Single mothers, Louise Mensch, and picking up the kids
Oh dear – Conservative MP Louise Mensch’s decision to leave early to go and pick up the kids from school this week during the questioning of the head of News International, James Murdoch, is very problematic on all sorts of levels.
Firstly, as a feminist, I applaud Mensch’s decision to do so because at a stroke she clearly highlighted the difficulties that Westminster working hours pose for parents with children.
Joan Ruddock, a Labour MP, recently lobbied her colleagues for a change of working hours in the House:
I had some knowledge of the House before I arrived and had always worked long hours under pressure. However, I quickly discovered that the House was the least efficient working environment I had ever encountered. I also found working in the Commons divorced from everyday experience, unhealthy and inimicable to the maintenance of a private life.
When I came to the Commons in 1987, over 40% of sittings went to midnight or beyond, including all-night sittings where the next day’s business was lost. Over the next decade these late sittings were reduced to around 5%, but the House still met 2.30pm to 10.30pm Monday to Thursday.
The current working hours and late night sittings do seem a rather inefficient working practice. Ruddock pointed to surveys indicating that MPs admit to being exhausted much of the time and stressed by their jobs, with personal lives suffering as a consequence.
So any debate about changing the working practices in the House is to be welcomed. I for one would prefer my MP (preferably a female MP at that) to be on tip-top form when debating issues that will affect my life.
However, from a professional perspective, I find myself having problems with Mensch’s decision to cut her appearance short at the questioning session.
Being a working single parent, I was very very careful to be professional at all times, and this meant arranging childcare when I attended important meetings. I did this to ensure that I was taken seriously at work and also because I wanted to remain on the career ladder.
As women’s editor, Jane Martinson, writes in the Guardian:
By all means fight against the archaic working practices and braying behaviour but don’t use an infrequent and highly public event to make the statement that women have to rush home and pick up the kids while the men all carry on with the serious stuff.
But maybe I fell prey to the existing working culture that, despite years of equality legislation, still privileges the ‘man at work, wife staying at home’ model?
Certainly, there were many occasions when I was torn between staying at work and rushing to pick my son up when he was ill, for example, meaning that – at times – I was doing neither job very well.
As I say, I am conflicted about this event.
What do you think?