HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
Being a Dad has always been a big part of my life. I first became a father in my early twenties, well before I was married and my other children came along. This came with all the difficulties you would expect, but it was also the making of me. I went to law school as a mature student, having to balance studying with my duties as a local councillor and the need to pick up my son from his mum's house in Merseyside. Looking back I'm not quite sure how it all fitted together, but at the time I just had to get on with it.
I married my wife Claire midway through law school, and I remember her joking in her wedding speech that my son Jack and I were: 'the best two for one offer she'd ever had'. After law school I started work as a trainee solicitor in Manchester and I have a vivid memory of my wife ringing me up in the office to tell me she was pregnant with our daughter. It is one of the most beautiful memories I have.
In early 2010 our plans were completely turned upside down however when a late vacancy occurred in our constituency for a Labour candidate to fight the General Election. I knew I would have a lot of support if I went for it but Claire was five months pregnant at the time and I thought the burden on the family would be too much. It was Claire was told me to go for it - these opportunities only come up very rarely, and with her support I was elected as our MP in 2010.
We now have four children altogether, and there is no doubt combining being an MP with a young family is hard. I want to say unequivocally that it is harder for female MPs than for male ones, because there are still so many stereotypes of what an MP should look like and do, and because there has been a dreadful wave on social media of quite appalling misogynistic abuse towards female MPs. The decision any MP must take is broadly whether to leave their family at home in the constituency, and therefore not see much of them (and miss all their school plays and parents' evenings etc.), or whether to try and be together in the week but move the whole family up and down the country every weekend. This is compounded by where in the country you represent - Stalybridge and Hyde are in Greater Manchester, which is a decent journey but not too far. Colleagues from Scotland and the North East have an even more difficult decision.
No solution feels entirely satisfactory. Most MPs need to be in the House of Commons Monday to Thursday, attend constituency events on Thursday evenings and all of Fridays, and also - in most cases - work Saturdays attending events and canvassing voters. If you leave your family at home (as I did in the last Parliament) you really only see them on Sundays. Our situation is even more complicated because our eldest son has autism, and being with me at large or noisy public events can be a problem for him. But none of this is to complain about the life of an MP. Lots of jobs have a difficult work/life balance, especially the armed forces. It's just that any MP must be aware of the burden their job puts on family life.
There can also be difficult family moments caused by having such a public role. After our daughter was born, my wife and I unfortunately suffered the first of two miscarriages. Because it happened midweek, I was in London at the time. It was no problem to immediately leave Parliament and get on a train home (and that wouldn't be possible in some other jobs) but when I got back and went straight to our local hospital, because I was wearing a suit people naturally assumed I was at the hospital just paying a visit. Several constituents and staff, all in good faith, stopped me to chat about the NHS and other local problems, but all I wanted to do was get to the ward to comfort Claire. However I can also say that, when people do recognise you but understand you are there for a personal matter, they are tremendously supportive and caring.
There are also some very positive things about being an MP with a young family. The recesses are much more flexible than the times when Parliament is sitting, and that makes for some quality family time. Most other MPs are extremely welcoming to colleagues bringing their children into the Parliamentary Estate, probably recognising their own experience. And certainly in my case, my entire Constituency Labour Party operates like a large extended family, helping me fulfil my duties but also looking after the family when I'm not there. I will always remember my daughter coming home from school in her reception year and loudly announcing that her new best friend 'doesn't know how to play campaigning!' We did feel a bit guilty at that point.
The House of Commons needs lots of different types of people, but I certainly think people with young families are part of that. We also need men who are prepared to talk about why being a father is a big part of their life, and who are not willing to see core issues like childcare, early years education, and the gender pay gap being side-lined as 'women's issues'. I believe Parliament should be a leader in being a family-friendly workplace. In recent years things have been changing for the better, helped greatly by having such an enlightening Speaker (who amongst many things has closed one of the bars and turned it into a nursery). There's still a long way to go, but we're heading in the right direction.
Jonathan Reynolds MP is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, shadow minister for rail and dad to Jack, Bess, Arthur and Seth
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