It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Kate Osamor in a debate that, sadly, in 2020, is still needed more than ever. While preparing for today, I began to reflect on what International Women’s Day means for me. There is so much to celebrate about the progress that has been made for women, both back at home in Wales and across the world. I particularly take inspiration from Governments across the globe, notably those of Finland and New Zealand, who have clearly made promoting women a priority. I, too, am hugely honoured to be doing my bit to improve gender diversity by representing the community I grew up and still live in here in Westminster. Yet I am sure that Members from across the House will agree that there is much work to be done for women outside this bubble too.
Ironically, the primary inspiration for my comments on International Women’s Day comes from a very important man in my life: my son, Sullivan. Sulley will be celebrating his first birthday in just a few short weeks, and I am thrilled to be spending this International Women’s Day with him by my side. I am sure I will face some stern opposition from Members when I say that Sulley really is the most precious child in the world. Before I am hit by comments from aggrieved parents everywhere, let me say that like many people before us, my husband and I knew that the road to pregnancy would be an extremely tough one. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, we were very lucky. After just one round of IVF, and against all the odds, my only surviving embryo, my one in a million arrived. Sadly, he was quickly whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he spent the first two weeks of his life. I can hand on heart say that they truly were the most difficult weeks of my life, and I would not wish the anxiety and sheer dread on anyone. My fertility story has a happy ending, but I know that for many this is not the case.
At the end of this month, I will also be spending my first proper Mothers’ Day with Sulley. This is a day that for the past few years has filled me with sadness and emptiness. Seeing the joy on so many faces on social media of mams up and down the country celebrating their children has always pulled at the part of me that has been desperate for a child while always knowing that, without help, I would not be able to have one. This International Women’s Day, I want to shout out to every woman who has looked at a celebratory social media pregnancy announcement, to every woman who has walked past a glowing bump in the street, to every woman who has been asked, “When are you having children?”, and to every woman who has had to sympathetically listen to a friend moan about how tired she is from looking after her children, all while suppressing the mixed emotions of envy, sadness and self-loathing. I want to say to those women: you are not alone. Sometimes as a woman struggling with fertility issues, you feel like a complete failure. You cannot talk about it with mams without seeming bitter, and without having a stigma surrounding you that your body has let you down and has prevented you from becoming the mother you always dreamed of being but know that potentially you can never be.
I also want to shout out to those women who know that they do not want to have children or that they are nowhere near ready for children but are under pressure from friends, family and society to get on with it before they are supposedly “over the hill” and “past their prime”. So many women are told that they will change their minds and that not wanting children is a “phase” as though it is a reflection on their femininity. Having children for me was a blessing, but it is also really hard work and sacrifices have to be made. Career, mental health, self-care, body image, friendships, opportunities and the choice to be selfish, which there is nothing wrong with, are just a few of the many things that women up and down the country give up.
I have wanted a child for as long as I can remember, and I would not change a thing about Sulley—except maybe his sleeping habits. But nothing can prepare you for the guilt you feel as a working mam who is often away from home; it is truly all-consuming. Before Sulley came along, I felt guilt for depriving my family of a child who would be so welcomed and loved. I internalised guilt for not being able to conceive a child without medical intervention. The guilt does not end once the child arrives, though: it follows you from sunrise to sunset. Whether you are having to stay late at work, are out socialising with friends or are sat in this very Chamber, the guilt carries on.
In a world where social media is infiltrated with images of supposed perfection, I regularly feel the pressure and guilt that come with feeling I am not good enough. I know how lucky I am to have had access to fertility treatment. I also know that most people are aware of the broad science behind IVF, so I will not indulge colleagues with too much of the detail today. I do, however, believe that this International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity for us all to reflect and to carefully consider our policies around fertility and the rights of both parents on what is clearly a sensitive topic.
Currently, a 10-year limit exists for women when freezing their eggs. If I had been faced with making a decision in my early 20s about the prospect of having children in my 30s, I would not have known what the next decade of life had in store for me. I definitely would have been more focused on perfecting my Céline Dion impression in karaoke bars in Cardiff, which, again, I will not indulge colleagues with today—at least not without some wine. Current legislation is placing unnecessary pressure on women everywhere, and I hope that, with reflection, that can change.
I am sure I am not alone when I say that the pressures on women with children, whether conceived through IVF or not, do not end with childbirth. I chose to breastfeed Sulley, and it was the best decision I could have made. However, it was also the hardest thing I have ever done, and I sympathise with any new parent who is up at ridiculous o’clock with a newborn attached to their nipple, dreaming of a holiday in Hawaii. While I have been extremely lucky that my workplace has generally been very accommodating—I pay tribute to the House staff for the work they do—the same cannot be said by many new parents across the country. We must do all we can to support new parents with better protections for breastfeeding in the workplace, improved paternity leave legislation and a real consideration of our practices on egg freezing.
While I am extremely proud to produce a photo of Sulley as a three-day-old embryo, consisting of just eight cells, at any opportunity, I know that infertility and breastfeeding present real struggles for families across the world. I hope that, one day soon, we will not need a specific day to commemorate women and all the issues I have outlined. I have faith that, instead, in the world Sulley will grow up in, true gender equality will be the norm.
We need to champion new parents and do all we can to remove the guilt and stigma attached to parenthood. It is okay to be selfish every now and then. I hope any parent who is struggling feels able to reach out and speak about the issues I have raised today. Until then, I will do all I can from these green Benches to be a loud voice for all those who feel they have had their voice silenced.