Sunday 21 January 2018

Motherhood or motherland?

Are women forced to choose between family and public life? They can co-exist, four female TDs tell Deirdre Cashion, but it's not child's play

Aine Collins TD with Lily and Thomas.
Aine Collins TD with Lily and Thomas.

Deirdre Cashion

A dramatic shift in the traditional role of women in Irish society is well under way, and there are encouraging signs that our Constitution is about to catch up.

At the most recent plenary session of the Constitutional Convention, a body tasked with considering certain topics as possible future constitutional amendments, 88pc of delegates voted to change Article 41.2, which singles out for special mention the role of women in the home.

Delegates also heard submissions on the broader question of female participation in public life -- its universal relevance reflected by the popularity of the recent Danish political drama 'Borgen', which revealed the spectacular failure of prime minister Birgitte Nyborg to successfully juggle her family life with the affairs of state.

'Borgen' might be fiction, but fiction has become reality for the Danes, with the election of their first female premier, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. It's difficult to envisage a similar development in Dail Eireann any time soon, where just 15pc are women.

'Weekend' spoke to our young female TDs about motherhood, the challenges of public life, gender quotas and the prospect of a female Taoiseach ever taking leaders' questions in the Dail.

I was 21 and in college when I had my daughter, Aeva-May. I'm a lone parent.

I joined the Labour Party while I was there and got involved in Labour Youth. If you talk to any of my colleagues at that time, they remember Aeva-May in the buggy at meetings. It wasn't ideal, but that's what I felt I had to do if I wanted to stay involved in politics.

I work Monday to Friday, but could work 12 or 13 hours per day. I leave Aeva-May on a Tuesday morning and I don't come back until Thursday night. She stays with her nanny and grandad -- my mum and dad -- who are brilliant. Otherwise, I'm generally here in the morning. I'm good at making breakfast -- that's my forte.

I do feel guilty that I'm away so much, but I think lots of parents feel guilty, and the reality of life today is that people have to work. There are days when you have second thoughts and you get a sad phonecall asking, 'When are you coming home?'

I don't think she's suffering or anything like that, but it took her a full year to get used to it. I think she even emailed John Lyons [Labour deputy whip] one day, unknown to me, complaining that I had to go to Dublin. The physicality of not being here is very difficult and some women would choose not to do it.

I do generally try to keep my weekends free, though. Traditionally there always would have been a clinic on a Saturday, but I decided not to do that. On Saturday morning, she has hockey. It's at 9.30am, so it's an early start.

I have a boyfriend, Gary, and we're getting married next Christmas. He works in the Dail and keeps the unsociable hours like me.

I don't know how we can better structure the Dail. When the babies are small, I can see how it's easier, as there is the Dail creche, but it only opens until 6pm, and in the run-up to the budget we were there until 11 or 12 o'clock at night.

On quotas, I've come full circle on this one. I originally didn't think there was a need for them, as it's never been an impediment to me. But I do think it's got to a stage where we're going backwards rather than forwards.

A temporary quota, to get that initial influx of women, is what we need.

Only we had a gender quota in this constituency in 2007, I wouldn't have been on the ticket and I wouldn't be here. They had to be told that they needed a man and a woman, otherwise they would have picked two men.

The directive wasn't there for 2011, but, at that stage, I had already established myself within the party.

We have to put positive initiatives in place to actively go out and look for women. They're there. You go into local communities and women are doing all the work. They mightn't be the chairperson, but they're in some other role that's a driving force.

We don't naturally have the same confidence in ourselves as men do, but when somebody encourages that confidence, it naturally shines.

It bugs me when people refer to you as the token woman. There is no part of this job that is token. Even arriving on a Friday night in a frock, it's so much harder for a woman than it is for a man. Every single politician has to work extremely hard to get where they are. You mightn't think they're worth their salt afterwards, but they have to work mighty hard. I work about 80 hours a week now on a slow week.

The Dail is not a family- friendly place -- of course it's not. I come home most nights as I like to see my children in the morning. So I get up at cock crow, make their lunches and get them washed and dressed. I bring the smaller ones in the car and the older ones walk to school.

My father collects the youngest and she goes to Mam and Dad's house. The others walk home from school together and our childminder, Elaine, is there to meet them. She does their homework and cooks their dinner and my husband, Declan, is home by 6pm.

I do shopping after mass on a Sunday morning only because it's the quietest time in the supermarket and everybody has gone home to read the newspapers.

Our house is a mess, but that's because there are six people living in it. It was like that before I got elected, so I can't blame it on that!

You couldn't do it without a partner. We often laugh in our house that if I had a husband who wanted his dinner on the table in the evening, you just wouldn't do it.

I can see a female Taoiseach in our lifetime. I definitely see Mary Lou McDonald leading Sinn Fein in the very near future.

I think the biggest change will happen when we start selling and promoting local government as a career choice for women."

I think work/life balance is a challenge for lots of women. I have seen it from both sides.

I was a single mum for 10 years. Ciara's dad unfortunately died very young. I went through college being a single mum, set up my own business and worked all the hours God sent, as a single mum.

I know what it's like to be that person -- trying to manage without support and doing it on a very limited budget. So maybe that's why I don't find this a big deal.

It's important that we get that point out there: it's all about being organised and balanced.

Our little girl Lily has cystic fibrosis, so reliable childcare is really important for us. We can't put her into a creche. We need full-time care available so that if she is sick with a cough or a cold, it's straight home.

Our childminder comes in the morning at 8.30am and stays until my husband, Paul, comes home from work. He has a very serious job, too, working in the financial sector in Cork.

She does the cleaning and ironing and looks after the house. She's fantastic with the kids and they're looked after so well. From that end, it's easy for me to do my job because I know that the back-up is superb.

I'm away two nights a week -- it's not difficult as I'm very organised.

This morning I was up at the unearthly time of 5am as I had to get on a train at 6.30am from Mallow. I was trying to get a report done, so I didn't finish work until 12.30am, but that's not normal. It's busy, but when you love something, you don't count the hours.

I couldn't do the job well unless I had a passion for it, and that's always been the way I have operated.

*Joanna Tuffy (47)

Politics is like running your own business. Some women feel they might jeopardise their chance of promotion if they take too long out of the workplace. Politicians have that dilemma, too.

Technically, you don't get maternity leave as you are the equivalent of self-employed. But you get a bit of leeway in that your colleagues will step in for you and help to lighten your workload.

For men and women, the key to it is the support you get from people; your team, volunteers, members of the local branch, family and friends.

I had my daughter when I was a senator. Sometimes I brought her to Leinster House with me as I was breastfeeding, but that was also a problem in terms of having somewhere you could go.

I'll probably get a bit of slack, but my partner, Philip, works for me now as a secretarial assistant in my constituency office. I drop my daughter to school as I mightn't see her in the evening. It's the one thing I make sure I do. Philip collects her from school and takes care of her from then.

On a Wednesday when the Dail sits late, Philip goes to a camera club, so we get a babysitter. I want him to have his own life, too, and not that everything revolves around me.

It's very tough managing things such as shopping, cleaning and ironing.

Our house is a mess, generally, but the upside of the job is that you're your own boss when it comes to Monday or Friday. I have clinics every second Monday, but when I don't have them I'll try to catch up with the housework. Philip helps out hugely. I couldn't give him enough credit.

I think I'm becoming more conscious of the need to try and set aside more time for my family, particularly during the holidays. I'm so absorbed by politics itself, it's almost obsessive. You have to take a step back.

I'm not in favour of gender quotas. My problem with them is that they are anti-democratic.

Rather than leaving it to people to make up their own mind and using your own powers of persuasion, you're imposing a decision from the top.

But I am in favour of opening up politics to women. You have to give them more of a say in the grassroots of political parties and help women to emerge from the bottom up.

I think we probably will see a female Taoiseach in the near future.

Mary Harney was leader of her party and, if it had been a bigger party, she could have been in that job. It's not unthinkable in 10 years' time.





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