International Women’S Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 2nd March 2017.

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Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 2:09 pm, 2nd March 2017

May I say how pleased I am to represent the Liberal Democrats in this debate on International Women’s Day, as the 454th female MP? I am proud to say, in contrast to some previous Members’ contributions, that I am not the first, nor even the second, woman to have held my seat. I am, in fact, the third Liberal Democrat woman to represent Richmond Park, and I am extremely proud of that.

One of the advantages of being a London MP is that I get to go home to my family every evening and spend time with them every morning. As the mother of young children, this is a particular blessing to me, but it does mean that I live a life of contrasts. Yesterday, for example, I spent the first part of the morning trying to get my son to clean his teeth and my daughter to brush her hair. I then travelled into Westminster and challenged the Prime Minister in the Chamber about her spending priorities for education. Of the two things, the latter was more remarked upon—it was heard by Members here, recorded in Hansard and shared on Twitter—but getting my son to clean his teeth was the greater achievement in many ways. It took more ingenuity, effort and emotional commitment, but nobody noticed, cared or applauded me for it.

It often sounds ironic or self-deprecating to refer to the tasks of motherhood as being more taxing than tasks carried out in the professional sphere, but in this case, I am not being ironic; it is precisely true. We are so used to underplaying the work we do as mothers and in the home that we do not think anyone will take us seriously if we talk seriously about it. So today, in the spirit of the motion to recognise the achievements of women, I want to celebrate the everyday, unacknowledged, unrewarded and unnoticed achievements of women.

I start with childbirth, which is probably the ultimate feminine achievement. Women are often told not to make too much of a fuss about childbirth, with people saying, “Millions of women all over the world and throughout history have done it, and most of them don’t have access to pain relief”, “It’s the most natural thing in the world” and so on. But the births of my three babies continue to be the most profound experiences of my life. We do not actually talk all that much about childbirth. Yes, we discuss the timing and order of events such as what we were doing when we went into labour and how long it took, but we have not really developed a language to talk about how it feels or how it makes us feel. We just do not have the words. Although the experience leaves a lasting imprint, it is never fully acknowledged. The memory of childbirth remains with us—unshakeable and unshareable, but never fully expressed. I want to take advantage of this occasion to say what a huge achievement it is to give birth, and how proud we, as women, should be of our capacity to do that.

I also want to acknowledge those first weeks and months of a baby’s life when a woman gives herself over entirely to looking after her child. We all choose different ways to do this, but the achievement is the same. Whether our children are now fully grown adults or still small children, they are only here because their mothers kept them alive in those early weeks and months. Again, the effort and sacrifice that takes is often dismissed or overlooked, so I tell mothers everywhere to be proud of what they did because their children would not be what they are without them.

The long days and short years of childhood that follow are full of minor, unacknowledged successes such as wrestling them into coats, coaxing them to sleep and getting them to eat vegetables—the hard, hard work of persuading resisting children to do what is best for them. Each tiny triumph is a building block to a better person, but the reward is a very long way away, and nobody will remember the battles fought to make it happen. So, to every mother who managed to get her children up, dressed, teeth cleaned and to the school gates on time this morning—particularly in their World Book day costumes—not just this morning, but every morning: be proud and do not underestimate yourself. It is a great achievement to raise children.

I am conscious that people will think I am stereotyping women by referring only to their achievements as mothers. If am doing that, it is because I want to focus on the things that only women do and only women can do. I am just as proud of women who achieve great things in a professional, creative or sporting field, especially if they do it against a background of gender bias, but I want to focus on the things that only women do. I do not want to ignore the role of men in childrearing. All the fathers I know are as equally involved in the unglamorous, difficult bits of parenting as the mothers are, but this debate is about International Women’s Day, and we should acknowledge that, globally, the vast majority of childrearing and domestic work is done by women. The truth is that this is why our achievements in this sphere are so often overlooked and underappreciated. It is because this work is done by women that it is so often ignored or taken for granted.

I am as grateful as any other woman of my age that social progress has enabled me to have a broader life than just being a wife and mother, and I am glad that so many other women are also making the most of opportunities to leave their homes and go out to work. It makes a positive difference, not just to them and their families, but to our economy and society. However, it means that women are not at home to do the unpaid domestic labour that they might have done 30 years ago and have done for centuries. We have found ways to outsource the tasks of childrearing and domestic upkeep, and meet the costs of that from our own pocket, but the job of looking after sick and elderly relatives is now increasingly being met by the state, and we need to find ways to meet the costs of social care that result.