Was this what she signed up for?
A life in Congress: Lauren Underwood learns what it costs
As a single Black woman in the House, the 36-year-old Illinois Democrat tries to balance who she is versus what she does
And all that was fine, because Lauren Underwood had given a lot to be here. So had everybody in the room, of course. This job, being a member of Congress, was not supposed to be easy. They were America’s public servants. Some of them were famous for it. Most were not. Some put in the work, striving beyond the bare minimum. Some did not. All of them had done what was required to survive, to win a campaign, to secure their seats, to be one of 435. But Lauren Underwood had given something different. There were a lot of women like her. But she didn’t see many in Congress.
The truth is, she loved her job. She believed she was good at it, too. She’d had 14 pieces of legislation signed into law under Presidents Trump and Biden. She was going to serve in a House leadership role now — the first Black woman elected by her colleagues since Shirley Chisholm in 1977 — as co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. She’d kept her head down and she had worked. Going viral, she had learned, was overrated. If anything, she had dialed back her personal online presence over the past four years. It only invited hostility, an ugly darkness. She’d come into Congress with the Class of 2018, part of that big blue wave of young, diverse women who promised to block Trump and change the way things work in Washington. Underwood, a registered nurse from the Chicago suburbs, wanted to make the health-care system better. She was 30 years old, just a “regular person,” she said, when she gave up her career to run for office. She was 32 when she became the youngest Black woman elected to Congress. That first week here, four years ago this January, had been so busy, so full of possibility. Everything was new. She remembers wanting to work with her colleagues in “this really sweet, optimistic way.” She remembers searching the halls for a “Republican bestie,” a fellow member of Congress who could be her partner on meaningful health-care legislation. But that was before two impeachments, before Jan. 6, 2021, before she knew the job. Now, she was less candid, less trusting, more aggressive about managing her time. Now, she knew that people would waste your time here, if you let them. Now, she knew that some Democrats and Republicans avoided eye contact when they crossed paths in the halls.
She also knew that to keep the job, she had to be perfect. She couldn’t mess up. And so she didn’t. Early on that week, when she learned that her assigned seat with the Democratic leadership team would be in view of a C-SPAN camera, she was vigilant, careful to be seen paying attention. She was seated on the aisle, across from the Republicans — the confrontation between Reps. Matt Gaetz and Mike D. Rogers just a few rows behind. Her district, Illinois’s 14th, about an hour outside of Chicago, was competitive. The seat had once belonged to a Republican giant, the former House speaker of eight years, Dennis Hastert. Now it was Underwood’s to lose. She’d won it by five points in 2018. Two years later, the margin shrunk to 1.4 — a difference of about 5,000 votes. Her opponent had refused to accept defeat. He’d even flown to D.C. for freshman orientation. Three times now, always by single-digit margins, Underwood had fought to hold on to her place in Congress — and she’d done it, she said, “in a really serious way, in an all-consuming way, in a no-days-off kind of way.” Which meant raising money, lots and lots of money, and then turning around and doing it all over again. Every day felt like an “opportunity for the whole thing to implode.” It was like a war, and there were land mines everywhere. “And you just can’t step on any, but you’re seeing them explode all around you.” It had been that way since 2018.
But she was 36 years old now. She was single. She wanted kids. She dated, but life with a member of Congress, she knew, was “not for everyone.” Like a lot of women, she had mapped out what it would mean to raise a child on her own. She had researched the costs of fertility treatments, the timeline she’d need to follow, the financial reality of paying for full-time child care on top of not just one home, in Illinois, but also an apartment in Washington, on a salary of $174,000. Like a lot of women her age, Underwood said, she had health complications that put her “firmly, permanently,” in a “high, high, high risk category” for pregnancy. She knew all the data, all the risks, in part because she had made Black maternal health her signature legislation in Congress. Like a lot of women, Underwood had made sacrifices for her work.
“And that’s fine for now,” she’d remind herself.
It was an active choice to be here, sitting in the chamber at 11 p.m. on a Friday, as her Republican colleagues prepared for the 15th time to elect a new speaker. But it wasn’t always an easy choice.
Sometimes it was like the skull emoji, funny and surreal. Sometimes, it was not funny.
“This is what we do. It’s not who I am,” she’d remind herself.
But then, another thought would come creeping in.
“This is all I do.”
Not many members of Congress talk about the distinction between what they do and who they are. In politics, the two bleed together, like circular, self-evident logic. The who is the résumé that makes you qualified for the job. The who is the backstory that explains why you want it, that you have “authenticity.” The who is the family by your side. Very quickly, the who becomes ancillary to the what.
Underwood always tried to keep the two separate. She once compared the split to Beyoncé’s alter ego, Sasha Fierce. Lauren Underwood and Congresswoman Underwood were different. The nasty things people said on the internet about Congresswoman Underwood — “it is no reflection of who I am,” she said. At home, she prioritized time with her parents, Clarence and Darla Underwood, because they understood this most of all. “They really care about Congresswoman Underwood,” she said, “but they mostly just care about me.” At work, she tried to set boundaries, erecting a hard wall between her campaign staff and her congressional staff. If she had something to say, she said it and said it plainly. She had no issue answering questions with “yes” or “no,” and then letting the silence hang. She viewed her work with the same level gaze, assessing its possibilities and limitations in equal measure. She believed her legislation had “unequivocally” made a difference: She had helped lower the cost of prescription drugs and made health care more affordable. She felt she was part of a “new generation” on the Hill, and that this was healthy for democracy. But she also knew how to be honest with herself.
Which is why she was home for the month of August last year, at the height of campaign season.
August, she knew, was when you win.
The month was a sacred time of year in Washington, a “recess” reserved annually for House lawmakers to return home to their districts — to campaign, hold town halls, spend time with family. Some of her colleagues in safer districts went on vacation. “Fabulous, far-off trips,” she said. “Tropical, luxury” trips. “Incredible trips.” Underwood had no trips planned. She would stay at home, and she was going to “get so much done.”
Home was Naperville, a city of 150,000 that is mostly White and prides itself on a “can-do” attitude, with a history of appearing on lists of the “best” and “safest” places to live and raise a family. It was an original prairie town, incorporated in 1831 on Indian lands, but much of the city has the look of being recently unboxed. In a restored riverwalk business district, shoppers migrate from Lululemon to the Starbucks Reserve, from the Apple Store to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
Underwood’s alma mater, Neuqua Valley High School, was fairly new when she enrolled, named after the son of a leader of the Waubonsie tribe, though members of the school board at the time couldn’t pronounce or spell it. The Underwoods came to Naperville by way of Cleveland, in 1990. She knew that both of her grandmothers, one from Alabama, the other from Pittsburgh, had marched in the civil rights era. Naperville was a lot less diverse than Cleveland. When Underwood first ran for Congress, her parents braced for what Clarence called “pushback.” “When you think about Illinois-14 and the demographics,” he said, “it’s really a surprise in a lot of ways that they were so welcoming.” Naturally, they worried. “This is the United States of America,” her father said. “We see it every day now, things that go on. We’re not naïve.” As a young student, Underwood saw racism in her community. At the mall, she’d hear sales ladies ask, “Do you need any help? You know that’s not on sale, right?” she told the Chicago Daily Herald in 2003, when she was 16, for an article marking the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Yes, she knew. Naperville could have a bright future, she thought then. “Maybe by the time I have kids, it could be a little brighter.”
“I know for me, I don’t want to stay around here,” she told the paper. “I want to leave the area.”
But soon enough, Underwood had come back home, moving into a subdivision, ready-made suburban living, not far from her parents. Underwood kept the house clean and bare. White walls, white countertop, white kitchen cabinets. Picture frames waiting to be hung. When she did TV interviews, she positioned her computer camera opposite a backdrop of white doors. She hadn’t had time to decorate.
So she was here. Her district encompassed 1,500 square miles. She had won it for the first time in 2018 with the support of at least some Trump Republicans. Now, after redistricting in 2021, it was bigger and slightly more favorable for Democrats, touching seven counties. The work she did now, traveling to each one, would make October easier. The work she did now would equal victory in November.
“This is when you do it,” Underwood said.
If she slacked now, she would never catch back up.
Underwood knew this now. But what did they tell you about being a member of Congress before you got there?
Not a lot.
We know that the American public does not think highly of Congress. There is constant polling on the institution’s approval rating, which has hovered around 20 percent for the past 15 years. But there is not much research on the satisfaction of the people in the building.
What we do know is that not every member of Congress can hold their seat as comfortably as they once did. We know that threats against members of Congress stand at “historically high” levels, almost double what they were five years ago, according to the U.S. Capitol Police. We know that raising money is not just part of campaigning — it’s part of the job itself.
When she first ran for her seat, Underwood had some idea of how to set up a campaign, if only because she’d spent most of her 20s in Washington, attending leadership training programs while working at the Department of Health and Human Services. When the Obama years came to an end, she moved home to work at a Medicaid managed care provider called NextLevel Health. A few days after she returned, in the spring of 2017, she and her mom went to a town hall for their congressman, Randy Hultgren. He and other Republicans were in the middle of a fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature law, one that Underwood had helped implement at HHS. The room felt heavy. Underwood took notes in the audience. Her mother heard people shouting things like “do your job” and “you suck.” The anger and disrespect surprised her. “It was awful,” Darla recalled. “I’m not saying that he was a great congressman or anything, but the way they treated him — I would never want anyone to treat Lauren that way.”
During the town hall, Hultgren promised to support a path to repeal Obama’s bill that still preserved coverage for preexisting conditions. Underwood had grown up with one — a condition called supraventricular tachycardia that made her heart race and once required quarterly visits to a pediatric cardiologist. She was 8 when she was diagnosed, after being rushed to the emergency room during a swim lesson.
When Hultgren voted for Republicans’ health-care proposal, which would have allowed states to weaken coverage for people with preexisting conditions, Underwood decided to run for Congress. She emailed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and filed her paperwork in August 2017.
Underwood spent most of that year still working at the Medicaid company 40 hours a week. By February, she quit to campaign full time. She and a small team ran the operation out of a Gmail account. After the launch, an email arrived from the chair of the DCCC, then-Rep. Ben Ray Luján, congratulating her on a successful start and asking her to raise $300,000. The number astounded her.
Late in 2017, Underwood flew to Phoenix to attend a candidate summit put on by her friend Michael Simon, a Democratic strategist. Between panel discussions, Simon found her at a table, looking dejected. “No one would give her the time of day,” Simon said. Every call went the same way. Hi, I’m Lauren Underwood … I know you’ve given to Democrats in the past … I’m going to tell you a little bit about my race. Can you give $500? Can you give $100? She ran through every list of potential donors she had. She didn’t even know who she was calling.
“It was just this crazy cycle of struggle,” Underwood said.
On March 20, 2018, she won her primary, beating a field of six White men by 44 points, and then people paid attention.
Outside her house, on summer days like this one, Underwood heard children playing. The sound made her happy every time she heard it.
The kids in her subdivision knew she was their congresswoman. They were learning about civics in school. They thought she was cool.
Underwood liked to tell the kids their voices mattered. They wanted to lobby the town to build a park in the area, and she was coaching them on how to do it.
As a kid, Underwood had also believed that public service was cool, and that it was to be taken seriously. She volunteered in community service groups, handing out gifts to children at Christmas. In high school, she was president of the local drug-free lifestyle club. She was a Girl Scout. Through a program that placed students on government boards, she sat in on meetings of the local fair housing committee. “I know watching the public access channel is pretty boring,” she told the Chicago Daily Herald in 2003, “but just get a little taste to see what goes on.” She was a “good girl,” as her mother put it now. She always tried her best. And if it wasn’t her best, she would be “honest about it,” her dad said. When families came over, she would stay up and talk with the adults. She always reached for the newspaper first, when it was nice and crisp. She liked to watch Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News. She had a Newsweek subscription in college and read it cover to cover.
(Her sister, Lindsey Underwood, is an editor at the New York Times and will soon join the staff of The Washington Post. She had no involvement in this story.)
“Public service … I don’t know, if you’re into it, you’re into it, right?” Underwood said.
Finally stepping inside the Capitol, putting on that congressional pin for the first time, started off like going to college. Leasing an apartment. Trips to Crate & Barrel. The office lottery. Flowers and congratulatory notes. Her first meeting with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. During orientation, she reunited with Katie Hill, a Democrat from Santa Clarita, Calif. The two women had met on the campaign trail. Underwood knew she wanted to live with someone who was close to her age, preferably someone who also didn’t have kids. Hill was 31, a year younger than Underwood. The two moved into an apartment in Southwest Washington. Every night, they came home and exchanged notes. Hill had a glass of wine. Underwood, who doesn’t drink, had tea. “She was good at playing ball,” Hill said. “But also pushing back at the same time. Nobody could make Lauren do anything.”
Together, they discovered that Capitol Hill had a funny way of working. Members didn’t use email to communicate with one another. They learned they used pieces of paper, passed to and fro by staffers on the House floor. They learned that gossip was everywhere, a currency on the Hill. They learned that bills would get stalled and sometimes they wouldn’t even know why.
In the summer of her first year, Underwood sat on a stage with two fellow freshmen Democrats, Lori Trahan of Massachusetts and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, looking out at a crowd of high school girls. The young women, attendees of an event called She Rocks The World, were interested in public service. When one of the girls asked about the “biggest struggle” facing the first-year congresswomen, the panelists sat in silence. After a moment, Underwood smiled and lifted her mic. “So can we be real?” she said. “This is, like, such a crazy place, ladies.” It was like middle school, she explained. “People are like, ‘Oh did you see that new girl?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘OK. She’s weird. I don’t like her.’” Maybe they got “a vibe.” Maybe they didn’t need a reason. “So it’s very difficult to learn how navigate this environment where there’s inherent distrust.”
“And cliques,” said Spanberger.
“And cliques,” said Underwood.
“They’re called caucuses,” Trahan said.
“Yes, they are,” Underwood said.
The three women laughed. The audience laughed. The event organizers loved the candid moment, sharing a video of the exchange as a “Hilarious description of life on the Hill.” That summer, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before Congress. Then came the buildup to Trump’s first impeachment. Life on the Hill was becoming less and less hilarious. Then, on the third Friday of October, in 2019, scandal fell on Underwood’s apartment. The conservative site RedState published intimate photos of Hill and a female campaign staffer. The Daily Mail followed with more. The articles churned through Hill’s personal life, serving up details about her tattoo, her sexuality, her alleged “three-way relationship” with the staffer and her estranged husband, whom Hill described as “abusive.” Underwood saw people with cameras waiting outside their apartment, shouting questions as she left: Did you know? Was this at your house? Were you part of it? Hill recalled spending that week crying and “medicated” in her room. Nine days after the first photos were published, she announced her resignation. Underwood threw a goodbye party on the roof of their building. “They took her down,” Underwood said. “Every day was so heavy. There’s no guidebook for something like that.”
Four months later, New York Magazine profiled Hill. Underwood spoke to the writer, and as usual, she was careful with her words. But now they carried a trace of alarm, too — of actual fear. “There is extreme risk in me doing this interview with you right now,” she told the writer. “There is an entire political party armed with millions of dollars willing and ready to spend to clip these quotes that I’m giving you right now to be used for my political peril.”
Underwood learned to live with that fear. During impeachment, she became familiar with the sight of Republican “trackers” at her town halls, operatives armed with cameras, ready to capture her saying something stupid. For about two months, “they would be everywhere I would go,” she said. “I just very much felt like I was being hunted. Do you know what that feels like?” It wasn’t just being surveilled, “which is one thing,” she said. “But like, they want to harm you.”
She noticed how the presence of a tracker, or a protester, had a way of creating physical distance in her life — space between Underwood and the people she loved. She would be walking with a friend to her car, for example, and someone would approach, yelling, agitating. And the friend, instead of moving closer to Underwood, would react — as if by animal instinct — by edging a few steps away. People didn’t want to be around it.
So when the kids outside her home in Naperville asked her about the park they wanted built, she worried about the ads they saw on TV. Republicans called her a “Fake Nurse,” because she hadn’t used her degree to practice with patients. They called her an “extremist” on abortion, too liberal for the area. They misconstrued statements she had made in support of protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. “Vote against rioters, and anyone who enables them. Vote against Lauren Underwood,” a narrator said in a Republican ad that aired that fall. She worried about threats from angry strangers — most members of Congress did now — and about whether they noticed the police cars that sometimes showed up at her house. Was this what they thought politics looked like?
“All these little kids,” she said. “All these little kids who are, like, the sweetest.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to these kids because some crazy is sitting here trying to come at me. To me, that is just unreasonable. Uncalled for. Outrageous. And that is the reality. That’s the reality.”
One morning in August, Underwood’s campaign manager Ronnie Cho picked the congresswoman up in a rental car and headed east on Interstate 80. They were making the hour-long drive to see Starved Rock State Park, a 2,600-acre nature preserve of deep, moss-covered canyons that fell inside the new lines of the district.
The state’s congressional map had been redrawn in late 2021, and the new District 14 looked more favorable to Underwood. Still competitive, but less so. The “Lean Republican” district, per FiveThirtyEight, was now “Lean Democrat.”
And this was a relief, or it would be if she performed well in November. It would matter for reasons that were bigger than the job. “It will tell us a lot about my ability to physically have a child and do this work, and whether or not that would even be feasible,” Underwood said from the passenger’s seat, Cho driving beside her.
He already knew this. Underwood and Cho were friends. He had worked for her since 2018. Most of the time, if she went on a date, he knew about it after. Sometimes it was easier to talk about her work, and work’s effect on her personal life, with people who were in her world already. At a certain point, she realized that if she wanted to see her girlfriends, it had to be scheduled — dedicated, carved-out time on the calendar. “I’m not really in a place where I’m making new friends, which means that I am net-losing friends, not gaining,” Underwood said. She knew other members of Congress from her class had struggled with it, too. When the pandemic came, the shutdowns helped restore some balance to her life. She slept more. She drank more water. She settled into her house. She joined a co-op at a nearby farm. Pickup day was on Friday.
Underwood wasn’t on the apps, but she did try to date.
Even so, “this life isn’t for everybody,” she said in the car. “That’s the most succinct way I can put it.” The non-succinct way was that there just wasn’t a lot of time to meet someone, and then get to know them, and then fall in love with them, and then integrate them into her life, a life which happened to be actually insane and competitive and taking place under a microscope. “Some people aren’t able or willing to adapt to all of this. And I understand that!” Underwood said. “And I will acknowledge that I am a tough person to try to date.” Say a guy starts talking to her on a plane. A nice, chatty man. “I would be like, ‘Why is this man talking to me?’”
Underwood laughed. But there were layers of sadness there, too. Sometimes, it felt like a mourning process. “I have gone through all the stages of grief around having made the active choice to do this,” she said, “once I realized what doing this meant for my ability to have a social life and get married and have kids and all that.” It felt as though most of her colleagues had started their families before they even began thinking about politics. Most of the men on the Hill, she said, “are able to hit those milestones kind of on schedule.”
As the youngest Black woman elected to Congress, and as a single Black woman in Congress, her situation was not, by any measure, normal. “If there was a long line of people like me,” she said, “I would not be abnormal.” But there wasn’t a long line of people like her.
She had looked into freezing her eggs. She had researched the financial implications of in vitro fertilization, adoption and full-time child care. “This stuff is not free,” she said.
Even with a more favorable district, “that reality does not go away.” She was careful, especially careful, as she spoke about this. Her voice was quiet. “I doubt that I will physically have a child, like birth a child, but I don’t know.” In late 2021, she had surgery to remove uterine fibroids, noncancerous growths in the uterus. She knew that Black women were three times more likely than White women to have uterine fibroids. That Black women faced a higher risk of more severe symptoms. And that one of those potential symptoms was impaired fertility. After the surgery, her dad stayed overnight with her at home. They watched Food Network re-runs, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” The procedure generated a few perfunctory lines in local news coverage, like a simple programming note: Underwood is currently back in her district, recovering from surgery last week. But this was a major surgery. It was unexpected and significant. It carried implications for her maternal health. The timeline for having kids, she said, had “accelerated in a way that I didn’t anticipate.”
“I would say I am firmly, permanently, in the high, high, high risk category.”
“So we have to make decisions,” she said, “and I have to make them now. But it’s just a different thought process, given my job responsibilities.”
In Congress, Underwood’s signature legislation is a package of 12 bills called the Momnibus, aimed at reversing preventable Black maternal health disparities. Compared with White women, Black women are three to four times as likely to die of pregnancy complications, a gap that has only widened over the last century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the Momnibus bills, centered on veterans, was signed into law by President Biden in late 2021.
“I know I can have a full and very fulfilling life without being mom. But I just want to make sure that it’s my choice, versus something that just happens,” she said.
“I say all this and then, you know, I could meet a guy and then next spring, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in love. He’s so wonderful.’”
“I might be surprised. I would be delighted to be surprised.”
In the passenger seat, Underwood pulled up Twitter and started scrolling.
She was checking her mentions. Nothing bad, which was a relief.
She was used to people making assumptions about who she was and what she wanted to do — based on her age, based on what she looked like. When she came to national attention, reporters asked her to position herself relative to “the Squad,” the group of four liberal lawmakers that came to define the Class of 2018: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. To weigh in on something they said or compare herself to their tendency to go viral. But she wasn’t like the Squad. And that was okay, she thought, or at least it should be.
She was used to people asking her to subscribe to an ideological label: Centrist? Socialist? “I am a Democrat,” she’d answer, refusing to elaborate further.
Cho turned into the parking lot at Starved Rock State Park. Families were leaving the mouth of the entrance, just past a small welcome center. Underwood and her campaign manager climbed out of the car and started into the canyons. As they walked, with the trail narrowing, ridges of rock rose up on either side of their path. The canyons were more than 14,000 years old.
There were 12 weeks until Election Day. Which meant campaign ads were starting. Which meant her interactions with people would be colored by the ads. Everything during ad season registered at a higher pitch. She didn’t dread it, exactly. Dread was a strong word. But she was hyper-aware of it.
“Remember what I said about land mines and falling in front of you?” Underwood said, walking deeper into the park. “A town hall is two hours of land mines exploding in front of you, and it’s just whether or not you step on it, but it will definitely explode.”
“I will tell you my ‘tell.’ My eyebrows end up in my scalp. Two sets of eyebrows in your scalp. And that’s how you know. They just keep going all the way up. Then you’re like, okay, stress. Just like a little headband.”
She looked up at the ridges overhead, standing in the open mouth of the canyon.
“I came [to Congress] to help people get some health care. Like just like at a really basic level,” Underwood said.
Three days from now, the town halls would begin.
Weeks from now, talk of a “red wave” would overwhelm the news.
But on Election Day, Democrats would turn out to vote. Underwood would win.
She’d keep her seat by 8.4 points, her biggest margin yet. And that would mean something. It would mean something now, and it would mean something in two years and two years after that. It would mean something if she decided to run for U.S. Senate some day. It would mean that maybe she could do the job, but it wouldn’t be all she did. It wouldn’t be who she is.
On election night, at her victory party, she danced as she waited to tape a live interview on CBS Chicago. She was happy. “The joy in the room is palpable,” she said.
She would go back to Washington. She would sit in the House chamber, waiting for Republicans to choose their speaker. And then, on Jan. 7, after those 15 rounds of four Johnsons, four Smiths, three Thompsons and two Torreses, after Kevin McCarthy of California finally got the gavel, Underwood would be sworn in for her third term in Congress, at 1:39 a.m.
The next day, she would fly home to Naperville. She would walk into her house. She would sleep. And then she would go back to work.