one point, her son was in three different day cares.
“It’s always a moving target, any parent knows that to be the case,” McLean said.
Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley’s daughter Wren is the youngest, at four months.
“I really do think it adds something to the voices in the legislature,” she said. “I think we would be a poorer place if there weren’t mothers here.”
In her office, there’s a breastfeeding pillow, an exersaucer and sometimes, if her parents are lucky, a sleeping baby.
“We’ve got one of those more soundproof doors in hopes of helping out with that,” Ganley said. And although babies are now allowed on the Chamber floor, Wren prefers her mom to be standing.
“She doesn’t like it when I sit down, and there are very specific rules on when you stand and when you sit in the legislature.”
In February 2016, McLean became the first Alberta MLA to give birth while in office. She’d been appointed to her dual ministries just 10 days earlier. That summer, Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne delivered her second daughter, Cassidy.
Cassidy attended her first government meeting at four weeks old. Now that she is older, she stays behind in Calgary with her dad and older sister when her minister mom heads to Edmonton. The family uses Skype calls to stay in touch, and small rituals like exchanging special stuffed animals before Payne heads out on the road again.
MLAs don’t qualify for maternity leave, and that’s lead to a uniquely political problem: how to balance the earliest days of parenting with the busiest roles in public office.
“I think there really is a sea change,” said Payne, sitting across from a bulletin board decorated with art and notes from her oldest daughter.
One line reads, ‘I miss you and love you. See you on Wednesday in Edmonton.’
“Historically, it’s been a lot of people with older kids who have decided to get involved with politics. But I think it’s important as well to have parents of young children involved at all levels of government, because I think the perspective we bring to the table is a little bit different.”
WATCH: Balancing parenting and politics: Alberta’s first cabinet ministers to give birth while in office on balancing one 24/7 job with another
“We’ve definitely seen that shift where the legislature is more reflective of the general population,” McLean said.
Her caucus colleagues are younger than those in previous governments, and so more likely to be at the age to start families.
“I think it’s overall better for democracy itself, because moms are people too as we would say so they should be represented as well,” Ganley added. “I’m hoping that this sort of sets an example that people are more willing to do it.
“I’m not going to say that it’s without its challenges, but most things have challenges.”
Payne has announced she will not seek re-election, citing too much time away from her young family in Calgary.
Still, she calls her time in office “the most rewarding work I’ve had the opportunity to do.”
The prime minister of New Zealand is expecting a baby in June. Jacinda Ardern has announced she will take a maternity leave of six weeks. The last international leader to give birth in office was Pakistan’s prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990.
In March, Karina Gould, Canada’s minister of democratic institutions, gave birth to a boy, Canada’s first cabinet minister to do so while in office. She announced she will take an unspecified amount of leave. Like MLAs, MPs do not pay into employment insurance, and do not qualify for parental leave.
Earlier this month, American Tammy Duckworth made history in the U.S. Senate by being the first to cast a vote on the floor while holding her newborn daughter. The vote came a day after the Senate voted to allow babies in the chamber.
Politicians know with electoral victory comes long hours, travel and time away from home. Until now for MLAs, it’s never been done by mothers with young babies or women about to give birth. Alberta’s pioneers don’t expect to be the last.
“I think it would be great to see more women, and more babies,” Ganley said.
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