Natascha Engel: It's no fun being an MP and a mother

Kirkbride and Moran show the difficulties women MPs face
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The Independent Online

In the furious debate on MPs' expenses, people are beginning to talk about the role of MPs and of Parliament, what they do and what is fair to claim for. The resignation of Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran yesterday has sparked particular debate about the needs of women MPs.

I have three small children aged five, four and one. I knew what the lifestyle of an MP was when I chose to run for Parliament, and I chose to have children. No one forced me into either decision.

I love doing this job and I love having young children. Being an MP is fantastically interesting, it's an absolute privilege, but it's certainly not family-friendly. This is a real issue for all full-time working parents. You have to make choices between spending time with your children and promotion (I have chosen the former). You try to do the best you can both at home and at work. Most of the time, you get by. But when children get ill, your carefully-balanced life falls apart.

During my time as an MP, I have taken babies to surgeries and toddlers to public meetings. They live in two places. On Friday evenings they fall asleep in London and wake up Saturday morning in Derbyshire. On Sunday nights it's the other way round. We have two sets of everything. Two sets of toys, clothes, bottles, plastic plates and beds. I can't, don't and wouldn't claim for these items, but it is a heavy cost.

Again, it's a choice. I could chose to leave my family in Derbyshire and spend the week without them in London. I could chose to have them in London and pop up to the constituency at the weekend by myself. But I didn't have a family only to be miles away from them for large parts of the week.

The expenses debate is moving on. It has forced MPs to talk to the people they represent and make them understand what it is they do on their behalf. Only when people realise that we split our time between constituency and Westminster can they begin to understand why we even have a second-home allowance, let alone the items we may or may not charge for.

Once we engage in this debate, people become more interested in the day-to-day workings of what we do. They also question how it is possible to manage a young family with a demanding job. Many of them are doing exactly the same with less.

The issue of expenses is actually about making this job possible to do. The hours and the expenses regime are designed to suit older men whose families have either grown up or who have wives looking after their children.

Many of the women MPs I know, some of them single parents, twist themselves in knots trying to do this job and care for their children in the right way. We want to give all we can to our constituents, we want to take up campaigns and take part in debates on matters that are important to us. But sometimes, when one of your children wakes up with chicken pox and you have to be on committee within the hour, it's just not possible.

I hope we can have a full and rational debate about what kind of Parliament we want, and what sort of people we want to have representing us in Parliament. I hope we can talk more broadly about the lifestyle and sometimes impossible expectations, and come to some workable conclusions, so that Parliament can attract more women with good ideas and yes, some younger women with children too.

The writer is Labour MP for North East Debyshire