As a young girl, I was an aspiring doctor growing up in the South. I am also brown and Muslim.
“You can study all you want, but you will still end up serving your husband in the kitchen like the rest of us,” a member of my extended family told me.
Those words never left me.
Her thoughts were rooted in a patriarchal notion of women’s domestic obligation despite their best efforts to be equal contributing members of society.
As I watched the recent swearing in of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who started in a refugee camp and is now the first Somali American hijabi Muslim woman in Congress, I was moved to tears.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, too, has inspired me with her unapologetic statements.
In addition to these two Muslim American women, a record number of African American women, Latinas, and Native Americans, as well as Krsyten Sinema, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, have been sworn in to serve the 116th Congress.
As a Muslim American obstetrician-gynecologist who just gave birth to my second daughter, my heart is filled with the open possibilities of what they will one day be able to accomplish. The barriers broken today are a stepping stone for the next generation of girls growing up in an environment that has traditionally been rooted in white male privilege and patriarchy.
An area where I hope to see significant strides is in how we treat working mothers.
As recently as last year, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) became the first sitting senator to give birth.
There is no room for parental leave in the Senate, and in order to enact and vote on new legislation, senators have to be present. After Duckworth’s daughter was born, the Senate passed a bill allowing newborn babies on the floor of the Senate in order for the postpartum senator to be able to cast her votes.
According to Pew Center research data, 66 percent of women who are pregnant continue to work throughout their pregnancy. Of women who are highly educated with a bachelor’s degree or more, 87 percent of women in their pregnancy will work.
Women in the United States are likely to return to work within six months or less. Unlike other developed countries, the United States does not federally mandate paid maternity leave. Forty-two percent of women in their first pregnancy have had to take unpaid leave.
In 1964, there was an addendum made to the Civil Rights Act that is known as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. It states discrimination made against women due to pregnancy, postpartum or associated medical conditions constitutes sexual discrimination and is unlawful.
In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was created to protect men and women who needed to take time for pregnancy, adoption, maternal leave, personal illness or taking care of family members, which grants them job security for up to 12 weeks.
With these laws in effect, women should surely feel safe disclosing pregnancy, taking maternity leave or breast-feeding at work.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
With the birth of my first child, I worked in a major hospital system and academic center with a limited number of colleagues that were in my call pool. As my practice became busier and I became more fatigued from pregnancy, there were many times I found myself in the hospital delivering babies for up to 100 hours a week.
There were occasions where I asked other colleagues to share some of the burden as my fatigue increased, and instead of understanding and support, I heard war stories about how many of them would do C-sections while contracting or were forced to work similar hours.
Many said it was almost a rite of passage.
When I was 28-weeks pregnant and on call to deliver, I encountered a patient who had the tragedy of dealing with a 24-week fetal demise. I requested an older male colleague to change call nights with me for both the patient’s sake and mine. He declined my plea stating this was part of our job description and I needed to learn to deal with it.
It was an extremely difficult delivery for me to perform and was harder than it had to be for my patient, who knew I had a live fetus in my very pregnant abdomen at that time.
Soon after my maternity leave, I requested reduced hours, part-time status or at least less call coverage than every other day and I was not accommodated. As a result, I had to make the decision to leave the practice.
The challenge of how to retain our best workers is one we are still battling in the United States. Diligent women are balancing the realities of the human condition without the equality of pay, leave or time to deal with significant medical conditions.
It is my hope that new representation in Congress will help shed light on more of these issues.
Today, I own and operate a gynecology practice, so as my own boss, I am able to dictate my schedule to accommodate my pregnancy and its challenges. I have extra room in my back office to accommodate child care when I need to.
Through much diligence over the years and the financial, emotional, and infrastructure support of my husband, I now do not have to fear revealing my pregnancy or postpartum status. Unfortunately, many of my friends, patients, colleagues and professionals across the country still suffer from the maternal ceiling in the workplace.
When that is abolished, true fairness for mothers will be born.
Sameena Rahman is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist in downtown Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project