Political Strategist Emily Tisch Sussman On Pumping, Podcasting, & Paternity Leave

Political strategist, on-air spokesperson, and host of Your Primary Playlist podcast, Emily is captivating and candid — not to mention as smart as they come. On the brink of having her 3rd baby during the Democratic debates, she shares how her career has shifted throughout two administrations and motherhood, that time she changed her baby’s diaper in the West Wing while visiting the Oval Office, and tips to looking professional & polished while pregnant. Plus, why our country is in dire need of maternity (and paternity) leave reform.

How are you feeling?

I’m at the very end, and all things considered, I feel great. However, yesterday I had a labor scare when my mucus plug fell out, and I felt contractions, but still no baby!

Have your pregnancies felt similar or different?

They’ve been similar in many ways and less in others. I was pretty sick throughout all three — constant nausea for the first four months, coupled with extreme fatigue (think narcoleptic). For the most part, across the board, I was better by the 2nd and 3rd trimester. The main difference between the first two and this one was that I gained a lot of weight — nearly 80 pounds. For this go-around, I ate healthier and worked out during the first trimester. I have a Peloton at home, which made fitness manageable, plus, I have two young kids that I’m always running after. Right now, my belly doesn’t fit on the bike, but I plan to get right back on it post-birth.

Two kids and a third on the way, oh my! Did you breastfeed your first two?

I have a  three year old and a two year old. Basically I had just stopped breastfeeding the first when I got pregnant with the second. 

After I had my second, I had a lot of health problems, including yeast mastitis, which made it too painful for me to breastfeed, so I pumped. By the time it cleared up around 12 or 13 weeks, she didn’t remember how to breastfeed, so I took it as a sign and called it a day. The fact that we made it to 12 weeks on breastmilk, with all things considered, was a success in my book! As for the new baby, I plan to take it as it comes.

For the last two, we imported formula from Europe because it’s sugar-free, refrigerated, and highly-regulated. Knowing this makes all the difference in the world. I plan to do the same for the new baby as well. 

Did you work while pregnant and after?

I worked throughout all of my pregnancies and two administrations. My first was born at the end of the Obama administration. He visited the White House as a baby, and I took him to the West Wing. Funny enough, I changed his diaper in the gold-plated bathroom down the hall from the Oval Office — it was not normal. 

For years (and two pregnancies), I worked for a think tank closely aligned to the administration called The Center For American Progress. I was the Vice President for campaigns, which meant we’d work to enact regulations or get specific legislation passed. These included activations such as a flash mod in Central Park that encouraged open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act with a Super Bowl veteran. Plus, we did a gun violence campaign with Jon Batiste, the band leader for Colbert and ran the confirmation process for the Surgeon General of the US against the NRA and won — the first time the NRA was defeated in modern history.

What does it feel like to be in politics while pregnant?

Surprisingly it’s not entirely a male vs. female issue, but rather the culture of politics the demands that you work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a new mom, this pace and rhythm were unsustainable; therefore, I shifted my career into TV commentary and hosting my podcast, Your Primary Playlist.

What was it like to shift your career to adjust for motherhood?

During my second maternity leave, I thought a lot about how hard it was with one baby, and couldn’t wrap my head around what it would be like with two. I already felt spread thin and needed to figure out a better option to accommodate for my new role as a mom of two. It got to a point where I couldn’t show up for my job the way I wanted, nor did I want to be absent from my kids’ lives.

Did you take maternity leave?

The think tank — where I worked during my first two pregnancies — was very supportive of maternity and paternity leave. I took the leave but didn’t entirely sit out since, at the time, we were approaching the potential election of Donald Trump. I pushed myself to stay hyper-engaged and took more TV opportunities as a Democratic strategist during my maternity leave. I would bring my baby with me to the network, do my hair & makeup, then breastfeed in the green room right before I went on air so I wouldn’t leak on TV!  

This past week, during my podcast interview with Hillary Clinton, I told her about a time I had to pump during the first Presidential debate at Hofstra University between her and Trump. I was doing commentary and asked everybody, from the network to the Trump campaign, if I could pump in their section. Everyone turned me away except Hillary’s campaign — they gave me a place to pump.

What do you think of the state of maternity leave in this country?

It’s abysmal! The fact that we don’t have standard maternity (and paternity) leave is inhumane. There’s no economic upside to forcing women back to work when they have a week old child. And there’s certainly nothing of value from a productivity perspective to come from a new mom when they’re sleeping 45 minutes a night. 

Recently, my sister went into early labor and was in the NICU. The mother next to her was an NYC bus driver who also went into early labor. Since she had her baby before planned, the government didn’t grant her maternity leave as her substitute driver was unavailable. Therefore, every day she would leave her baby at the hospital while bleeding, drive the bus all day and go back to the hospital at night to be with her baby in the NICU. It’s unthinkable.

We can’t keep acting like it’s optional for women to take time for recovery post-birth.

What can we do to change this issue?

Ultimately it comes down to the way we view women as side constituents versus main drivers of the economy. At this point, we’re the majority of the working population and household breadwinners, yet we’re severely underrepresented in law-making — this is why I’m so passionate about getting women elected and into office.

On my podcast, I only interview female experts, not because it’s a podcast for women, but because we have to move the conversation forward and change the perception of women in power by accepting them as experts. I purposely don’t ask my guests personal questions because it’s irrelevant to their perspective on law or their expertise.

Any tips on dressing professionally for TV while pregnant?

I’m someone that likes to dress for the job. When I was in law school, everybody would take their exams in their pajamas, and I instead would wear a full suit. Like a warrior getting armed for battle, I needed to feel like a lawyer to take the law exam.  

That said, it’s important for me to feel like an expert on TV doing live interviews. It’s always been challenging to figure out things that look professional yet still feel like myself, then add pregnancy to the mix, and it’s nearly impossible. I have (and this is not a plug) a couple of HATCH pieces that look good on camera and give me like a little personality, which makes me feel confident. There are no do-overs on live TV, so confidence is everything. Plus, I always add a little flair to every look.

Advice on having babies and a career?

Know that it won’t be the same, but it will create new possibilities. I would have never left my job if I didn’t feel that I had to and ultimately that move has provided me with so many more opportunities. With the work I am doing now, I’m contributing to the conversation in a way that I was not previously. I still question what the future of my career looks like, but I have to trust and have faith.