Any parent of a newborn knows that it is difficult to stay awake, let alone concentrate on anything else. Maternity leave is important – it’s good for our health, our children, and our economy.
It is a peculiarity of our legislature that, as a deputy, I do not have any labor rights; We could make laws, but we don’t enforce these in particular. Consequently, I found myself high on morphine while speaking to ministers about Afghanistan, after I had given birth to my second child, to ensure that the concerns of my constituents could be heard. Although it is illegal to require a woman to work in the first two weeks after giving birth, the lack of maternity coverage meant that with three murders, heavy flooding, and a cost of living crisis, it was simply not possible to disconnect my email or my telephone.
Parliament denied me maternity coverage on the grounds that democracy requires that no one else can replace me. With little support from the authorities or my own political party, I have worked to the best of my ability while managing the needs of my son, who is now 13 weeks old. That’s why I was puzzled when they told me that I couldn’t take him to parliament with me. As my son slept happily, calmed by the excitement that only discussion of financial regulation can generate, his presence at a debate clearly upset some in an institution that previously seemed relaxed on such matters. Now it turns out that the recently revised Commons rulebook specifies that children cannot enter the chambers, so parliament has, to date, put more effort into writing rules on this than second jobs.
Some argue that it is a privilege to bring their children to the office and is out of touch to suggest that this should be acceptable, whatever the effect of being denied this flexibility. Others acknowledge that this makes an already difficult combination of affective commitments nearly impossible. Whether it’s the provision of maternity coverage or the rules about where children can go, with some MPs reprimanded for taking young children to the tearoom between votes, these “courtesies and customs” have evolved, rather than being designed to adapt to modern times. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: few mothers of young children are chosen, which means there is little need to reconsider these rules in the first place.
Challenging this is not about me; frankly, it is too late to make up the precious first few weeks with my son. Those who suffer the most are the residents of my constituency of Walthamstow, who are denied a voice in parliament by outdated rules, and are met by a tired and exhausted mother in their constituency. So are the brilliant women who decide to delay their political careers or abandon them so that our politics lose a pool of talent while we accept this status quo.
If I had employment rights, I could invoke my legal right not to be discriminated against while breastfeeding and to have adequate maternity coverage, which means that I could take maternity leave. However, these rights are not a guarantee that employers will respect them. During the pandemic, many mothers, especially those from low-income and minority communities, were the first to be laid off or laid off and are now struggling to find child care as providers have gone bankrupt.
It is welcome that the President has asked the procedures committee to investigate, but it is not yet clear how long that will take or what its role will be. Meanwhile, political parties are preparing to select candidates for the upcoming general elections, offering the opportunity to ensure that more mothers have a seat at the decision-making table. Together with the Pregnant then Screwed charity, we have created the This mom votes project to promote policies that support fathers in all workplaces, including paid parental leave and universal child care, and to fund mothers to stand for public office to defend them.
It does not have to be this way. Whether in New Zealand, Canada or Europe, parliaments around the world have shown that a family-friendly legislature is possible. There are thousands of mothers who have something valuable to add to our policy and want to run. For now they see the mother of all parliaments discourage mothers and rightly wonder if they will be welcomed.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism