As the 2019 legislative session hurtled toward its end, state Sen. Brittany Pettersen felt sluggish.
The long hours, the sleep deprivation, the seemingly endless debate on controversial bills — it added up in a way that felt more intense for the Lakewood Democrat than in years past. Maybe it was the added pressure to pass legislation that came from Democratic control of the Senate. Maybe it was the craziness of procedural fights and partisan bickering that landed Senate leadership in Denver County Court.
“Once I realized I was pregnant, it all made sense,” she told The Denver Post.
Pettersen, 37, is due at the end of January with her first child, a baby boy who will make her the first Colorado state senator to give birth in office and the first state lawmaker to do so during a legislative session.
“I think this goes in the bad planning column,” Pettersen joked.
But joking aside, her absence from the Senate chamber during the 2020 session — the inevitable result of increasing diversity at Colorado’s legislature — will have real policy implications. Pettersen will be the guinea pig for what maternity leave looks like at the Colorado legislature. What she and Democratic leadership decide about whether she chairs a committee or sponsors certain high-profile bills will set a course for the women who come after her.
And the timing of her maternity leave could impact how Democrats move bills through the statehouse and even what they’re ultimately able to accomplish. Democrats hold a narrow 19-16 majority in the Senate, which means they’ll have to delay votes if they lose any other Democrat for a bill that doesn’t have Republican support.
The red flag gun control bill, a bill allowing Lt Gov. Diane Primavera to serve as the head of the Office of Saving People Money on Healthcare, an election code reform bill and one about electric vehicles all passed through the Senate with 18 Democratic votes last session. Pettersen voted yes on all four.
“It gives me anxiety because I care deeply about my position, and it’s a little frustrating to think about not being able to be fully present during session,” Pettersen said.
She isn’t sure how many days or weeks she’ll spend on maternity leave. Her examples, so far, have all been men. Both Reps. Jonathan Singer, D-Boulder, and Kyle Mullica, D-Wheat Ridge, had babies during the last two legislative sessions and returned to the Capitol within days of their deliveries.
“It’s so different when you’re the woman,” Pettersen said. “My immediate reaction was, ‘No, I can go back to work right away. We’re going to figure this out. I can’t miss my committee meetings. I can’t miss days there.’”
But then a friend sat her down and gently reminded her those male colleagues didn’t birth a human, and her recovery would depend on how her pregnancy unfolds. She doesn’t know whether she’ll require bed rest or a cesarean section or whether her son will need any extra care after delivery.
“How long a new mom actually takes off from the Capitol is going to be interesting to watch,” said Laura Hoeppner, the director of “Strong Sisters,” a documentary about Colorado women in office. “Unfortunately, there is going to be all kinds of judgments.”
Pettersen represents a growing trend of younger women running for elected office. Colorado was the first state to vote for women’s suffrage, the first to elect women to its state House of Representatives, and the Centennial State has led the nation in percentage of female lawmakers on and off for years. But most of those women, especially in past decades, chose to get politically involved after their children were grown.
“They felt like once their kids were adults, they could get involved in politics and run for office,” Hoeppner said. “That’s changed a lot. … It’s a new trend, and I think it’s going to change the way people talk about issues.”
Hoeppner worked as a legislative aide at the statehouse when former Rep. Karen Middleton — now the head of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado — had her daughter, Zoe, four months before the start of the 2009 session. Middleton balanced being a new mom and majority caucus chair by hiring a nanny who brought Zoe to the Capitol when Middleton had a free moment. She nursed her in the clerk’s office off the floor, and Zoe said her first word at the Capitol.
“One time I was walking into (Shish Kabob Grill) for a lunch meeting and there was my baby in a Bjorn at a different table,” Middleton said. “The only person I ever really got grief from was a woman who wondered why I wasn’t using day care like everyone else.”
She worked around the House calendar with the help of her nanny, aide and fellow lawmakers. And Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who runs the Senate calendar, said it’ll be no different with Pettersen — even while she’s on maternity leave.
“To be honest, there’s always something that’s coming up with people during session,” Fenberg said. “There’s also not that many bills that need all 19 Democrats there to pass.”
He’s expecting a baby girl in December.
“So if anyone will understand the need to be home with the baby, it will be me,” Fenberg said. “It’s treated different, though. No reporter has called to ask me what I’m going to do during session.”
Pettersen, he added, could bring her son for an hour or two in the morning for floor work and then skip the committee meetings if she wanted. The two could even coordinate and bring their kids on the same days.
“She’s having a baby. That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be in office,” Fenberg said. “The only option is to work around it and work with her. It’s going to be fine. I’m not worried about it.”
Conditions at the Capitol have improved since Middleton had Zoe. The statehouse didn’t have a changing table back then, and staff added a dedicated room for women who need to pump or nurse just a few months ago.
State lawmakers aren’t like regular employees. They don’t get sick days or vacation time. They get a flat $40,000 a year for serving, and constituents expect them to show up while the legislature is in session. Partisan staff don’t have paid maternity or paternity leave, either, and legislative aides aren’t offered health insurance.
“We’re not normally considered a progressive workplace when compared to other companies,” Fenberg said.
Pettersen said she’s lucky that her husband, Ian Silverii, has paid paternity leave through his employer and they can afford to hire a night nurse to help her transition back to work at the Capitol.
“I really can’t imagine the position that some women are in,” Pettersen said. “It’s so important that we have working environments that are accepting.”
That’s why she plans to advocate for paid family leave in 2020. Pettersen was a strong supporter of the 2019 bill, which would have set up a system like unemployment that paid every working Colorado a percentage of their income for 12 weeks off work to care for a newborn or a sick family member. It would have been funded by payments from employers and employees. After the proposal failed to get enough Democratic support in the Senate, lawmakers authorized a feasibility study instead.
Nearly one-quarter of American women return to work two weeks after delivery, according an Abt Associates analysis of responses from Department of Labor surveys. Pettersen is considering returning to the Capitol — even if for just a few hours a day — that quickly, and she expects it will give her a new appreciation for how difficult that really is.
Real-life experiences shape your world view, Pettersen said. Her mother has struggled with an addiction to heroin for decades, and that has shaped Pettersen’s beliefs about drug treatment programs and how governments should respond to the opioid crisis.
She tried to run a bill in the last session to legalize safe injection sites. She pulled it before it got introduced, but the fact that it was on the table was enough for her opponents to mount a recall campaign this summer. Pettersen said she and her supporters have knocked on 40,000 doors so far despite the morning sickness and fatigue of the first trimester. And now that she’s showing, constituents are surprised to find her canvassing in 100-degree weather.
“When voters realize I’m pregnant, a common response is ‘They’re trying to recall a pregnant woman,’” Pettersen said. “I guess it helps sometimes.”
Middleton laughed when asked about campaigning while pregnant.
“When I would walk the neighborhoods, people never cared about any of the policies,” Middleton said. “They wanted to know when I was due and what I was having.”
Groups like Emerge Colorado and Emily’s List now coach female candidates on how to announce their pregnancies, and provide wraparound services like meal trains and babysitting schedules to balance running for office with making it home for bath time. Pettersen herself volunteers as a coach for women who want to run for local office.
“It challenged me a lot talking to other women, trying to convince them to run,” Pettersen said. “It’s the thing most people are scared of, but for me it was always choosing to actually commit to having a kid that was the most terrifying.”
She told them it’s never the right time to run for office, and they replied that the same is true for children.
“It helped me with my fear around it and whether or not we’re going to be able to handle it,” Pettersen said. “I had a reaction as somebody who is very focused on the work that I do and my career. I want to run for Congress. I thought about what all of this looks like running and maybe being there and having a kid.”
It took a few years, but this spring Pettersen turned to her husband and told him she felt ready to be a mom.