Pastimes: Saqib Bhatti on being a new father
Saqib Bhatti has purple crescents under his eyes. For the past 14 weeks, the Conservative MP for Meriden in the West Midlands has slept for only four or five hours a night.
As we speak, he is holding the cause of this exhaustion in his arms: his son, Danyal (Danny), who was born in June.
This interview series focuses on MPs’ hobbies, but Bhatti, 36, wants to talk about the ultimate vocation: parenthood, given that caring for an infant so often squeezes out time for anything extracurricular. My nine-month-old son, Finn, has accompanied me to Bhatti’s Westminster office and he and Danny stare at each other while punctuating their parents’ conversation with giggles, gurgles and wails. This is a family affair: Bhatti’s wife, Aminah, 25 and a civil servant, has joined us. In the background, Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle is playing out on Sky News.
This isn’t the first time Danny has been in his father’s office. Bhatti, who was elected in 2019, took two weeks’ paternity leave, and then it was recess, so he was able to spend a lot of time with Danny. But on the first day back in Parliament, he found himself missing his son desperately. “I had pangs of guilt, but also yearning,” he says. He called Aminah who brought Danny to the Commons.
He has no qualms about the less charming parts of parenthood. “I want to be as much of a hands-on dad as this job will allow,” he says. “I changed the first nappy in the hospital. Before, I’d been joking about not doing them, but you just get stuck in.”
Becoming a father has changed Bhatti. “I’ve really softened,” he admits. “I was watching a TV show the other day and something sad happened to a child and Aminah looked over and I had tears in my eyes. I never used to cry at anything.”
It has also heightened his awareness of the sacrifices women make when they have children, from the physical demands of pregnancy and birth, to the hiatus from their careers. This has inspired his new political goal: to ensure the Conservatives are the party of working parents.
“We have always centred our values on family values, and there’s so much to do in this sphere,” he says. “With the majority we have, we have the opportunity to think outside the box, and this should be [an area] where we want change.” He wants the Conservatives to incentivise fathers and grandparents to be more involved, to extend the provision of free childcare and make childcare more tax deductible.
He also thinks society needs to change. He and Aminah recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary at a restaurant which they had checked was family-friendly. When Aminah started breastfeeding, she was told by a waiter she would have to leave the table. “She had covered herself up, and no one was complaining,” Bhatti recalls. “I called the manager over and they gave in but that shouldn’t have happened.”
Having a baby during the pandemic had its challenges. The couple did their antenatal classes online, many of Aminah’s check-ups were over the phone and they even had a virtual John Lewis consultation for all the baby paraphernalia as shops were closed. They picked the hospital because it was allowing partners in: “I couldn’t imagine having to wait in the car park while Aminah gave birth.” But while lockdown restrictions cut them off from their families, it also gave them the opportunity to bond as a trio.
Bhatti is excited about what fatherhood will bring, from watching Timmy Time to giving Danny his first taste of chocolate. I ask how the couple will cope if he’s a Labour voter. “That’ll be fine,” Bhatti says, through gritted teeth. “Though obviously it would be the ultimate act of rebellion.”
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