Tulip Siddiq: I’ve Had A Woman Say To Me ‘You Can’t Be A Mother And An MP’

MP Tulip Siddiq, 36, made history when she delayed her C-section to vote on Brexit. She tells Gaby Hinsliff about having no maternity leave, balancing constituents’ and kids’ needs and trying to encourage more women into politics

Tulip Siddiq motherhoood MP

by Gaby Hinsliff |

Tulip Siddiq is sitting in a rocking chair in her sunny kitchen, nursing two-month-old Raphael. It would be It would be understandable, perhaps, if the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn was thinking about anything but work. But she’s been glued to every twist of a dramatic week in Parliament, following all the private intrigue via a WhatsApp group for Remain-voting MPs and those seeking a softer Brexit, and is still tackling constituents’ problems between nappy changes.

And then there’s the meeting she recently had with the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to discuss detention without trial because, as she puts it, ‘As a woman, you don’t want to be saying, “I can’t do a meeting because I’m breastfeeding.”’ It’s an odd juggling act – half in, half out of work – that probably isn’t most women’s idea of maternity leave. But MPs have no formal right to time off after a baby (by law they’re technically not employees, so lack employment rights) and this at least beats Tulip’s experience with daughter Azalea (now two), when she felt obliged to return to Parliament only six weeks after a difficult labour and promptly fell ill with mastitis.

This time around, the 36-year-old made history by securing the temporary right to a proxy vote in the Commons – meaning another MP walks through the voting lobbies for her, so she needn’t be physically present to vote. The move followed images of her being pushed into the Commons in a wheelchair to join a crucial Brexit vote, having discharged herself from hospital on the day she was due to have a Caesarean. That clearly wasn’t an easy decision, although she’d discussed the risks thoroughly with her doctors (she’d been advised to have the baby delivered early a er developing gestational diabetes, and was in a wheelchair due to the effects of steroid injections to protect the baby’s lungs). ‘I was genuinely terrified,’ she admits. ‘It’s all very well to look at him now he’s a chubby, thriving little two-month-old, but all I could think about was what if something went wrong with my child’s health and he was born with some kind of medical problem? I had to take a lot of courage from my husband and my mother, saying, “Am I doing the right thing?”

‘I come from a family of public servants (her aunt is Prime Minister of Bangladesh) and my mother said, “If this is your calling and this is what you’re most passionate about, you have to make this decision.” My husband said, “It’s your body, it’s your decision.” But I was terrified.’ Fortunately, Raphael was delivered safely two days later, but Tulip remains grateful to Theresa May, who approached her on the night to ask how she could help. ‘She was about to lose the biggest vote of her life – I was the least of her problems – and she came over and said, “I’m really sorry to see you in this state.”

A week later, the Government duly agreed a trial of proxy voting, and not just for new mothers; the Tory MP Bim Afolami has just arranged a proxy for his paternity leave, to Tulip’s delight. Helping men take time out with children is crucial, she argues. ‘I speak to my friends outside politics and they say, “I don’t feel I can ask for shared parental leave, because in my business it would be frowned upon.”’

Tulip’s husband, Chris, is an educational consultant who does much of the childcare, but while that’s helped her pursue a career in Westminster, it’s not without challenges. ‘One day, I came in and Azalea said she wanted her daddy, not me. She’d spent so much time with Chris that her preferences were becoming clear,’ she recalls, wincing. ‘I couldn’t help thinking, would she not be a daddy’s girl if I had stayed around more? But that night I opened an email to discover we had managed to rehouse a family that had been walking the streets because they’d been kicked out. When things go your way with casework, when you see changes in people’s lives, you think, there was a reason why I did this, it’s worth it.’ Besides, she insists, she’s privileged compared to many working mothers.

‘When I speak to women in Kilburn working as receptionists, they’re stressed that if they’re a minute late their boss will take £5 off their pay, or they won’t be able to take a lunch break. I listen to that and think, how would I cope? I’m always running into meetings five minutes late because someone’s vomited on me.’ Yet while most working mothers feel judged occasionally, few endure it quite as publicly as Tulip. ‘I’d say 90% of my constituents are very supportive, then there’s 10% writing to the local paper saying, “Why the hell is she having another child?” I’ve had a woman say to me, “You can’t be a mother and an MP.”’

Under such pressure, self-doubt can creep in. ‘There’s always an underlying feeling of guilt, of being a “bad mum”,’ she says, recalling emails dubbing her “disgraceful” for delaying her Caesarean to vote. ‘It was a decision made with a lot of thought and consideration But people are so quick to judge.’ Sadly, judgement can also spill over into abuse, or worse. As both a Muslim MP and prominent Remainer, Tulip has faced death threats. When her family recently moved house, the first thing she did after unpacking Azalea’s toys was to install the panic buttons and security cameras that have become routine features of politicians’ home lives.

Seemingly, she doesn’t scare easily, however. Although her proxy vote arrangement lasts until summer, Tulip means to be there in person for any final decisive vote on Brexit. She favours either a second referendum or revoking Brexit altogether (75% of her constituents voted Remain). Tulip has already rebelled against the Labour Party line by proxy on the issue, backing a second referendum even though her proxy stand-in, Vicky Foxcroft, is a party whip whose job is normally to stop her rebelling. ‘It’s really difficult, but she was very good about it,’ says Tulip, pointing out that they both want to show proxy voting can work, not just for parents but for sick MPs.

And that’s the one thing she wants to get across to other women: progress isn’t always comfortable, but it’s worth it. ‘I go to lots of schools and the girls will often ask me, “Is politics hard for young women?” And I’m caught between a rock and a hard place, thinking, I don’t want to discourage these bright, bushy-tailed young women but I don’t want them to come in and realise that I lied,’ she says. ‘But I want people to realise that being an MP doesn’t automatically mean you can’t have children. There’s lots of good women who are not coming into Parliament. We need those women, we’re missing out.'

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