Guergis to join small club of new mothers in office
Independant MP Helena Guergis leaves the House of Commons following a vote on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday September 22, 2010. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
Published Wednesday, December 1, 2010 7:06AM EST
OTTAWA - Now there's something you don't see every day -- a glorious third-trimester belly in the House of Commons.
Helena Guergis might be hidden away on the back bench, but it was hard not to notice the independent MP and former junior minister as she recently stood to make a statement from her seat.
Sometime this month the member from Simcoe-Grey in southern Ontario will join a small group of women in federal politics who have had a child while in office. Guergis and husband Rahim Jaffer, a former Tory MP, had been candid about wanting to start a family.
But on a practical level, being a member of Parliament has a unique set of challenges seen as a deterrent to women thinking of seeking elected office.
"There's an assumption that politics is not for women, or that if you decide to go into politics you're going to decide to wait until your kids are older," said former New Democrat MP Michelle Dockrill, famously photographed 12 years ago holding her newborn in the Commons.
"I didn't like those choices."
No maternity leave is mentioned in the pay and benefits package offered to MPs. Any MP who is absent from the Commons more than 21 sitting days will begin to see their pay cut by $120 a day. Doctors generally recommend a six-week recuperation period for new mothers.
MPs in the United Kingdom are entitled to maternity or parental leave through a special fund, which Prime Minister David Cameron took advantage of for two weeks last summer. The Australian Parliament refers to maternity as one of the reasons for a possible leave of absence, which an MP can request through a motion in the Chamber.
Over and above the financial considerations, there are the early mornings and late nights, the constant ferrying back and forth between Ottawa and the riding (some of them many hours away), and the inconsistent schedule that makes finding a child-care provider an epic quest.
Former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps blazed the baby trail in the Commons in 1987 when she gave birth to daughter Danelle while sitting as an opposition Liberal MP.
Barely a week after the joyous event, Copps describes how she came up to the Hill for U.S. President Ronald Reagan's visit. A colleague had to discreetly tell her in a hallway that her blouse had suddenly become soaked with breast milk.
Copps says she simply skipped early morning meetings and left the late-night reception hopping to her other colleagues. But Danelle (now a university student) became part of her entourage, making friends across the country.
"I think it's about trying to integrate your child into your own life," says Copps, who recalls fondly long hours spent together with the baby.
"It was giving the child a sense of flexibility and not being tied to a home-based routine."
Dockrill says she brought her son Kenzie to the Hill in the early months because she was breastfeeding. She and Bloc Quebecois colleague Caroline St-Hilaire, now mayor of Longueuil, Que., had to lobby the Speaker of the House to install change tables in the Parliament Buildings.
"The difficulty was walking from Wellington to Centre Block with a briefcase, and purse, and a baby bag and a rockable," recalls Dockrill.
"But I did it because that's what we do as women, we do it. ... Being deputy whip, there could be a number of times that I was needed over there."
Dockrill says the baby brought joy to the caucus and others around the normally staid precinct. She recalls a Commons interpreter repeatedly offering to walk the baby around on her breaks, and little Kenzie being handed around from MP to MP during an NDP caucus meeting.
Some have pushed for a better way.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Belinda Stronach recently argued in a speech for the introduction of video conferencing for caucus and committee meetings, and electronic voting in the Commons.
"It is no surprise that municipal politics may seem more accessible because home is not far away at the end of the day," Stronach told the Canadian Club in Ottawa three weeks ago.
"Women with children can therefore be prevented from participating fully in the political process at the federal level by the weight of geography and distance."
Dockrill's advice for future mothers considering a run at politics?
"You have to ask yourself whether or not you want both, because my position was that I had a right to have both, as a citizen of this country," Dockrill said.
"I had a right to do the work and be elected to do the work here, but by doing that, it didn't mean I gave up my privilege or the possibility of being a mom."
Copps has her own two cents for those who try to be the supermom and super politician: "Don't bake cookies."