by Holly Walker
Today is a big day in Parliament. It’s a big day because the Prime Minister delivers his statement of intent for the year and the other party leaders respond, setting the tone for election year.
Just quietly, it’s also a big day for me on a personal level – it’s my first full day back in the House after taking parental leave to welcome my baby girl Esther into the world. She is 16 weeks old.
Since my pregnancy became public last year, many people have asked me how I am going to manage having a young baby in such a demanding job. My response has been “I don’t know, we’ll just have to figure it out as we go along!”
We have the next three months figured out at least. My partner Dave has taken leave from his job to care for Esther. Because I am committed to breastfeeding her for as long as I can and she wants to, he and she will be based in my office during the day so that I can continue to feed her between (or even in) Caucus meetings, select committees, and sessions of the House (and so that I don’t miss her too much!). I will miss the evening 7.30-10pm sessions of the House for the first few months so that I can go home and put her to bed. My office has been decked out as a nursery complete with changing table, nappy bucket, cot, playmat, and bouncinette. It’s unorthodox, and it won’t be easy, but it will (hopefully) work for us, for now.
Becoming a mother has made me reflect a lot on the expectations we place on mothers who wish to (or have to) return to work. My job is unusual, and taking more than three months’ leave was not really an option, but my first conclusion is that 14 weeks (our current paid parental leave entitlement) is not nearly long enough. It has taken persistence over several months to get breastfeeding successfully established, and Esther did not settle into anything resembling a predictable pattern of feeds and sleeps until she reached three months. Just a few weeks ago I was wondering how on earth we were going to do it. 14 weeks is an absolute minimum. That’s why I was very pleased to see Labour confirm a long-held Green Party policy for at least 26 weeks paid parental leave earlier this week.
I have also been reflecting that I am incredibly lucky to have the flexibility that I do in my job as an MP. That might sound strange, since it is in many ways a very inflexible and demanding job, but in other ways I have a lot of opportunities that very few other working mums enjoy. We can afford for my partner to take a period of unpaid leave, I have my own office I can kit out for a baby, and on non-sitting days, I have some flexibility in my hours of work – I can set aside a regular Playcentre morning, for example, which both meets Esther’s needs, and allows me to connect with my community. Not many working mothers have these opportunities. I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In recently, in which she reflects on the barriers to more women in leadership positions. If more workplaces allowed mothers the flexibility that I am able to enjoy as an MP we could go a long way.
I feel incredibly blessed to have this beautiful baby, and to get to enjoy time with her while also doing a job that I love, and making a contribution to the public life of my country. It won’t always be easy – as I discovered when she unleashed a projectile vomit all over me on Lambton Quay last week – but we are determined to make it work. I’ll keep you all posted.