Stella Creasy’s honesty about maternity leave shows how shockingly pregnant women are still treated

Society wants women to have babies, but too often it penalises those of us who do

Harriet Hall
Tuesday 18 June 2019 14:52 BST
Stella Creasy brings the sass to PMQs

I often imagine a world in which men are child-bearers. I imagine them high-fiving over heavy flows and helicoptering used tampons around their heads in locker rooms as declarations of virility. Contraceptive pills would be free in every public bathroom. Offices would have childcare facilities and men would sit at their desks breastfeeding and being patted on the backs by their bosses, who would provide bonuses according to the number of offspring their healthy sperm had created.

Reproductive diseases would be the most highly funded in all healthcare. Childbirth would be pain-free, tear-free and safer than it has ever been and reaching menopause would earn you an OBE.

Sadly, this is but a dream. Women pay a high price for their biology. Taxed for having periods, enduring the mental health implications of hormonal contraceptives despite evidence pointing to male alternatives, and seeing our careers stagnate if we choose to have babies. Facing criminalisation in some countries if we don’t want them.

I reached 30 this year and the ticking timebomb of my biology has become like JM Barrie’s crocodile; the limits of my fertility deafeningly loud. Concomitantly, my ambivalence towards procreating has never been greater – not simply because of the inevitable stress and exhaustion of parenting, but because of what it would mean for my career.

Stella Creasy outlined these fears today as she spoke bravely out about having to choose between being an MP or a mother now that she is pregnant. The Walthamstow MP said the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) rejected her request for paid cover so she could take maternity leave for her casework done outside the House of Commons. Because politicians are self-employed, Ipsa doesn’t recognise maternity leave.

She referenced her colleague Tulip Siddiq, who had to postpone a caesarean section to cast a vital vote. Creasy’s detailed and harrowing account of suffering two miscarriages and having to continue her parliamentary duties immediately afterwards, still “aching and bleeding”, was difficult – but necessary – reading. Since writing the article, a Change.Org petition to give MPs six months parental leave is gaining traction.

Let’s hope it makes the government and employers wake up to the unacceptable treatment faced by women who are pregnant or and trying to become so. The UK is lagging embarrassingly behind when it comes to parental leave. Nick Clegg pushed through shared parental leave during the coalition government in 2015, but fathers are still only entitled to two week’s statutory paternity pay. Is it any wonder uptake for shared parental leave has been abysmally low?

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Just 1 per cent of new parents used it last year. There’s hardly financial incentive. Last week researchers at Unicef found that the UK ranked in the bottom 20 of developed countries for maternity leave, offering just six weeks’ parental leave at 90 per cent pay and 33 weeks at the lower rate. We’re behind France, Germany and Sweden. And we know paternity leave is vital for the development of the child and to curb postnatal depression in mothers.

It would also help narrow the gender pay gap – which the World Economic Forum predicts will take another 202 years to close. Men can dismiss their company pay gaps by saying women simply opt to work part-time or “we just have more men at the top”, while sitting on paltry paternity-leave schemes that they know will result in most women staying at the lower rungs of the ladder. Meanwhile the UK still doesn’t offer tax-deductible childcare. Self-employed parents can claim the tax on a pencil but not on the person looking after their child.

So how does all this sit in a world where abortion rights are being terrifyingly stripped back? Creasy points out: “In Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana I would potentially have faced a criminal investigation to ensure I had not caused my own miscarriages because they were later than their six-week abortion deadline.” Forcing women to carry unwanted children to term while at the same time refusing them necessary measures to afford those children and continue a career just doesn’t add up.

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Women’s progress is curtailed whether we have children or not. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. It’s either presumed we will choose to have kids when we reach a certain age and find a stable relationship, and the invisible line of limitation is chalked around our careers; or we’re other: abnormal heathens, a threat to traditional family life. Remember Andrea Leadsom’s comments, that being a mother gave her a “very real stake“ in the country. What does that make the rest of us?

There is a level of shame placed upon women who choose not to have children, so visible in the vile gossip surrounding celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston who felt the need to say in an interview: “For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up. I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily.”

Society wants women to have babies – but it penalises those who do.

The UK needs to address its abysmal record on parental rights – and parliament should lead by example. The motherhood penalty is too detrimental to the lives of all women to remain unfixed.

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