SALEM, Ore. - Shemia Fagan has a new baby and a new job. Like most working moms she has to balance the pressures of taking care of a newborn with the demands of the workplace. But unlike most new mothers, Fagan also has to consider the needs of her constituents. She’s serving her first term in the Oregon legislature.
The first day of the legislative session is chaos. The Capitol is filled with suits hustling about. Among the legislators sworn in was Democratic State Representative Shemia Fagan. Age 31.
A few weeks later, Fagan’s days are filled with hearings. She sits on three separate committees. On her way back to her office, she likens the start of the session to the first day of school.
“New classes, which are called committees now that I’m a grown up,” Fagan says. “But it just feels, it’s new it’s exciting, it’s new information, new processes, new procedures, new people.”
After a day’s worth of meetings she picks up her five-month-old son from a nearby daycare, and her carpool hits the road back to her House district in East Portland.
Fagan still serves on the on her local school board, and meets with her constituents a lot.
At her first town hall meeting as a legislator, she looked like the youngest person there. Except for maybe her staffers. Nonetheless she appeared confident in her knowledge of the policy questions at hand.
State lawmakers regularly work 10 to 12 hour days. Fagan says she tries to protect her weekends with her family, but it can be tough.
On a gray Saturday morning at her home in East Portland, Fagan sits in the living room with the fireplace on. She says her daily struggles are the same as any new parent’s.
“Anyone who’s a mom knows that errands are so much harder once you had a baby because you just wish there was one store with everything and it was a drive thru.“
As busy as Fagan’s life is now, it was worse last fall running a competitive campaign against an incumbent.
She was pregnant. It turned out all the walking door-to-door she had to do was great for her health. But she was unsure how voters would respond to her obvious baby bump. What she found was tremendous support, and maybe even a bit of an advantage.
“You know I’m swollen up or whatever, and I remember being out there knocking on doors trying to get people to see me as a real person and I thought this is not hard because there’s nothing more humanizing than kankles.”
Fagan’s baby came two months before election day. When she returned to the campaign trail three weeks later, she faced some unique challenges. Every few hours she had to go back to her car to pump breast milk for later.
Even now that she’s at the capitol, she still pumps in her office.
“Both my staff members are young males and they know what the do not disturb sign means, which is under no circumstances are they to open that door,” Fagan says. “You have to kind of tweak your work life to still be able to prioritize what you want to provide for your family.”
Fagan says the main reason she’s been able to become a legislator is the strong support of her spouse. He took family medical leave while she was campaigning. And often watches their child now that she’s at the capitol.
Fellow State Representative Sara Gelser has four children of her own. Her youngest was three years old when she was sworn in eight years ago. Gelser says that at that time, she faced some open disapproval for working in the legislature while having young kids at home.
“I hope that just even in the last few years we’ve evolved enough that Representative Fagan won’t hear that.”
Gelser thinks that’s one reason there are fewer women than men in politics. It’s not that having a baby keeps them out. It’s that most don’t have enough support to have a child and also pursue a demanding career.
“Until we’re better able to encourage young women with small children to run for office, we are going to continue to have not enough young women in public service,” Gelser says.
According to the U.S. Census, more than a quarter of Oregon homes include children under the age of 18. For the Oregon legislature, that figure is slightly higher. Almost a third of the 90 state lawmakers have kids younger than 18. Fagan sees being a mom as a distinct advantage in being a Representative. She feels she can better relate to her constituents, and actually gets to live the issues that she’s working on.
Fagan is also motivated by her family history. She says her father had dreams of running for public office, but he never did. He was a single dad raising three kids.
“The last thing I would want to do now is not take that sacrifice that sacrifice that he made for me and put it to my best use, simply because I became a mother.”
But she makes sacrifices too. Fagan tells this story. Governor John Kitzhaber invited all the freshman legislators over for dinner at the Governor’s mansion. She made it as far as the driveway. Her newborn baby was hungry so she got in the backseat of her car to nurse him. Then he fell asleep. It was a peaceful spell she was unwilling to break, so she drove home.
“You know there’s a flip side is what am I going to miss in the political world, but that moment made me realize I don’t really care,” Fagan says. “Because there are just moments that changes you when you’re a mom and that was that moment.”
In Fagan’s mind, whether you’re a mom who stays at home, or one who serves in the legislature, women should be able to just do what fulfills them.
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Rep. Shemia Fagan - Oregon Legislature