The proudest occupation: We should be free to celebrate motherhood

When I read that Rona Fairhead had three children I didn't groan, but cheered

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The Independent Online

The first thing I did – and I am not ashamed to admit this – when the Government revealed it wanted Rona Fairhead to be the first woman chair of the BBC Trust was to see whether she had children. Fairhead is 53 and has decades of business experience at HSBC, Pepsico and the Financial Times Group. What an amazing career, I thought. I wonder if she has children? Indeed she does: three of them.

But, apparently, I am sexist for doing this. When The Sunday Telegraph used the headline "Mother of three poised to lead the BBC" there were complaints, including from the excellent @EverydaySexism, that she should not be defined by her motherhood. So why did I, a working mother, cheer when I read she has three children? Why did I feel a rush of euphoria that here was another woman who had proven you can punch through the glass ceiling with one hand while holding on to your kids with the other?

This is not to take anything away from women who have career success without having children. But I am puzzled as to why we have to regard "mother" as a derogatory term, as if it diminishes a woman. It's not as if it's a comment on her appearance, like saying she is "blonde" – that would be sexist. It's not like we mums go to anonymous self-help groups declaring, "My name is Jane and I am a mother". Having children isn't some dumbed-down state of being. When we mothers who go out to work are living and breathing compromise, it is so refreshing to see one who is about to be in charge of the BBC.

At my Aunty Mel's funeral last year, the eulogy recorded how, on being admitted to hospital, she described her occupation as "grandmother". This was the most poignant moment of the service. "Mother" and "grandmother" are not terms to be belittled or dismissed. I am not talking only about working mothers – but also about those who stay at home. It is enraging to hear people remark now, in 2014, that someone is "just a mother".

 

My motherhood defines me. I do not want to give up my career, but it is more than my career. Motherhood is not something to fetishise in a kind of "all mums are wonderful" way. But it is not a sign of weakness. It is a permanent state of being. Of course, it would be great if headlines about a man picked for a similarly top job ran "Father of four…". And fathers care about education, childcare, GP access for their sick son or daughter – all the same things that mothers do.

But there is no denying that more mothers than fathers do childcare, especially in the early years. Then there is that painful gap, between the first year of maternity leave and when the 15 free hours of childcare kicks in – aged three, or two for lower-income families. If a parent works part time to be at home when those free hours don't apply, it's more likely to be the mother. Those two years of punishing childcare costs and of feeling guilty about going back to work, drinking a peaceful coffee at your desk or going to the loo on your own leave (mostly) mothers wondering whether it is worth being in work.

Last week, Nick Clegg announced that those 15 free hours would be extended to all two-year-olds if the Lib Dems are in government in 2015 – the £800m cost partly funded by the ludicrously wasteful married couples tax allowance. What a difference this would make to working mothers. George Osborne says there are one million women with children who want to go back to work but cannot afford to – that's one million more people paying taxes, and they would pay that £800m back soon enough. For those mothers who don't want to work, that's fine. But set those one million women free and see what we can do.

So, no, it's not sexist to highlight Fairhead's "having it all" position. No doubt, she can afford nannies, housekeepers and help with the school run. But she's still a mother, and I want to be free to celebrate that.

Hands off our sources

The police obtained the phone records of The Sun's political editor Tom Newton Dunn after he broke the "Plebgate" story of Andrew Mitchell's altercation at the gates of Downing Street. Richly deserved, you might think, for a newspaper whose stablemate harboured a culture of phone hacking, to have one of its reporters' privacy invaded. Well, please think again. For the police to seize journalists' phone records without consent may be legal under Ripa – the Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act – but it is still an outrageous attempt to blow the confidentiality of sources, the most important thing in journalism, no matter whether Mitchell was wronged by the story. It is possible that the police have obtained other journalists' phone records to find out who their sources are. If this isn't the closest thing we have to a police state, then I don't know what is.

Time for a U-turn

Sometimes, prime ministers make such a mess in a reshuffle that you wonder whether there was a game of pin the tail on the donkey in No 10. The decision to replace Nick Hurd with Brooks Newmark as civil society minister is such a case. In his four years in the job, Hurd was so deeply embedded in the voluntary sector he was the only person in the Conservative Party to make the Big Society a real thing. Newmark, with no apparent experience of this area, said last week that charities should "stick to their knitting" and "stay out of politics". This is idiotic, because it doesn't even make sense. David Cameron brought back Nick Gibb as education minister this summer after sacking him two years ago. He needs to enact another U-turn.

Pi in the sky

My four-year-old daughter starts school this week, so we have spent the last few days bonding – trips to the zoo, the sandpit, the aquarium – and me drilling some rules into her to prepare her for the playground. Rule No 1 is ignoring people who say she can't do x or y "because she's a girl". And indeed, at the swings one day, we heard a little boy's father tell his son that my daughter "can't climb that high because she's a girl". Rule No 2 is science and computing are cool. This might involve getting her a Raspberry Pi – a basic computer that teaches kids to code. That is what this column has been about: motherhood and Raspberry Pi.

twitter.com/@janemerrick23

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