The Irish Times this week, followed en masse by other papers and mainstream media outlets, breathlessly rushed to report that 2 Irish MEPs were the MEPs with the worst record of attendance at voting sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. What they didn’t manage to initially include in the story, and which transpired over the course of the day that the story broke, was that one of the MEPs (Brian Crowley) has been unable to attend at all as he’s ill, and that the other, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, has needed to be at home with his wife, newborn baby, and other children. His wife has also been ill, in addition to having all the intensive, non-stop demands of a newborn to contend with. As at the time of writing, the Irish Times has run four separate follow-up pieces by Suzanne Lynch, all focusing on Ming’s ‘dismal voting record’, how he should suffer financially for it, and should Irish MEPs (and by obvious inference Ming) have even bothered to run at all if they were going to let down the electorate like that by non-attendance through having the nerve to have babies and families that need caring for? In one piece, Lynch attempted a mealy-mouthed pretence at recognising the fact that Ming was at home, caring for his unwell wife and their newborn baby as well as their other children, calling this ‘mitigating circumstances’, claiming that “[n]o one is suggesting [his need to take paternity leave] should elicit anything less than complete empathy” while immediately following this up by suggesting that his low attendance “while drawing full salaries raises the question as to whether Ireland’s MEP system is fit for purpose.”
No, actually, that’s exactly how parental and paternity leave systems SHOULD work. Nobody should be financially penalised for having a baby. (This is not a conversation about whether people who are supposed to be representing the public should be paid as much more than the majority of that public than they are, though that’s a conversation worth having too.) Nobody should be forced to attend their workplace immediately after the birth of a child for fear of losing their job – or indeed, as in the Irish system and in this instance, depending on the time of the birth, DURING the birth of a child. (In Ireland, because there is no entitlement whatsoever to paternal leave, new fathers are reliant on their holiday leave and employer’s vagaries to be able to be present at the birth of their children should that birth be during working hours, as well as to be home with their partner and newborn in the time after the birth.) Nobody should have their absence from their job as the result of the birth of a child and needing to be at home to care for that child, their unwell partner, and their other children reported in the national media and the subject of this kind of intense and judgemental scrutiny. No man should be expected to abandon his sick partner for her to provide alone the kind of intensively demanding all-around-the-clock care that a newborn provides, in order to show up at a place of work. And certainly no sick woman should be left alone to care for a newborn without the support she has a right to expect from her partner in creating that newborn, as well as support in caring for herself and her other children. What kind of barbaric social system would demand that?
Only, of course, the one we live under; a horrible combination of capitalism and patriarchy, which holds ‘work’ (meaning, of course, paid work, done outside the home, not something as petty and gendered as simply bringing a child into the world, caring for its every need, raising it as a moral being and seeing to its needs around the clock) as supreme; as an unquestionable overlord to be served without regard to personal needs and circumstances. “Doing your job”, in this paradigm, is paramount, and excuses everything from the actual killing of another human being to being expected to abandon one’s partner, the person one is assumed to love and honour above all others, to the 24/7 backbreaking work of caring for a house full of children (one a newborn) alone. And sure if you’re paid enough can you not just pay someone else to do that caring nonsense for you?
At no point in any of this coverage has the fact been mentioned that no Irish political representative – whether at local government level, at national level, or European level – has ANY right to any parental leave, whether that be paternity or maternity leave. It took Nessa Childers on Twitter to do that first. Nor did any of the coverage point out that while it’s “only one session a month” (as many on Twitter appeared to enjoy very much repeating), that “one session a month” extends to four consecutive days, and there are no direct flights between Dublin and Strasbourg, meaning this “one session” could very well in fact have demanded a full week every month away from Ming’s wife, newborn baby and other children. Even if his wife weren’t unwell, this would be an utterly unreasonable burden of care to lay on a woman who has just become a mother all over again. The blanket and unquestioning expectation apparent in not only the mainstream media coverage, but also the majority of the Twitter commentary on this, that if she weren’t sick (and in some cases that even though she is; and in yet some more, even more deplorable ones, that somehow they have the right to know HOW sick she is, and why, and since when, and why didn’t they know earlier), that he should have abandoned her, their newborn, and their other children, to the almighty power that is Work, is frankly sickening. A father should have the right to be with his newborn, just as a mother should have the right to not be the enforced sole, isolated carer of her newborn simply because its father needs to worship at the altar of Work. One of the most telling things of the coverage of this whole (non) issue is that there hasn’t been a single piece which can point to any of the votes he missed and name it as a topical one, as one that’s relevant to Ireland’s interests, or indeed one of those missed votes of his as having had any possible impact on the outcome if he had attended. Why isn’t that what’s being questioned as being a broken political representation system, rather than his having needed to take time to be with his family?
It is not possible to expect to see, and argue for, women’s participation in politics and public life rising from its current dismally low level, while also creating a society which excoriates men for taking up their part of the caring responsibilities that having a family entails. Perpetuating the idea and the necessity that only women can have space to do that not only condemns women to unpaid work in the home but also does not allow for space to honour that work; which has the potential to be beautiful, rewarding, and thoroughly worth doing. The work of caring for and raising a child is every bit as important to society, if not more so, than paid attendance at a workplace.
Sometimes people with babies need to be with those babies. Sometimes people with sick partners need to be with those sick partners because that’s what a partnership looks like. (It’s definitely what my partnership with my husband looked like when I was having an absolutely hideous time after our daughter was born, suffering from intense and unexpected postnatal depression, and would absolutely fall apart when he needed to be out of the house for even an hour, let alone travelling to another country for a full week.) No society that is worth living in should seek to punish or castigate its members for so doing.