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When the president calls an Ebola crisis meeting on your daughter’s birthday

Sylvia Mathews Burwell joins congressional Moms in the House for breakfast

Former HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell once told President Barack Obama she couldn’t make a meeting because it was her daughter’s birthday (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell once told President Barack Obama she couldn’t make a meeting because it was her daughter’s birthday (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s just before 8 o’clock on a recent Wednesday morning, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell is getting settled in the Speaker’s Dining Room on the House side of the Capitol.

She’s meeting with a handful of female lawmakers, but she’s not there to talk policy. She’s there to talk parenting.

“It’s important for us to discuss and share experiences and to share both opportunities and challenges as moms,” she told HoH shortly after the get-together.

Mathews Burwell was a mom of two before she became a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. And to hear her tell it, sometimes that needed to take precedence, even amid an Ebola outbreak.

It was a Friday evening in 2015 when Obama called a last-minute meeting to discuss the crisis. He planned it for the next day, and although Mathews Burwell was no stranger to working on Saturdays, she already had a commitment on this particular weekend.

“I sent an email and said, ‘I’m happy for my team to represent me … but I can’t make that time because it’s my daughter’s birthday,’” she recalled. “And so the president moved the meeting.”

Don’t hide “from the fact that you’re a mom,” Mathews Burwell told the “Moms in the House” meeting. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz organized the group at the beginning of the year Congress welcomed a record number of newly elected members who were also mothers.

The “Moms” meet monthly. While the type of event varies, several have been scheduled around breakfast, according to Wasserman Schultz. Past guest speakers have included Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Running Start CEO and founder Susannah Wellford.

[Senate Moms groups balances parenting and politics]

“It’s really important that we have that bond of sisterhood and a network of women who have lived through this experience and done so successfully,” Wasserman Schultz told HoH in January.

Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark went on MSNBC last Wednesday to weigh in on the group of House Republicans who stormed a closed-door impeachment hearing. But hours before she made an appearance on national TV, she was at the long table inside the Speaker’s Dining Room, with fellow Democrats Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Grace Meng of New York, and Debbie Dingell of Michigan. 

Although Wasserman Schultz’s “sisterhood of support” is a bipartisan effort, most mothers of young kids this year are on the Democratic side. Freshman Reps. Kim Schrier of Washington and Sherrill are two examples.

“We go through some unique experiences as moms, generally, that involve guilt and not being able to be everywhere at once,” a hurried Schrier said on her way to her next appointment for the day.

Del. Stacey Plaskett, a mother of five, is no stranger to that “guilt.” The Democrat from the Virgin Islands felt it from her oldest kids who once questioned her commitment to being a full-time mom while juggling her congressional duties.

“Would you tell me that if I was your dad?” she’d respond rhetorically. “Don’t give me that s—,” she quipped to the other women in the room who responded with laughter.

Their meeting felt more like a group of girlfriends swapping stories about husbands and kids than a meeting among policy wonks.

And while a convenient continental breakfast, featuring an assortment of muffins and bagels, was on display in the prestigious dining room for these moms-on-the-go, the preferred source of energy wasn’t necessarily the carbs. These working moms opted for coffee.

“I call it ‘mom’s helper,’” Schrier said.