Like Jacinda Ardern, I rewrote the rules on having a baby in office | Yvette Cooper

I was the first UK minister to take maternity leave. Parliament should allow MPs to set an example of good practice

Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy announcement put a smile on the faces of working women across the globe. When the New Zealand prime minister has her baby later this year, it will be the first time this century, and second time ever, that an elected national leader has given birth. With her partner Clarke Gayford (he plans to stay at home with the baby), she is smashing a glass ceiling that has curiously glazed back over in the 30 years since Benazir Bhutto, as prime minister of Pakistan, gave birth.

Hopefully their happy, relaxed approach to the prospect of balancing work and family life will make it more normal for the rest of us, too. As Jacinda points out: “I am not the first woman to multitask.” On handling morning sickness at work, she says: “It’s just what ladies do.” Sadly taking the flak is also “what ladies do”. Amid the celebrations, there have been the predictable attacks on whether she can cope from the same kinds of people who attacked Julia Gillard, Australia’s former prime minister, for being childless. And I don’t recall anyone asking Tony Blair or David Cameron if they could handle a new baby in No 10.

In 2001, I was the first British government minister to take maternity leave. Astonishingly, in the entire 20th century it had never happened before. The upside – according to one bemused civil servant I discussed it with – was that I would get to draw up my own plans. There weren’t any rules at all. The downside was the insecurity and dependence on other people’s goodwill; the first time I took maternity leave, the civil service were brilliant; the second time they made it much harder for me to return.

I also felt more pressure to get it right. Was I taking too much time? Too little? Do I have to prove I’m not shirking and take less? Do I have to be a role model for other women desperate to take maternity leave, and take more? Does my baby need me for longer? Do my constituents expect me back in post? Who am I letting down, because it must be someone and is probably everyone?

In July 1988, Pakistan's president, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, announced the country's first elections in more than a decade. His chief opponent, Benazir Bhutto, having said weeks earlier she was expecting her first child, did not see a coincidence.

"General Zia called the [elections] thinking that a pregnant woman couldn't campaign,” she told the BBC. “I could, I did and I won, so that disproved that notion."

Her exhausting campaign schedule was only momentarily interrupted when her son was born four weeks early. The decisive win proved that voters could accommodate the idea of a new mother running the country – though it helped that Bhutto was a formidable character from a powerful political dynasty. 

Bhutto became the first democratically elected leader to give birth while in office when her second child arrived in 1990. She had the baby secretly, fearing opponents would use her absence to move against her. "The next day I was back on the job, reading government papers and signing government files."

She had been pregnant with her third child during political upheaval in which she was teargassed. “It was a pretty harrowing experience,” she said. “[But] I found that the old-fashioned notion that a woman who's expecting a child has to be bedridden was absolutely wrong, a woman can do anything if she's lucky enough not to have morning sickness."

Good for Ardern, for sounding so calm and sensible about her maternity plans. Good for Gayford, too, for showing it’s not all about the girl. In our family, Ed Balls and I struck a good deal that I wouldn’t change a single nappy for the first month. Breastfeeding, bleeding, deflating, feeding again; all that postpartum stuff seemed quite challenging enough without having to keep searching for Pampers. So Ed did all the early nappies – and the cooking and washing, too.

It meant working in a different way. A baby seat in the ministerial car. No red boxes in the evening (frankly the idea that ministers should be expected to take all decisions overnight is a stupid one, whether you have children or not). No files to read on the train back to the constituency; I was more likely to be on my feet with a toddler determined to walk the whole way from London to Doncaster. As the children got older, it meant handling their embarrassment at having ministerial parents, especially in school, while Ed was education secretary. Strictly speaking, he has found wilder ways to embarrass them since.

But, years after I took maternity leave, there are still too many challenges for new parents both in politics and out. Ministerial maternity arrangements are still ad hoc. In parliament, we have a nursery now, used by staff and MPs. But there are no arrangements for votes or constituency surgeries when babies are born. That’s why I’m supporting Harriet Harman’s proposals for six months’ baby leave for mums and dads, including proxy votes and extra constituency support.

In the end this isn’t about political parents or women MPs, it’s about everyone. Parliament has to get its own house in order so that it can be credible in the more important tasks of getting every workplace in the country to end discrimination, supporting families and demanding more action from the government. New mothers still face shocking discrimination; the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that more than 50,000 new mothers a year are unfairly forced out of their jobs. New fathers are still too often discouraged from getting involved. Affordable childcare is too patchy. And when the coalition government brought in charges for maternity and sex discrimination cases, the chance of women getting justice went down.

No matter how brilliant Ardern and Gayford might be, role models aren’t enough – we need equality and real structural change. So let’s wish the New Zealand couple well, but not put them under the pressure of expecting their personal decisions to be enough to change the world. That’s the responsibility of all of us – and we still have a long way to go.

• Yvette Cooper MP is chair of the home affairs select committee and a former shadow home secretary


Yvette Cooper

The GuardianTramp

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