The 2022 midterm elections nearly doubled the mom power in the State House. Here’s how four legislators double down on serving constituents while caring for their families.

This story was originally published in Rhode Island Current, a publication partner of Ocean State Stories.

Joe Cotter, 16, glanced nervously at the panel of lawmakers eyeing him behind the dais of a first-floor Rhode Island State House hearing room.

One familiar face gazed back at him: his mom, Rep. Megan Cotter.

Her legislation to create a skateboarding program for Rhode Island schools was the reason he was there. An avid skateboarder, Joe Cotter wanted to take skateboarding to fulfill his physical education requirements. He was told it wasn’t an option.

Megan Cotter agreed to introduce legislation on her son’s behalf with a caveat: He had to make the case to her colleagues on the House Committee on Education. The panel held the bill for further study, the standard practice for initial committee hearings.

Rep. Megan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat, is shown on Election Day 2022 with her daughter Emily, then 16 – Photo courtesy of Megan Cotter

“It was a good lesson for him,” Cotter said of her son’s testimony at an April 3 committee hearing. “He didn’t understand why it didn’t pass because nobody opposed the bill, so I had to kind of explain that.”

That experience also illustrates why Cotter, a first-term Exeter Democrat, ran for office in 2022: to show her three children that her experiences, and the experiences of others like her and her family, deserved a voice on Smith Hill.

“I don’t know how many other lawmakers have had to struggle the way we had to struggle,” said Cotter, who had her first two children while an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island.

She spent her first years as a young mom working night shifts at Chelo’s Hometown Bar & Grille in Warwick.

“My husband and I were like the sun and the moon passing each other two and from work,” she said. “Every week was a crunch for us to pay the bills. A PB&J was always a good dinner. It wasn’t fun to live in those struggles, but now I can use them to advocate, because I know what it’s like.”

Her experiences as a mom, while uniquely valuable, are also a key reason why women lawmakers with children remain underrepresented in state and federal politics. Aside from political barriers, moms also face cultural and socioeconomic obstacles that discourage them from running for or serving in elected office.

Just 37 of the 541 members, 6.8%, of the 118th Congress are moms of children under 18, according to an October 2022 report published by national advocacy group Vote Mama Foundation, the most recent figures available. And just over 5% of the 7,383 state legislators in office as of September 2022 were moms of minor children.

Rhode Island ranked 29th among states, with 4.42% of its 113-person legislature identifying as moms of minor children as of September 2022, according to Vote Mama.

Data provided by the Rhode Island General Assembly shows the 2022 state midterm elections nearly doubled the mom power in the State House; nine mothers with minor children, including Cotter, serve in the legislature today.

Another 25 state lawmakers are mothers of children over 18, some of whom are also grandmothers.

Yet they continue to battle against stereotypes, sexism and even threats rooted in their identities as women and parents.

“There’s been a high degree of progress over the last two decades, but one thing that has not changed is that women are still balancing far more than men,” said Jennifer Lawless, the Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and chair of its politics department.

Lawless, formerly an associate professor at Brown University, challenged U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin in the 2006 Democratic primary for Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District. “We see women running and willing elections but they are doing it with additional hurdles tied to them,” she added.

The political career of Sen. Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, began on the Pawtucket School Committee and advanced to a seat on the Pawtucket City Council before she was elected to the Rhode Island Senate in 2018. At the time, she won the Senate special election, Cano, then 34 years old, had no children.

Sen. Sandra Cano casts her ballot at the Slater Park Pavilion polling place in Pawtucket during the Sept. 5, 2023, 1st Congressional District primary, for which she was a candidate. Accompanying her are her daughter Arianna, her son Alessandro and fiance, Treasurer James Diossa, right. To her left is her dad, Roberto Cano – Photo courtesy of Sandra Cano

But her first term in office began with a pregnancy followed by the birth of her now 4-year-old daughter, Arianna Hallel. In January 2023, she welcomed a second baby, Alessandro.

Cano never felt forced to choose between motherhood and elected office; as a Colombian immigrant whose family came to the United States under political asylum, she saw politics as a way to express gratitude to the country that opened its doors to her.

Her conviction was shared by her fiancé, General Treasurer James Diossa, who agreed that having children shouldn’t mean sacrificing either of their political careers.

If only the rest of the world felt the same.

Cano, who also ran, and placed third, in the Democratic primary for the open 1st Congressional District seat in 2023, recalled the pointed questions and not-so-subtle accusations around her decision to seek higher office while having young children.

“I spent a lot of time defending myself and trying to justify why I would be a good congressperson because I am a mom,” Cano said.

The gendered roots of the jabs revealed themselves when she and Diossa attended evening political events together. She was often asked who was babysitting their kids; Diossa never was.

Her frustration became the foundation of her congressional campaign, which featured Arianna and Alessandro front and center.

“I am not going to hide the fact that I am a mom who is working,” Cano said. “It was really important for me to show that a working mom can also be a legislator, and could also be a congressperson.”

A room on the first floor of the Rhode Island State House offers privacy and comfort for breastfeeding mothers. Formerly used as a copy room, the room was set aside in 2015 during then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration – Photo by Will Steinfeld/Rhode Island Current

‘Situations’ in public and online

Other women lawmakers with children have taken different tactics. Some of their biographies on the Rhode Island General Assembly website don’t mention their children; or omit their children’s names.

Anyone with an internet connection can find those details, Sen. Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz acknowledged. But she didn’t want to make it any easier, which is why she opted not to identify her three children by name when interviewed.

In her six years in state office, the North Smithfield Republican has experienced invasive and uncomfortable interactions, along with at least one threat made on Facebook soon after she was elected. She reported the message to Rhode Island State Police.

Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, listens to public comment during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, May 7, 2024 – Photo by Will Steinfeld/Rhode Island Current

The response was not exactly reassuring.

“They said there’s nothing we can do unless they act on it,” she said.

De la Cruz could not remember the details of the message, but described several other confrontational situations while she was out in the community with her children — an aggressive knock on a rolled-up car window, or an angry outburst as she and her kids headed into a store.

“Have I been in situations? Yes. Did I fear for my life? No,” de la Cruz said.

Lawless, who has surveyed potential candidates as part of her research into elections and politics over the last 20 years, said 2023 was the first time prospective candidates she interviewed raised fears about threats and physical violence.

“And almost all the people who brought them up were women,” she said.

Cotter worried about the backlash she and her teenage children would face when she decided to run for office in 2022. But she was pleasantly surprised; even in a politically divided community with a tough race to unseat an incumbent Republican, she said she never felt threatened.

The other parents and their children seemed clueless about her State House career.

“Turns out, no one really pays attention to local politics,” she said.

Aside from a strict veto power over every potential campaign photo that includes her family, her children have also been supportive.

It helps that they are older, and more independent; her 18-year-old daughter, Emily, has a car and can drive her siblings to activities. Her husband also shares much of the child care responsibilities, though her 13-year-old son Charlie added that his mom never misses his track meets.

Nearly 40% of the mom state legislators nationwide in 2022 had middle school or high school-aged children; by contrast, 13% had toddlers, and 3% had infants, according to Vote Mama’s report.

After giving birth to her daughter, Cano recalled squirreling away in the late Sen. Maryellen Goodwin’s office to pump between committee hearings, storing her breast milk in Goodwin’s fridge. The Rhode Island State House has a breastfeeding room, a repurposed first-floor copy room set aside in 2015, during then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration. But Goodwin’s office was closer, and more convenient, Cano said.

By the time Alessandro was born, Cano had a wearable, cordless breast pump, allowing her to pump on-the-go during her 2023 congressional run.

“It really became part of my campaign,” Cano said. “My team was very understanding and supportive about fitting my maternal needs into my schedule.”

To that point, Cano made sure to attend her usual, weekly Tuesday music class with Alessandro between poll stops on the day of the Sept. 5, 2023 primary.

Rep. Cherie Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat, pictured during a House Judiciary Committee hearing at the Rhode Island State House on May 7, 2024 – Photo by Will Steinfeld/Rhode Island Current

Coloring books in the House chamber

Incorporating children, or in her case, grandchildren, into legislative duties is not unfamiliar to Rep. Cherie Cruz. The Pawtucket Democrat won her first term in the legislature in 2022, campaigning on affordable housing and expanded child care based on her personal experiences as a single, teen mother with an eighth grade education and felony drug conviction, which was later expunged.

“When we think about the qualifications to run, we think of this false dichotomy that you need certain professional qualifications,” Cruz said. “What’s better than real-life experience? I have got three generations of it.”

Her first year as a legislator overlapped with temporary guardianship of her 9-year-old granddaughter Jazzlyn, who made periodic appearances on the House floor during late-night debates, happily passing the hours with an armful of coloring books and craft projects.

“She probably had better attendance than some legislators,” Cruz said.

Cruz was matter of fact in explaining how she juggled guardianship with her legislative duties and full-time job running a child care assistance program.

She got it done, the same way she did as a teenage mother working minimum wage fast food jobs, or later, as an adult returning to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brown University, bringing her kids with her to class.

Those experiences heavily shape the policies she champions at the State House, such as expanded access to affordable child care, a universal free lunch program and protections for tenants facing eviction proceedings. In her first year as a legislator, she sponsored a dozen bills, including one which became a law banning landlords from charging application fees for rental properties.

Cano also drew upon her personal experiences in sponsoring legislation requiring insurance companies to cover diagnostic testing and treatment for infertility. The bill passed in the Rhode Island Senate on April 30, but remains under consideration in the House.

Cano shared publicly about her struggles with infertility when introducing a similar bill two years ago. When she was pregnant with Arianna, doctors discovered a pre-genetic condition that indicated an increased risk for her daughter being born with a disability. That ultimately was not the case, but Cano opted to undergo in vitro fertilization for her second child so her eggs could be genetically tested. The IVF was also successful, but cost her family $4,000.

Research suggests federal women lawmakers are generally less successful in getting their bills passed, reflecting that most positions of power are still held by men.

The Speaker of the House, the most powerful seat in the Rhode Island General Assembly, has never been held by a woman. Teresa Paiva Weed was the first, and remains the only, woman to serve as Senate President, a title she held from 2008 until she left office in 2017.

Even without holding power positions, studies suggest women in Congress deliver more federal spending back to their districts, can keep sponsored bills alive longer and are more likely to work across the aisle especially when they are in the minority party.

“The reality is, there are lots of different ways to gauge effectiveness,” Lawless said. “The little bits and pieces of various research we have paint a picture that’s consistent with the story that women might have to be better than men to fare just as well.”

As a Republican in a Democratic-led legislature, de la Cruz is well-aware of the need to collaborate rather than isolate.

“Maybe, it was 50/50 down the middle, I could be a bull in a china shop,” de la Cruz said. “Right now, in a superminority, the only way I can get something done is to be a bridge-builder, to have my door open.”