New mothers in politics; damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Written by Erin Graham
Women in parliament are told that maternity leave is simply ‘not recognised’, and your ‘return to work date’ is day after you give birth. In this context, women who want to choose family ‘over’ work will easily be replaced. There will be 3 men in and out of her office by the time a UK MP would get back from a fraction of average maternity leave.
As women, we are the only humans who can reproduce, sustain two beings at once, and give birth to this (not so little) being after the most challenging nine months of our lives. Many women do this while working some form of job, some right up until due dates, breaking their back both in the workplace and at home to ensure the smoothest arrival of their newest family members. Women are fatigued and in pain for weeks to months prior giving birth depending on their experience. They need time to recuperate on what is considered a basic human right, maternity leave.
This process would be more manageable and allow mother-child bonding if we lived in a society where everyone considered health to be the top priority, a society where women were encouraged to have both a career and a family (what a privilege).In reality, the majority of women’s jobs are put on an egg timer the second they leave the hospital. There is little stability in the job market for women on maternity leave, some of whom where caring for their child themselves is the only option are forced back into work mere weeks after giving birth. Moreover, it is women in positions of power, the minority who have smashed the glass ceiling, often have even less of a maternity leave period, and even more scrutiny when falling pregnant.
Standard maternity leave and pay differs across the world. In the UK, the first 6 weeks are fully paid at salary with the other 46 capped at £125 a week. In America, you can only claim paid maternity leave under a disability allowance, and it is never guaranteed. On the complete contrary we have New Zealand, who provide 14 weeks paid maternity leave to every mother, employed or not. With this global inequality many women are faced with an unnecessary ultimatum of choosing family or career.
Many women in positions of power are not given confirmation that their demanding, full time job will still be theirs when they return from maternity leave. Therefore, they are forced to prioritise work. Women who returned to work soon after giving birth are starting to take a stand, and a practical one at that. New mothers in governments across the world are bringing their new-borns into the ‘office’ to demonstrate just how difficult it is to strike a balance between family and career in our patriarchal society.
On a positive note, one country that seems to have taken the best out of an abysmal situation: New Zealand, and their iconic female PM, Jacinda Arden. Economic protection at birth is a human right in New Zealand, and every mother is given paid maternity for 14 weeks. At least someone’s doing it right… Arden was the first female Prime Minister of New Zealand, and consequently the first PM to give birth while in office, returning 6 weeks after giving birth. Upon her return, the PM actively acknowledged her privilege as someone who can access funds and child support in order to come back to work. ‘We will make it work’ declared Arden at her first post-partem press briefing when asked how she would ‘balance’ being mother and prime minister.
As a direct result of the pressure on Arden to return to work, her 3-month-old baby was the youngest member of the UN debate chamber in New York, as Arden felt she could not, or was not given, the choice to have a family life separate from running the country. Although optimistic about her far from ideal family situation, Jacinda Arden is highlighting that being able to take your new-born baby into the office, whether it be the Home Office, or a call centre, is not a good privilege to have.
One aspect of the European approach (or more lack of approach), to maternity leave is that of the EU and UK parliament not permitting remote voters. Every single M(e)P, in labour or not, must travel to the Parliament to cast their vote with no exception. For new, or expecting mothers, this patriarchy-catered rule has proven detrimental for women’s rights, and women’s health. Labour MP Stella Creasly has been one of the most candid campaigners for better support for pregnant employees, job stability and maternity leave in parliaments. In a damning interview with the Guardian, Creasly exposed the UK parliaments gaping gender inequality, and the effect of mandatory physical voting on her pregnancy and her fellow MPs. Creasly told of anonymous MPs who had to re-schedule c-sections in order to vote on a Brexit bill. Creasly herself letting random constituents babysit while she tried to balance the concerns of other constituents at advice sessions, and even re-scheduling the removal of her miscarried child, in order to attend a protest against a sexual assaulter in her constituency, so as not to appear ‘out of touch’. This is the United Kingdom, the fifth richest country in the world. A democracy, who can’t excuse a grieving woman with a miscarried child, or another about to give birth in the debate chamber, in order to cast a vote on a bill.
This is not a new situation, in 2010 Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli brought her 7-week-old baby to the EU parliament to cast a vote due to the lack of remote-voting, and stated in front of the press that her choice was ‘maternal and not political’. This simple statement personifies the issue that mothers are facing, forced to choose between looking after their child, or earning money to survive. And after ten years, still women all over the world are campaigning for better maternity leave rights, or at least better child support if they are forced to return to work. In 2017 Swedish MEP Jyette Guteland brought her son to the EU parliament and called for ‘better child friendly work spaces’ due to the increasing presence of ‘babies parliaments’ across the world.
Women in governments today are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Returning to work and raising a child on equal priority is unobtainable and the women mentioned here are just some of the ambassadors campaigning on our behalf for better job stability during and after pregnancy. Having a child and having the time to bond with that child, should be a basic human right. I can’t wait to see a creche in the UK parliament in a few years’ time, or at the very least a proxy voter on behalf of the MEP in literal labour in Brussels. Change is coming, it has to.