Lancaster and Fleetwood MP reveals challenges of juggling new mother and Westminster roles

Cat Smith said she realised she wanted to become a mum whilst hiding under a table during the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack in 2017.

Friday, 19th June 2020, 1:19 pm
Updated Friday, 19th June 2020, 2:02 pm
Cat Smith and her son Eli, aged one.

The 35-year-old Labour MP said she had faced numerous challenges since her son Eli was born almost two years ago - including navigating the London Underground, breastfeeding in the House of Commons, and returning to work just hours after giving birth.

Ms Smith was first elected as an MP to represent Lancaster and Fleetwod in 2015.

She was re-elected in 2017 and again in 2019.

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Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Cat Smith and her son Eli in the Houses of Parliament.

The Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs said that it was on March 22 2017 - during the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack - that she first decided she wanted to become a parent.

"I'd been in a meeting with Tim Farron (MP for South Lakeland) and John Woodcock (former MP for Barrow and Furness), as there had been a vote called about Morecambe Bay hospitals," she said.

"We heard the gun shots, and then it was a bit of a blur.

"We ran away from the sound of the shots but didn't at that point know what had happened.

Eli hard at work in Ms Smith's office in the House of Commons.

"Instinct kicked in, and I ran back to Tim Farron's office, and hid under the table, assuming that there was a gang of terrorists roaming the building with guns.

"In this moment my life flashed before me and that was the moment I regretted not having a child."

She said she was not planning on having a child when she first became elected in 2015, or when she married her partner Ben Soffa a year later.

Eli was born on July 11 2018, and, naturally, her life changed significantly.

Cat Smith, Eli, and former Lancaster Mayor David Whitaker in Morecambe.

"I would walk from home to the railway station in Lancaster with my son, I'd have paperwork, jigsaws and colouring books to juggle," she said.

"Before I had a baby I'd spend my time on the train working, but afterwards, it was more about what you could see out of the window.

"As he's a toddler, he tends to nod off, but he wakes up again when he hears the London Underground noise.

"I'll get in to London around lunchtime and then over to the House of Commons nursery, which allows me the time to do my job, as our first votes on a Monday are at 10pm."

Ms Smith said there were no provisions for maternity or paternity leave when she became a mum, but soon after a "baby leave" trial was voted in - allowing female MPs six months and male MPs two weeks with their newborn, or if they adopt a child.

She said that there will be a debate about bringing it in permanently in July.

Under the trial MPs can - if they choose - vote by proxy, allowing another MP to cast their vote in parliament.

"I had severe morning sickness, and balancing that with my Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) was difficult, often having to leave the House of Commons Chamber to be sick," Ms Smith said.

"All the sickness ended when my son was born.

"Then it was having to get back straight away to being an MP.

"He was born at lunchtime, and by the afternoon I was replying to emails from constituents.

"You don't get any extra hours in the day to do it and it was interesting going back to Westminster, carrying Eli in a sling."

Ms Smith said she breastfed her son for nine months.

"It worked fine in Lancaster and Fleetwood, but it was much more difficult in London," she said.

"Up until this point I was staying in a flat that my husband had as a part buy and part rent before we met.

"It was in Hackney, around 40 minutes from Westminster for an able-bodied person with no pushchair.

"Once I had the baby in the pram, it became very difficult.

"Commuting felt dangerous because of the over-crowding, carrying the pushchair, with my baby in a sling.

"It was the wrong decision really.

"My husband was there for me but he also had to work, and I was trying to commute in the early hours of the morning to vote."

Ms Smith said she also wanted to respond to an article in the Daily Mail about why the couple had two flats, one of which she claimed expenses for as an MP.

"MPs are able to claim to rent a flat in London," she said.

"We were all burnt out and we weren't putting our son in the right place.

"So we rented a cheap flat within walking distance of Parliament, meaning we were all able to do our jobs.

"I don't own property in London.

"My husband had the flat, and I was living in a flat in Lancaster, and we were commuting between the two as a couple.

"So we put my husband's flat up for sale, but it was virtually impossible to sell due to all the new legislation brought in after Grenfell.

"He's been trying to get a fire safety certificate, and he's still trying to sell it now.

"He didn't want to keep it, and that was the situation we were in last year - two flats. There's nothing factually inaccurate in the Daily Mail story, but it's about context.

"Being an MP is not a family friendly job and what we were doing wasn't working.

"My other option was to quit as an MP, but I'd just been elected, and that is not particularly good for democracy, and I feel it's important that young parents can be an MP."

Ms Smith also said the provision for new mothers in Westminster left a lot to be desired.

"I got back to Westminster with a newborn baby, they had an infant room which was literally a cupboard!" she said.

"I don't think we particularly support breastfeeding mothers within our society as it is.

"I pay for childcare in both Lancaster and Westminster, the latter provides care for kids with parents on unusual hours.

"My House of Commons office looked like a nursery at times!"

Ms Smith said the vast majority of constituents in Lancaster and Fleetwood had been supportive.

"From memory there was one message asking for clarification of the house situation," she said.

"You can disagree with people's politics, and I'd be very worried if 100 per cent of people in Lancaster and Fleetwood agreed with mine, but there's no reason whatsoever for abuse.

"You can disagree but understand that they are just doing their best for their constituency."

Recently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, MPs have been able to take part in virtual debates and vote online.

However, a majority returned to Parliament earlier this month to debate and vote in person.

Ms Smith said that although the virtual system wasn't perfect, it proved that it could be done, and it also made the case for many employees - particularly those with disabilities - to be able to work more flexibly, for example at home.

She said that - along with former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, and two other Labour MPs - she had made the case for new mothers to have proxy voting for six months.

She added: "I've always been reluctant to talk about my family and health, due to the amount of abuse that MPs get.

"But I hope that by opening up a bit, it might just remind people that we are human beings as well."