In May 2012, I was elected as a local councillor to represent my ward. I campaigned whilst heavily pregnant, paused to give birth to my eldest daughter, and then got back on the campaign trail two weeks later.
The average term of office for a female councillor is five years compared to 12 for her male counterpart. Will this scenario ever change?
There was much about being a councillor that I enjoyed. It was an honour to work my socks off representing my community, solve casework and fight for dwindling services.
In the day-to-day life of casework, meetings and campaigning, I was doing my best to bring up a tiny baby, adjust to motherhood and live with the additional anxiety of my father’s ill-health and, later, death.
By the time I gave birth to my second daughter two years later, the tensions between my public, professional and personal life left me burnt out. There was no coinciding parental leave from my council role so, exhausted - and having served a full term - I stood down. I had no other option.
The factors behind that decision go some way to explaining why many women serve only a single term in public life.
I had gone from knocking on doors to holding my firstborn within 36 hours. Worried about being visible to voters, I was urged by male colleagues to campaign again when she was two-weeks-old. Campaign teams get twitchy about winning seats but my anxiety came from postpartum bleeding, having leaky breasts every time I thought about my baby back home, and the fact I could barely keep my eyes open.
Once elected, I was guilted by officers and fellow councillors for making use of council expenses to cover modest childcare costs when I attended meetings. My eldest went into part-time childcare at three-months-old purely so I could fulfil my council duties. I was living on basic councillors’ allowance but the casework and commitments were full-time.
Again, I worked on my council role right up until the birth of my second daughter - still no parental leave. I have memories, hazy – darkened by postnatal depression and grief – of stabbing out emails to solve bin problems whilst trying to nurse a tongue-tied newborn. There was no reallocation of work for a new mother; I was expected to get on with it.
Council meetings were always early evening so that meant missing bedtime or desperately hoping to make it home to nurse. One time I took my youngest, at two-weeks-old, to a meeting; bundled up in a sling and quiet as a mouse. As I left, I heard a member of the public call me ‘disgusting’. My confidence nose-dived.
The lack of leave didn’t just affect me. My mother drove 280-mile round trips to look after my children so I could attend those meetings. Other times, my husband left work early to fetch the girls. I would exit part way through, run to the train station and pass the baby into his arms as he stood at the train doors, continuing to collect the eldest so I could return to the meeting.
These endless tea-time meetings - for no other reason than they’ve always been at tea time - are just an example of the inherent cultural and practical issues women in politics face. My friend, fellow ex-councillor, and Labour Women’s Network national officer, Claire Reynolds, summarised it well when I asked her:
“Generally longer serving male and female councillors and officers say things have to be done a certain way when they simply don’t. Being seen to be ‘present’ is prized over achieving real outcomes for your community.”
Looking back, the lack of a parental leave policy seriously impacted on my family life and mental health. Claire, a mum-of-four, faced mirror image challenges, so we resolved to try and make a difference to those who follow.
We drafted a simple motion to the local Labour Group calling for a change in Full Council start times and an official parental leave policy that relieves new mothers from mandatory meetings and allocates her workload to fellow ward councillors for six months.
Our motion was kicked into the long grass after a disingenuous debate. The loss of that positive legacy was my saddest regret – for the councillors, their partners and babies who came after me.
According to Fawcett Society research, only four per cent of councils have a councillors’ parental leave policy and Parliament’s pairing arrangements - where parties reach an agreement that one MP’s absence, for example due to maternity leave, is matched by another’s to even out a vote - have been subject to abuse. This summer, Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson found out that didn’t work when her Tory pairing voted in a crucial Brexit debate whilst she cared for her newborn at home.
On Thursday, Jo made history by bringing her tiny baby into the debate for proxy votes, but this isn’t enough. Put simply, it is 2018 and being a woman with a young baby cannot be a barrier to public life.
A campaign for parental leave is being spearheaded by the Labour Women’s Network who will see their #BabyLeave motion debated at Labour Women’s Conference on 22 September.