The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dads in Congress form a caucus to push for family-friendly policies

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) took his baby, Hodge, to the U.S. Capitol during the House Speaker vote. (Courtesy office of Rep. Jimmy Gomez)
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When Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) first brought his chipmunk-cheeked 4-month-old son, Hodge, to the House floor this month, the congressman was just hoping to show off his new baby: “This is my son, my first kid, and I’m very proud,” he says.

Images of the pair started to circulate across Twitter and in newspapers — photos of a dad wearing his child while working, a dad juggling his professional and family responsibilities, a dad doing what working mothers have done for decades — “and then,” Gomez says, “I realized people were watching, and this is not just about Hodge.”

It felt like an opportunity. For years, there have been murmurs about forming an official caucus of fathers in the House, Gomez says. “The concept has been out there, but nobody has taken it up and executed the idea.” But suddenly, all eyes were on Gomez and baby Hodge, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and his 8-month-old daughter, Anna Valentina, and the other fathers tending to young kids during the days-long drama to elect a House speaker. Gomez felt the time had finally come.

This congressman carried his baby around the Capitol all week

The first Congressional Dads Caucus was announced Thursday at a news conference on Capitol Hill, with members of the House introducing the group alongside representatives from nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups including Paid Leave for All, the National Alliance for Caregiving and MomsRising.

The caucus, its members say, will advocate for policies and legislation to help support American working families — including the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, as well as increased access to affordable child care, health care and paid family leave.

Gomez expects the caucus will hold meetings monthly at first, “and then we’ll develop hearings, and working groups, as well as host educational seminars for staff and for members,” he says. The group will also serve as a more organized and reliable support network for congressmen with children, he said.

The launch of the Congressional Dads Caucus follows the creation of the Moms in the House Caucus in 2019, a group that has advocated for family-friendly and maternal health-focused policies and also serves as a forum for mothers in the House to share insight, advice and solidarity with one another.

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So far, Gomez says, about 15 members of the House are joining the dads caucus, all of whom are Democrats. If Republican members “come to a point where they see eye-to-eye” on the same policy issues, Gomez says, he’d welcome their participation as well.

“I think hopefully at some point it can become bipartisan,” Castro says. “When you start a caucus, you kind of have to start from a shared consensus around policy and what you’re advocating for, and that’s been tough with Republicans in the last few years in particular with these issues.”

Ironically, it was Republicans who inadvertently helped spur the creation of the caucus, a side-effect of the four-day standoff over House speaker before GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) finally won his bid in the 15th round of voting.

“Because of the oddity of how the speaker’s race went down this time, where everyone was around the House of Representatives for days on end, that’s when you really saw the Dads being obviously involved with their kids, in the caregiving,” Castro says. The viral images of Democratic dads and their children reignited the chatter about forming a dads caucus, he said: “So this is the silver lining, at least for us, in terms of what came out of that.”

The members of the caucus each bring their own personal experiences to the group’s work, they say. For Castro, his decade in Congress has spanned the births of all three of his children; he has grappled with the logistics of paid family leave and dealt with the harrowing uncertainty of the baby formula shortage.

“A lot of the policies we’ve debated during these 10 years, I’ve lived them firsthand,” he says.

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), another co-founder of the group, says he often reflects on the time he spent as a stay-at-home-dad after the birth of his first son seven years ago — and how people frequently respond with surprise when he tells them that he spent over a year as his child’s primary caregiver. When he became a father, he says, he learned “the hard way” that he was not entitled to paid parental leave as a government employee.

“I’m very proud that I was a stay-at-home dad, and I’m very proud that I fought hard to take parental leave even though we didn’t have paid parental leave at that time,” he says. “I’m proud I fought hard to make that available for federal employees. Those are the kinds of steps that I hope to bring to this conversation.” The caucus, he says, “is more than a dads club — I think this can be really substantive.”

Gomez is still new to fatherhood, but he says his own childhood experiences have long fueled his focus on family issues. He grew up the youngest of six children, the son of immigrant parents, and he vividly remembers when he got sick with pneumonia as a 7-year-old and his parents missed shifts at work to stay with him at the hospital.

That experience “almost bankrupted our family,” he says. Fighting for paid family leave has been a top priority for him since he entered the California assembly, he says, and people were sometimes baffled: “People would say ‘Why do you care about it? You’re a guy, and you have no kids,’” he says. “But it was because my family went through it. I was a child at the time, and I know what kind of burden it put on my family, and families shouldn’t have to do that.”

Mothers in Congress have historically taken the lead on these sorts of issues. When the Moms in the House caucus formed four years ago, Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, told The Post that she appreciated the group’s intent to advance family-focused policies and support working moms in Congress, but she also felt the existence of a mothers-only group reinforced the idea that these issues and challenges belong to mothers alone.

“Now we’ve reached a point in time where men — well, some men, from the progressive end of one political party — are able to embrace their parental roles, and to feel that they have a perspective that would be really useful for putting forward family-friendly legislation, and that’s a role that has traditionally fallen to women,” Lawless says. “That represents a degree of progress.”

But Lawless thinks it would be more useful to have a unified caucus of all parents: “Splitting them up this way still, in some ways, highlights that women and men still have very different roles when it comes to taking care of their families and their children,” she says. “Four years ago, when we said ‘Well, why is it just the mothers’ — I don’t think I was thinking, ‘there should also be a father’s caucus.’ I was thinking men and women should be working together.”

Gomez agrees about the necessity of working together, he said, and expects that the two caucuses will do that when it comes to legislative and policy efforts. But he also thinks it’s worthwhile to maintain two distinct groups.

“There are issues that men can never assume to fully understand,” he says. “There are lived experiences of mothers, when it comes to carrying a child, birthing a child, the postpartum experience, the fourth trimester. Can we empathize as partners? Yes, but do we truly understand it? It’s difficult.”

It’s also useful for the groups to act as sources of support for mothers and fathers in Congress, he says, a place for parents to commiserate about the unusual and demanding circumstances of being a working mother or father at the highest levels of American government.

“I think for those of us in Congress, especially for folks who have their families in other states, it really is a unique experience of being gone 130, 140 days a year and then going back home … it’s kind of an odd life,” Castro says. “There is support that is necessary for folks, and for dads, that’s never really come together in the past.”

There is also the hope that the caucus might serve as a potent symbol, a way for men to more proudly and publicly embody their role as parents. The attention Gomez and Hodge received seemed to reiterate that “we still believe that the woman is the default parent,” Gomez says; in an equitable world, it shouldn’t have been notable that men were caring for their children while simultaneously doing their jobs.

“In the Latino community, the response among Latino women and Latino media has been extremely positive,” he says. “They’re saying that if a member of Congress who is Latino can take their child to work and isn’t afraid to be baby-wearing, it breaks down that concept of machismo.”

He hopes the caucus will keep pushing those boundaries, but he knows the effort “is not going to be easy,” he says, “because some people will believe that we’re getting unfair attention, and other people are going to believe that we’re truly not doing enough — and we’re probably not doing enough! But I think this is going to help start those conversations.”