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Debates and diapers: How these Congressmen parented their babies on the House floor

"I don’t know if I was even supposed to be on the Floor with a stroller.”

Representative Rob Menendez, D-N.J., says he considered "a lot of different scenarios" when preparing to bring his 2-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son to the House floor to watch him be sworn in as a member of the 118th Congress.

"We got the sense that the Speaker was not going to be elected on the first vote," Rep. Menendez tells TODAY.com. "So as parents do, (my wife and I) thought through a lot of the logistics."

Menendez was right — it took multiple days and 15 rounds of votes before the House eventually elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as the Speaker of the House.

To keep his children happy as the voting rounds dragged on, Menendez says he was armed with "a ton of snacks," a tablet for his daughter to watch 'Peppa' and 'Bluey,' the book 'House Mouse Senate Mouse,' the help of extended family and even a bouncer set up in his new Congressional office.

"It basically became their office," he adds. "They took over."

While it's common for young children to be present on the House floor to witness their parents' swearing in, more representatives are integrating the reality of parenting into their political lives.

In 2020, nearly 30% of House members had children under 18, as reported by CNBC. In 2021, 39 men running in state or local elections used campaign funds to pay for child care, according to the Vote Mama Foundation, a research organization tracking the political participation of moms.

Still, this year's unprecedented start of the 118th Congress highlighted a new era of Congressional parents: Fathers not only bringing their young children to Congress, but caring for them during the proceedings.

There’s a lot of freshmen members who are parents to young kids, and we trade a lot of notes

Rep. rob menendez, father of two

"As an institution, the House is a much better place (for families) than it was probably a couple of years ago," Rep. Menendez says. "There was a family room just off the gallery, so you could have folks there if you needed to bring the kids onto or off the floor."

Rep. Menendez wasn't alone in his on-the-House-floor parenting duties either: A gift, he says, as he navigated the process for the first time as a father of two.

"There's a lot of freshmen members who are parents to young kids, and we trade a lot of notes," he explains. "It's special, because I think a lot of folks who are running for office right now do have young children and they're thinking about what type of country we're going to raise our children in."

The Democratic cloakroom, Rep. Menendez says, became a "dad advice trading post" of sorts, where he could lean on other representatives who had children of similar ages, including Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D. Calif., who brought his 4-month-old son Hodge with him on the House floor, and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D. Texas.

"I have a 9 year old, 6 year old and then my 8-month-old daughter," Rep. Castro, who starts his sixth term in Congress this year, tells TODAY.com. "This was the first time that all three of them were able to come to the House floor with me."

A veteran member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Castro says this year's unprecedented House Speaker vote did present a few unusual challenges, even for him.

I don’t know if I was even supposed to be on the Floor with a stroller.

rep. joaquin castro, father of three

"I had to change my 8-month-old in the member's men's bathroom, so I pushed her over in the stroller," he says. "I was going onto the floor, and I heard one staff member say: 'What is he doing?' I don't know if I was even supposed to be on the Floor with a stroller."

Showing up as not only members of Congress but working fathers was important to the candidates, who all say they want to work to normalize fathers carrying a more equitable load of childcare responsibilities.

"I think it also represents a growing expectation that fathers will step up and do more of the caregiving," Rep. Castro says. "Yes, this is a special occasion — our kids can't be with us every day — but I do think it reflects something broader in American culture."

Rep. Menendez agrees, adding that the ability to have their children present is a privilege, even among other members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Wesley Hunt, R-Texas, had to return to his home state during the House vote for Speaker after his wife gave birth to their son, Willie, prematurely. Hunt's wife also had to return to the hospital, he announced via Twitter, due to complications that were not life threatening.

Rep. Hunt later returned to the House floor to vote for now-Speaker McCarthy after visiting his wife and son, the Wall Street Journal reported.

After multiple rounds of votes and with no end in sight, both Rep. Menendez and Rep. Castro made the call to send their children back to their respective homes. Rep. Mendendez's wife and sister-in-law drove back to New Jersey with his two children, while Rep. Castro's wife and three children flew home to San Antonio, Texas.

"While this set of challenges was unique, we're fortunate to be doing what we're doing," Rep. Menendez says. "There are families who have obviously much greater challenges than figuring out swearing in logistics, so at the end of the day it was all good."

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