The Parent Files

How Motherhood Led Elizabeth Warren to the Senate

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Senator Elizabeth Warren has become one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for the importance of accessible childcare. When she ran for President in 2020, she made her plan for universal childcare central central to her campaign. And in February, she introduced a bill that she said would give half of American families access to childcare for no more than $10 per day.

Like everyone else who covered the 2020 campaign, I had already heard the story about Aunt Bee, the elderly aunt who came to help Warren with her children while she was a young mom teaching law. I was more curious about how motherhood figured into her thinking about her work and her life. But it turns out that childcare is the foundation on which a woman can build her career, and that Warren’s childcare story and her parenthood story are inseparable. If she hadn’t left her job as a teacher when she had her first baby, Warren may never have gone to law school in the first place. But if Aunt Bee hadn’t shown up when she did, Warren says she never would have been able to stick with her law career. Warren says she wouldn’t be in the Senate if she hadn’t had her children— but she also wouldn’t be there without her childcare.

Lots of people say that parenthood—but especially motherhood— is a transformation. Did you feel transformed by motherhood?

I got married at 19 and I had just turned 22 when Amelia was born. I suddenly had another human being that I would give up my life for. At the same time, every mistake I made was now magnified in the life of someone else. A bad decision didn’t affect only me, it affected this vulnerable little person that I was responsible for. That was heavy.

Can you tell me a little bit about the person you were before she was born?

I was easier before. I was wilder before. I was more willing to tear into whatever I was trying to do: stay up all night reading, paint the house, tear out the bathroom. Once Amelia came, I felt much more hemmed in. Because I recognized how responsible I was for her and and everything in her life.

Can you tell me about your delivery and early motherhood?

It was a great pregnancy. I was one of those truly lucky women. I’d been teaching school and doing all kinds of fix-up-the house projects in my spare time. The summer before she was born, I painted the entire outside of our house when I was seven, eight months pregnant. I was full of energy and ready to go.

Then, it was a very difficult labor. And I was suddenly at home, and couldn’t go anywhere. And so it was like my whole life spun on its axis when she was born. I had this delightful, beautiful child I love to rock and read stories to. But I was also isolated, alone. We only had one car. My husband drove to work every day and the baby and I stood on the front porch and waved goodbye.

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So what did you do all day with her?

I painted every room in the house. I tore out the bathroom. I taught myself to lay tile. But the hard part was I couldn’t imagine what my life was going to be going forward. And finally, I fixed on going to law school.

These were different times. My husband didn’t want me to go to work full time. And so I decided I could go back to school. And he was okay with that. I found the law school nearby—Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. It was $450 tuition. And I had saved up enough money. I worked out how I was going to get there: we got a second car, I practiced driving the route, it was about 45 minutes from our house. I thought I had it all worked out. But that one other thing on my list: childcare. And I spent that summer before Amelia turned two looking for childcare.

And I went into it so naively. I thought: how hard could this be? And it was awful. One place smelled bad. Another place cost too much. Third place was too far away. The fourth place had a waiting list a mile long. We’re bearing down on classes starting and I still don’t have childcare. And finally, the week before my classes started, I found a place that was really nice. I could afford the price, it wasn’t too far away. I’m filling out the application and it says she will only take children who are dependably potty-trained. Amelia was not quite two years old. And I remember holding the form, and I’m looking at Amelia, and looking back at the form, and finally, I thought: dependably potty-trained, check. And we went home, and I had a long weekend to get a not-quite-two-year-old dependably potty-trained. All I will say is that I am here today, courtesy of a cooperative child and multiple bags of M&Ms.

As somebody who now has a one-year-old, I am newly aware of how difficult that must have been. But what was going through your mind? Were you scared that she was just going to totally reject this?

The whole plan hinged on Amelia deciding that wearing big-girl pants was a good thing. Without that, I wasn’t headed off to law school. And without law school, I wasn’t headed off to all the things that I turned out to do in my life. Now, I look back and I think about how close I came to falling off the track because of childcare. I came literally within a few days of forfeiting my chance.

I want to flash forward to Aunt Bee. What happened that created the childcare crisis that forced you to call Aunt Bee?

So Amelia and I make it through law school. I walk across the stage to pick up my diploma with Amelia in hand. And…I’m eight months pregnant with baby number two.

I have no job, and no job prospects. No one is looking for a woman with two little tiny kids. So I get a part-time teaching job at Rutgers. And I traded out with my next-door neighbor for childcare. Because this is the way women stitch things together. I kept her little girl while she went off and did things, and she kept my two kids while I taught two evenings a week.

My first husband got transferred, and I got a full-time tenure-track teaching job at the University of Houston. Those jobs are scarce and hard to come by. And this was my big opportunity to become a law professor. So we moved down there in the summer. And once again, I’ve got the summer to get childcare set up. Amelia by this point is in elementary school, she’s a second grader, and Alex is almost two. And it’s the same story: There were the times standing out on the driveway juggling a baby on my hip dressed to go, and the caregiver just hasn’t shown up. There were the times I go to pick up Alex at the childcare center, and he’s been left in a wet dirty diaper and is miserable.

And I’m just doing my best here, and I feel like I’m failing on every front. Dinner’s always late, the kids get baths most nights, I’m doing laundry at 11 o’clock in the evening and starting my class prep after midnight. And one evening my Aunt Bee called just to say, ‘How are you doing?’

Aunt Bee was a widow. She lived in in Oklahoma; she was 76. And I said, “fine” in that stretched-out voice and I started to cry. I told her I was going to quit my job. That was the first time I’d even said it to myself, much less said it out loud. And then the dam just broke. I just cried and cried. I loved this job, I wanted this job, but I just couldn’t do it because I didn’t have childcare.

So she let me cry, long distance, and waited till I got myself back under control. And she said, “Well, I can’t come tomorrow. But I’ll be there Thursday.” She arrived with seven suitcases and a Pekinese named Buddy, and stayed for 16 years.

What is your number one piece of parenting advice?

When the baby is asleep, only do things you can’t do when the baby is awake. So for example, I wanted to be an academic. It’s essential to start writing academic articles. So that is not possible when a little baby is awake. And so I learned this trick: the minute that Alex would go to sleep, no matter what I was in the middle of—cleaning off the dishes, folding laundry—if that baby was asleep, I was at work. Because I could actually do those other things when the baby was awake. So that was my hack: to think of time differently. Don’t think in terms of morning, afternoon and evening. Think of it as baby on, baby off.

What is the biggest mistake you made as a parent?

I worried too much. I look back and think how very, very lucky I was to have two children I loved better than life itself. I wish I’d taken just a few more minutes to drink that in. And a few less minutes worrying about how all the pieces would come together.

Do you think you would have become a senator if you hadn’t become a mother?

Probably not. Becoming a mother put me into the fight for other people in a deeper, more personal way. And it made me more persistent. Damn it, no parent should have that much trouble trying to support herself and her family and get care for her children.

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