Mothers of Parliament: the challenges of combining parenthood and politics
Mothers have been elected to Parliament since women first became MPs. But combining the two roles remains a challenge. Rosamund Urwin reports.
Six weeks after she gave birth to her third child in 2009, Meg Hillier went into Parliament to vote. The Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, then a minister, found herself being interrogated by a Conservative whip about why she couldn’t walk through the lobby.
“I was a bit shaken and said I was only about six weeks post-natal. After that, the Tory women were angry. One said: ‘Tell me where he is, and I’ll knee him in the balls!’”
Hillier feels that this is indicative of the solidarity between female MPs. Yet the question of whether the mother of all parliaments is mother-friendly remains open. Parliament recently issued a survey asking whether it could do more to help those with caring responsibilities, but because MPs are self-employed, it wasn’t sent to those on maternity leave.
A campaign by Hillier’s Labour colleague Stella Creasy to ensure MPs have proper maternity cover has put Parliament’s policies back in the spotlight. The debate is divisive even among female MPs. So in 103 years of mothers in the House, how much has changed?
The first mother to enter Parliament was also the first female MP to take her seat: Nancy Astor, an American divorcee with six children. (The first woman to be elected, Constance Markievicz of Sinn Féin, who did not take her seat, was at the time mother to a teenager.) When Astor was first elected, her youngest had not yet turned two. She replaced her husband, Viscount Astor, a Conservative and Unionist MP for Plymouth Sutton, on hia ascent to the House of Lords. Her status as a mother was emphasised during the 1919 by-election campaign, with photos of her family carrying the caption, “Our Nancy and her best supporters”. A lady Members’ room was created for her, but it was in the basement, and was swiftly rechristened “the dungeon”. As the number of female MPs grew, they shared the cramped and stuffy room.
Facilities have since become more family-friendly, but not without a fight. Eleven years ago, the then-speaker John Bercow replaced Bellamy’s Bar in the Palace of Westminster with a subsidised nursery, provoking howls of protest from some male MPs. Three years later, Labour’s Roger Godsiff labelled it a drain on the public purse and called for its closure. It currently offers care to the children of parliamentary pass holders, from birth to five. Parliament now has a family room just off central lobby, with a small kitchen attached, although it is often repurposed.
Creasy says that when she last went in with her baby son, Pip, she was told off by an MP making a phone call: “They were affronted that I had a smelly, crying baby who needed changing.” A second female MP notes that the first time she went in with her baby, five colleagues were having a meeting about Brexit. “They’ve not made much effort with the room,” she adds. “It’s got some shabby toys, like someone just dumped the detritus from their house there.”
The great leap forward in recent years, according to most female MPs, is on baby leave and proxy voting. The government passed a law last year meaning ministers no longer have to resign before taking time off to have a baby, and now receive proper maternity cover. However, backbench MPs are entitled to take only informal maternity leave along with additional funds from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) to cover extra staff. Additionally, after a one-year trial, proxy voting was formally introduced in 2020 for MPs who had a baby or adopted a child. Before this, the whips had to grant absences from votes with a pairing arrangement, meaning that the MP’s voting record appeared blank. This had unfortunate side-effects. A newspaper once dubbed Labour’s Lucy Powell the “second laziest MP in Westminster” when she hadn’t voted because she was on maternity leave.
Another question is how to cover surgeries and engagements. In the past, MPs had to rely on their staff, but after a difficult battle with the parliamentary authorities, Creasy was able to employ the first “locum MP” in 2019, Kizzy Gardiner, a charity worker. Gardiner carried out Creasy’s Walthamstow constituency work, but could not speak in Parliament or vote. She remains the only ever locum MP; Creasy did not have a locum for her second baby, born six months ago, as Ipsa would not match Creasy’s salary for her stand-in.
They were affronted that I had a smelly, crying baby who needed changing.
Some see Creasy’s campaign as putting pressure on other female MPs to come to Parliament while on maternity leave, as she did. “Once you go in, people think you’re back,” says one critical female MP. “What I am really worried about is that people are effectively saying ‘you have to be here physically all the time’ when we fought hard not to be. We’re in danger of throwing away hard-fought workplace rights.”
Creasy, who recently received an email telling her that her proxy was over but giving no further help, responds: “People are finding ways to justify an existing system that doesn’t work and not accepting that change needs to happen.”
Both Creasy and Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton who has said the Chamber is “no place” for a baby, will be giving evidence to the Procedure Committee on whether babies should be permitted during debates. Current guidance states that Members should not take their seats when accompanied by their child.
Research suggests that mothers – particularly of young children – are under-represented in Parliament, and that female MPs are more likely to be childless than other women.
Creasy has created a campaign, This Mum Votes, to encourage more mothers into Parliament.
As children grow up, working mother guilt is often felt acutely by MPs, thanks to late night voting and weekend campaigning. This is especially true of those with constituencies far from London, who have to spend part of the week away from their children. It’s even harder for single mothers. Diane Abbott came to vote in Parliament when her son was eight days old, and has previously said: “I always felt either that I was not a good enough mother or that I was not a good enough MP.” Some take a different view – Hillier says she refuses to feel guilt.
Timing – whether of vital votes or of elections – can add further stresses. Siobhan Baillie, the Conservative MP for Stroud, revealed last year that she was “sick in a hedge” campaigning while pregnant during the 2019 general election. Earlier that year, Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, delayed her Caesarean section so that she could vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The unceasing political news cycle in the past six years has taken a toll on families. In her book, Women of Westminster, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves recalls her daughter, then aged six, asking whether she would be home in time to read her a bedtime story. When Reeves said she couldn’t, her daughter replied: “Is it because of Brexit?” It was.
Siddiq believes the pandemic has highlighted how things could be for MPs who are parents, though. “When coronavirus came, it felt like they accommodated the virtual parliament so quickly – something we’d been begging for before as parents,” she says. “Would the possibility of a virtual parliament have come earlier if dads had made a huge fuss?”
Perhaps the most effective change would be for fathers to play a bigger role both at home and in discussing the importance of fatherhood in the House.
“Fatherhood is still almost invisible in politics,” says a female Tory MP. “I’ve male colleagues who want to see their children more too. Ironically, the day that’s as big a conversation as motherhood is the day things will really change here for women.”
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