Rachel Reeves MP – My Maternity Return Journey
Posted: Monday March 2 2020
By: Abbie Coleman
The first woman took her seat as an MP in 1919. Her name was Nancy Astor. But it wasn’t until 1976 that the first woman had a baby while serving as an MP – Hélène Hayman. Eight days after having her baby, she was back in Parliament for crucial votes, with pairing having been suspended (the parliamentary process that matches MPs on opposing sides who aren’t able to vote on a particular day).
In 1982, Harriet Harman was elected as an MP whilst heavily pregnant; she too was back at work within weeks.
In 2013 I had my first baby, and in 2015 my second. It was the first time a woman in the Shadow Cabinet (or indeed the Cabinet) had had a baby, and so I had a busy workload and a lot of pressure. Five months after my first baby was born, I came back to work, and although balancing the two was a challenge, I loved my job and had a supportive husband and family. I travelled regularly between Leeds and London, and both of my children are good travellers who love Leeds and London.
But even though things seem a lot better now than they were for Harriet and Hélène, more needs to be done if we want to encourage more women to become MPs and make life more manageable for them.
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 by a Conservative who refrained from voting) 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 promptly apologised. But it shows the need to change the procedures in Parliament so that MPs don’t look like they just aren’t turning up.
My colleague, Lucy Powell (Labour MP for Manchester Central since 2012) 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.
In 2015 Labour were just ahead in the opinion polls and the general election was weeks away. As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary I did an interview where I said the first thing I would do if Labour won would be to bring forward legislation to abolish the hated bedroom tax. I said I would do this before my second child was born (he was due about six weeks after polling day).