That really gave the lie to the line that this was some kind of honest mistake. It was, quite simply, a shameful act for the Government Chief Whip to ask a Member to break a pairing arrangement and for him to agree. It clearly was not an honest mistake, especially when it emerged that other MPs had also been asked to break their pair in those Divisions. I would say that, whether for reasons of maternity or illness or anything else, there is nothing honourable about deliberately breaking a pairing. It is cheating, plain and simple. What a sign of desperation!
However, on a more positive note, I want to put on the record my thanks to MPs from right across the House, and I include the Leader of the House in this, for the support they gave me when that happened. In particular, I say to those Conservative MPs who told their Chief Whip to take a running jump when he asked them to break their pair—unnamed, but they know who they are, whoever they are—that that is the behaviour of an honourable Member.
Despite the support of lots of people in the House, not quite everybody was supportive. On Twitter, I was told that
“duty comes before your health, happiness or family, if you’re not up to that, resign”,
“she should decide whether she wants to be a mother or an MP”.
A journalist wrote about
“whingeing women MPs who are not serious about parliamentary work”.
I have to say that one Member of this House questioned why on earth I could not spend five hours voting in Parliament in the evening with a two-week-old baby, because I had managed to spend 45 minutes in the afternoon at an anti-Trump demonstration a few days earlier. Well, I wonder why.
Maternity leave is a hard-won right, and no new mum should have to justify her activities when she leaves the house with her baby. Any parent of a newborn knows that just leaving the house is an achievement in itself. I do want to use my voice to help people who do not know what it is like and to understand the challenges so that they might be a little slower to cast judgment on new parents in future, and I want to talk frankly about breastfeeding.
When our first son was born, we tried everything to get him to latch on properly. We searched endlessly online for advice. We went to breastfeeding support groups, and we attempted every possible position to get a good latch. All the while, we were desperately trying to syringe enough expressed milk into his mouth, every couple of hours, so that he would not get ill. That was for only eight days, but it felt like an eternity. I am glad we persevered, because once you get the hang of it, breastfeeding is lovely, and frankly much less hassle than formula. Sleep deprivation can make people forget things, but if they are breastfeeding, that is one less thing to have to remember when they leave the house. Of course, not everyone can breastfeed, and the whole breast and bottle debate is just one more stick that is used to beat new mothers with. Parents need much more support and much less judgment.
This time round it was much easier to establish breastfeeding, but it still takes some time before mother and baby are confident and practised enough to get a good latch quickly at every feed. People are often less comfortable feeding in public in those early days—after a while, they can get up and answer the door while still feeding the baby and not break the latch, but at the beginning, they might find themselves staying perfectly still during a feed so that they do not disrupt the latch. A four-month-old can easily finish feeding in 10 minutes, but a four-week-old might take 45 minutes or more. Small babies can get confused switching between nipples and bottle teats, which is why the advice is not to use the bottle as well as the boob for the first four to six weeks. I doubt that such details have been discussed much in Parliament previously, but when we are considering how MPs can combine being a new parent with their responsibilities as an elected representative, it is important context.