In February I gave birth to my second child, a little girl. I'm grateful to my constituents for their patience, as I've had to reduce the pace of my work a bit as a result. Nine weeks on, last week I made my first trip back into the parliament for the Strasbourg 'plenary', when all the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sit together for key votes.
Although new mum MEPs are allowed to absent themselves from Strasbourg for a few months, this comes at the price of reducing your political group's firepower. Other MEPs are not allowed to 'sub in' for you in Strasbourg (you can have substitutes for the committee votes, which generally take place in Brussels). Perhaps because there is no formal 'government' and 'opposition' in the Strasbourg parliament, it does not have a system like Westminster's 'twinning', where MPs from opposite sides can strike a deal to both stay away from a vote. So, because we had a number of important votes taking place this month, and I'm still breastfeeding, I had to take the little one with me.
As ever, getting to Strasbourg was not particularly easy, although the baby coped better than I did with a taxi, bus, and two plane rides before we finally arrived in the Parliament. (I am still hoping that someday we'll get rid of the waste and faff of the parliament sitting in Strasbourg once a month).
Most of my colleagues seemed to be pretty relaxed about having a baby around, which is just as well given apparently two other members of the Socialist group are also due to give birth this year. I was a bit nervous though about how she would cope with a meeting we had organised with the EU's Economic Commissioner on protecting small-scale British cider producers. It had taken a long time to organise and was important the meeting went well. Thankfully, both the Commissioner and the British Campaign for Real Ale were very relaxed about her joining us. We kept her away from the sample of real cider though!
Voting in the plenary itself was a bit of a challenge, particularly on the last day when she had an attack of wind and was fairly grumpy. Each voting session can include over a hundred votes, with different positions potentially taken by both your political group (for me, the Socialists), your delegation (for me, UK Labour), and of course your own conscience! Add in the fact that the chair may not speak your own first language, plus a dollop of sleep deprivation, and the potential for confusion is clear. In the end we managed to get through the session without too many problems. Unbeknownst to me, a Reuters photographer chose that moment to take a few snaps of us which were picked up by the Spanish and German press. I'm grateful they avoided the moments when her wind got the better of her!
Ultimately I feel very lucky to be doing a job which is largely compatible with having children, even though the time away from home can be tough (it was great to see my toddler again on Friday morning, after four days away). It's much harder - and getting tougher - for many of my neighbours who have to juggle often unpredictable shift work with childcare which can be extremely expensive.
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