AN AUSTRALIAN POLITICIAN made global news recently for breastfeeding her child while speaking in parliament.
It’s worth taking a minute to look behind the vaguely titillating headlines. Australian Greens politician Larissa Waters was categorically not the first female politician to feed a child in her place of work.
What’s unusual about the situation was not the fact of a young mother providing for her newborn baby, but the fact that she had no choice but to do so in a public place, and during a live broadcast.
As an elected representative who has been there and done that, I felt a certain solidarity with her. But more than that, I was shocked that this was actually still considered a news story.
Even more depressingly, the “story” itself was met with questions from the Irish media about whether the senator should have been allowed to bring her baby to work with her in the first place.
The Irish Times ran an online poll asking: Should politicians breastfeed whilst addressing parliament? 41% said “yes” and 28% “didn’t care”.
But is that really the first question that we should be asking? It’s not as if women politicians really have that much choice in the matter. The reality for female Irish elected representatives is that there simply is no maternity leave.
We are considered “office holders”, rather than employees, and on that basis we are not entitled to maternity leave. So, if you want to breastfeed your baby, you have no choice but to bring them along to your meetings.
I breastfed all my children and it is something that is very important to me. By the time my fourth child arrived, I was a serving councillor with Wicklow County Council.
My experience of having a baby as a public representative has been a largely positive one.
Wicklow County Council and my fellow councillors were very supportive and I was afforded some flexibility to enable me to perform my functions. My baby came to meetings with me and I was happy enough to feed her whilst discussing the pros and cons of local property taxes.
Also around that time, I was involved in setting up the Social Democrats and my daughter attended the first National Executive of the party. Funnily enough, whenever I brought my baby to meetings, especially if the participants didn’t know each other, she was an instant icebreaker.
So I managed, with the support of colleagues, to juggle this little baby and work. But this isn’t the same across the board. And while I appreciated all the support, the fact remains that many young women are turned off by the punishing work schedules that come with being a politician at any level. We shouldn’t have to depend on goodwill of colleagues to allow us to juggle work and motherhood.
There are no specific rules as to how councils, or indeed the Dáil or Seanad, deal with new mothers and maternity leave, other than allowing councillors to take up to six months off on general health grounds.
Maternity leave should be a universal right
This is simply not acceptable. Maternity leave should be a universal right regardless of whether you are elected or unelected. In a week when the lack of women in the new cabinet came under scrutiny and the Women for Election crowdfunding campaign took off, is the media obsession with – shock horror – a lactating woman feeding her baby the best we can expect?
At a time when the need to increase participation of women in politics is widely accepted, and we have gender quotas at a national level (there are no quotas for councils), we cannot ignore this stumbling block.
At the moment, the only option available to new mothers is to either attend meetings – with or without their babies, or just not to turn up, thus leaving their seat vacant and denying their constituents a voice.
However, our responsibilities as public representatives cannot be forgotten. Constituents rightly expect to be represented by their politicians, whether male or female. Rather than leaving a council seat empty and not taking part in meetings or voting on important decisions, I would like to see temporary co-option made available.
This would mean that a temporary substitute could take up the role of the representative during the period of maternity leave, and ensure that voting obligations etc are met. Replacement councillors could be nominated at election time, so that voters were aware of who would be taking over in the case of maternity leave. This is one very practical way to support young women considering entering public service.
It doesn’t mean that we will no longer see a woman politician breastfeeding in an elected chamber – but it means she will have a choice.
Jennifer Whitmore is Cathaoirleach of Greystones Municipal District.
This article was originally published in thejournal.ie