“As An MP, It’s Very Scary” – This Is What It’s Like To Be Pregnant In Parliament

According to female MPs themselves

Stella Creasy

by Zoe Beaty |
Updated on

As Stella Creasy leads calls for better maternity rights for MPs this week, Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West, and Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, tell Grazia their experiences of being pregnant in parliament:

It is no secret that it hasn’t always been easy to be a female MP. For reasons too many, too historically rooted and too complex to list here, barriers have long – and continue to be – in our way. This week, one of those barriers was tackled head on by Stella Creasy. Writing in the Guardian, she called for an overhaul on maternity rights for MPs who, time and time again, are forced to endure limited or no maternal health rights, working in a profession where maternity leave is simply “not recognized”.

Stella and I met when we were both at university and we were elected at the same time in 2010. I was heartbroken to read her account this week of a miscarriage, and how she carried on working although she was bleeding and devastated. It was brave. And now, since she’s pregnant again, and ready to talk, Stella is shining a spotlight on what challenges lie ahead for women MPs.

So what rights do we have, exactly? In January this year, proxy voting for new parents was introduced so that another MP can vote on the behalf – and that’s progress, although long overdue. Hampstead MP, Tulip Sidiq, postponed a planned caesarean section so she didn’t miss a crucial Brexit vote while Lib Dem leadership contender, Jo Swinson, found that the Tory MP she was paired with (so her absence when about to have her second child was cancelled out) turned up and voted without letting her know.

So proxy voting is one step forward. But we still don’t have maternity leave as MPs – voting is just a small part of our job – speaking in Parliament, asking questions of Government Ministers, holding advice surgeries, championing local causes – that’s the bread and butter of an MP’s weekly routine. In other jobs maternity cover would be put in place. Parliament is ‘different’ but it’s not impossible to imagine a local councillor, community leader or our election agent taking on these roles while an MP is on maternity leave: and it would have double the advantage of meaning our constituents were represented and that new parents had time to bond with their babies.

The first woman to have a baby whilst serving as an MP was Labour’s Helene Hayman in 1976 (almost sixty years after women were represented in the House of Commons). Politically, there couldn’t have been a worse time to have a baby. Labour’s majority was wafer thin and falling and pairing had been suspended. A few days after giving birth Hayman was back in work baby and buggy in tow. She had to leave her new born son in an office while she went to vote. Harriet Harman who was elected while heavily pregnant in 1982 described to me that she constantly worried that she was neither a good enough mother or a good enough MP, given how impossible it was to manage both at once.

My Labour colleague, Lucy Powell, was labelled by a tabloid newspaper as the ‘second laziest MP in Westminster’ after she was elected in a by-election and had her second child shortly afterwards. Lucy is anything but lazy, but the newspaper again forgot to check the facts. I was no exception to the rule, either. When I was on maternity leave with my first child, the campaigning group 38 Degrees contacted my constituents telling them I had abstained on a crucial vote – but I had been paired, so my absence was cancelled out by a Conservative who didn’t vote either, and my baby was just a few weeks old. They asked my constituents on their email list: “Where was Rachel Reeves?” One of my constituents contacted them saying I was on maternity leave, and 38 Degrees thankfully apologized immediately. But it showed me that there is an urgent need to change the procedures in parliament so that MPs don’t look like they just aren’t turning up.

And then, in 2015 with a general election just weeks away and Labour just ahead in the opinion polls, I gave an interview as shadow work and pensions secretary. I said the first thing I would do if Labour won would be to bring forward legislation to abolish the hated bedroom tax. I would do this before my second child was born (he was due about six weeks after polling day). Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell told the Daily Mail that as an expectant mum I shouldn’t be appointed to the cabinet if Labour won the election. I have never been totally clear what his precise objection was, but presumably he worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with two things at once, or because maternity cover wasn’t compatible with the job. Men who became fathers while MPs or ministers are never told they couldn’t do the two. Blair, Brown and Cameron all had children born while they were prime minister. I don’t remember anyone ever saying that they should step back from the front line as screaming children and changing nappies would render them incapable of political leadership.

I tried to take the time I needed after both my children were born, but with both I was back doing constituency surgeries in a matter of weeks, checking casework and even going to vote in Westminster on several occasions. It was easier than for previous generations but it could be so much better.

Stella’s story is a reminder that there is unfinished business on gender equality and balancing work and family life in Westminster. I hope that by speaking out Stella might make it a little bit easier for future mums and dads in politics. For that we should all be grateful.

Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West and author of ‘Women in Westminster: the MPs who changed politics’ was published in March 2019 by IB Tauris

Tulip Siddiq: “It’s scary to get pregnant as an MP”

There is absolutely no doubt that it’s scary to get pregnant as an MP. There are one million things to worry about, alongside the usual anxieties every woman faces. When I was having my son in January this year, I voiced my worries to my husband. “Oh god,” I told him. “That’s going to clash with the Brexit vote.” “Tulip,” he replied, “that is not the thing you should be thinking about when you’ve found out you’re pregnant.”

The thing is, we don’t really have a choice.

For women in parliament who want to have babies, there’s no real arrangement because it's not something people really fight for. To be honest, it's a niche campaign – there weren't that many female MPs before and so it's not in anyone’s interest. I found it really difficult when I had a child in 2016 after I'd been elected because Ipsa (the body that regulates the pay of MPs and authorizes their budgets) just had no idea what to do. “Is there any way to apply for extra funding or anything while I have a child?", I asked them. They were less than helpful. This time with my second child, I didn't even bother calling them. The first time, they just told me 'no, there are no arrangements in place'. What’s the point in wasting time on it?

As it happened, I had a C-section, and went back to work after six weeks; that was the minimum requirement from the doctor to have some rest. And I actually got really sick with mastitis (a result of being exhausted, the doctor said). My body just hadn’t recovered, especially after I’d had quite a traumatic birth. I was trying to pump my breasts in between meetings and trying to feed my child, it was an absolute nightmare. I had to go on antibiotics. I felt quite broken.

The second time I had a C-section, I had case work to attend to literally two days after, which I did. What else could I have done? There were still no arrangements in place. It’s ironic that we're the heart of democracy, the place we make legislation and laws that are there to help us and protect us, yet we don't have a maternity policy for ourselves. We're the people who passed the Equality Act and we don't have a law for ourselves, and it's very off-putting for a woman who wants to have a family and also be a politician.

If there was a bit of extra funding for another member of staff – not the MP themselves – to help the office while they're off recovering for 6 weeks or however long, that would be very helpful. If there was some kind of official arrangement for when there's a big event in the constituency and they want someone to come, because a lot of times it's not just about you going they want a local representative to go, if there's some arrangement where an MP can go in your place I think that would make a big difference. I was really lucky because Kier Starmer, who is my neighbouring MP (we share a borough) actually offered to attend some events for me. But that was out of the goodness of his heart and not everyone has an MP who is willing to do that. Just having arrangements like that, some extra staff and some understanding of the fact that you may not be available immediately, literally on the day you’re giving birth, would help.

Life has become a lot better with the proxy voting, I didn't have that the first time round and it was a lot harder. But we need more. Parliament needs to be pushed into the 21st Century.

Stella Creasy: “I stood there, trying not to think about the fact that my baby had died inside of me”

I’ve tried to keep my professional and private life separate, and to make sure that the people I serve in Walthamstow get the best service from me and my team.

The first time I was having a miscarriage, I was bleeding and almost in shock that it was happening. But we were fighting for a constituent of mine who was raped and murdered and the man responsible for it has not been extradited from India so I was with people protesting outside the Indian embassy while I was in pain.

When it happened again I’d already agreed to run a meeting about knife crime – a massive problem in our area – and I didn’t want to let anybody down. So I stood there, trying not to think about the fact that my baby had died inside me, to focus on what we could do to make sure we were supporting young people in our local community. I’ve always tried to make sure there’s a separation between whatever heartbreak was going on in my personal life and the work I do in my local community.

But the parliamentary authorities and in particular Ipsa, the people who look after our budgets, have made that impossible for me. For the past month I’ve tried to get out of them what sort of cover there would be for all of the case work, the community work, the meetings and events I run for local residents. In the last three years alone I worked out I had dealt with 133,000 queries from local residents myself. That’s in addition to the very small team of staff that I have.

So when they just told me that MPs don’t go on maternity leave, that there is no provision – and then graciously added that if I wanted to fill out an application to prove my worth and prove that I did things for my local community they might have a think about it and whether they could provide some money. They were trying to ask whether my staff could take on the extra work, rather than providing a locum like you have with your GP or even a vicar who went on maternity leave. Someone external who could fill in that role, because the community recognizes and values that role. Right now, it’s just not there.

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