Tasmanian Lara Gidings has suggested that giving birth while a political leader as the last taboo for women participating fully in the polity. She characterised the achievement of such a milestone as the next frontier to follow electing women, electing mothers and making mothers ministers.
I feel obliged to say on the record how dangerous an idea this is. I am a woman whose children had a politician for a father for eight years; a woman who has many friends who are MPs with kids; and a woman who worked for a political leader who was a mother. I have seen the ‘balance’ up close and there is a point where it no longer respects the obligations of either role.
When my husband was elected I was told by one Member’s wife, ‘welcome to the widow’s club’. I’m happy to say that after two terms our marriage was stronger than ever but it was certainly also true that my children saw their father only two or three nights a week for eight years. That’s not uncommon in a state marginal seat and for federal politicians the added factor of a Canberra office makes it far worse.
As a politician you may love your spouse and children as fiercely as any poet but you can’t cheat the nights or weekends. Parliament sits late, P&Cs meet, angry mobs expect an audience, ribbons need to be pinned and plaques dedicated. Country fairs don’t open themselves.
There are many fine women who manage to acquit all the responsibilities of being a senior professional and a good mother - I know many and I hope I am one of them. As a former chair of the ALP Women’s Forum and having spent a decade on and off as a Ministerial adviser, I have watched many old friends have their babies after being elected. They are to a woman extraordinary, passionate, exemplary politicians and mothers.
But I would never vote for a woman to be Leader with a baby for the simple reason I would never vote for a man to be Leader with a tiny baby. Leaders if they are to run a government, a state and a party must be consumed by the job.
Backbenchers and even Ministers get home for dinner a few nights a week. Premiers generally do not. Morris Iemma said he would prioritise being a father and it played well for a few months with the public. Then people wanted to know what he was doing with the trains. And the schools, and the crime, and the power stations. And eventually with his own Party. Eventually there was no time for story time.
From my office down the hall or from a few steps behind her, I watched Kristina Keneally give the Premiership her absolute best, back to back all day every day meeting every person or group she might make a difference for and who might in turn make the difference for her government. I also saw her fight her senior staff and Ministers for every second of family time she defended for her sons and her husband.
As a staffer I have seen spouses in despair and fury at the efforts a minister’s team will go to in order to keep them at work every day and night of the week. The minister is their instrument for influence and they are incentivized to ensure their minister is saying yes to every opportunity that raises their office’s collective influence and stature. Spouses and chiefs of staff are rarely friends.
I have held executive level jobs in other fields and I remain convinced that politics consumes more completely than other professions. The interweaving of personal, emotional, philosophical and professional ambition makes it a uniquely jealous vocation. Phones ring all weekend, lunches run into the early hours of the morning, the lights remain on in little offices around the parliament long after even the merchant bankers and journalists have gone to bed.
I cannot claim to have put my own children firmly before my professional ambitions. Mine were well known to the cafeteria staff and attendants for roaming the House on nights when I had Bills to chaperone. I think our family came out of our experience in good shape and I believe you can have a great family life in politics just as you can manage any career with little children. But you cannot run the whole state with a new baby and do justice to either.
It’s not young women or young men or even their unborn children who we are letting down by pretending this fantasy might be true. It’s our ourselves. Voters have a right to expect that running the whole state as well as a political party and a government should properly consume every waking hour of an individual’s capability. It is not a job one can take leave from, undertake part time, or job share.
Being leader of a party in government is the ultimate point of accountability for the democratic process. It necessitates willingly or not the subjugation of all other responsibilities. Kristina balanced the job with kids who were well into their final primary years. Despite her extraordinary gifts I do not believe even she could have coped with her herculean workload with a new baby. Breast feeding and Cabinet meetings are both hard to schedule accurately.
One afternoon I joined a group of my younger colleagues discussing their enthusiasm for running for office. My suggestion they wait until after they had children was met with scorn - we can do it, look at her they said. I did look at her and always found something to admire in the view. But I didn’t envy her even once as I walked out the door to do the school run leaving the more ambitious to switch the lights out.
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