Emma Cowing: Office is no place for bringing up baby

Kids: You give them cuddles, they give you a runny nose. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Kids: You give them cuddles, they give you a runny nose. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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I AM writing this column from underneath a blanket. Next to me, from a steaming hot mug, emanates a distinctive, Lemsip-y smell. I think it does, anyway. My nose is so blocked I doubt I could detect a non-hazardous waste landfill site from 20 paces.

The reason for this ghastly cold, which I have been lumbered with since Hogmanay, is a dear friend’s dear child, who I spent time with over Christmas and who kindly left me a New Year gift in the form of a snotty nose and a grumbly chest.

It is, of course, part of the deal when one spends time with small children. You give them cuddles, they give you a runny nose, and the circle of life continues.

When children start turning up in the workplace however, it becomes very much not part of the deal at all.

Jo Swinson, the Scottish Lib Dem MP and a junior equalities minister who gave birth to her first son on 22 December last year, made some interesting comments recently about bringing children to work. Specifically, she criticised the fact that babies are not allowed in the voting lobby of the House of Commons.

“I think when you are perfectly capable of walking through the lobby holding a small baby, I think there would be a better way of just allowing that. But parliament moves but slowly,” she remarked, adding: “I hardly think it would be too much of a disruption. You can take a sword through there but you can’t a baby.”

Just off the top of my head, here are a few things that babies do, that swords don’t: cry, scream, cough, splutter, smile, soil nappies, sleep, be adorably cute (unless you are a sword-fetishist, in which case I sincerely hope you never have cause to be in the House of Commons’ voting chamber in the first place), and vomit.

Why do people believe bringing a baby to work is acceptable? For a start, looking after a baby is a full-time job all by itself, not something you can do with one hand while voting things into law that will affect the electorate with the other.

Secondly, and I mean this in the nicest of ways, babies are an imposition on everyone around them. When a baby enters a room, all adult conversation stops, to be replaced by a succession of gurgling, cooing and aww-ing noises, punctuated by stories about other babies, and how they may or may not be similar to this baby.

Again, fine in a social or domestic environment, where such things are to be expected, enjoyed, and once more are part of that glorious circle of life. In a workplace, where (and the clue is in the name here) people are expected to work, they are distracting and out of place. Unless of course that workplace is a childminder’s or a nursery, in which case the job is to look after said babies, which takes me back to my first point.

Thirdly, there is that nagging feeling – one that those of us who don’t have children always feel a little nervous about articulating – that we are increasingly living in a society where the rights of parents are placed before the rights of everyone else. That because one person has decided to have a baby and has the weight of the Mumsnet Brigade behind them, everyone around them has to suck it up, pay the price, and have their own working lives impinged upon.

The thing is, Swinson also made some very sensible comments about the fact that working as an MP is not an easy thing to do when you are a mother. Long hours – on Mondays the House sits until an eye watering 10.30pm – and the fact that there is no automatic maternity cover for MPs make it a hard job for any parent. This is wrong, and should be addressed if we are serious about wanting more women MPs, which we absolutely should be.

But there is a line to be drawn between creating a more family- friendly working environment and having a baby strapped to your chest while you go through your working day. It may seem a beautiful and poetic notion, but the practicalities – particularly when transferred to small, over-burdened offices struggling in a harsh economic climate – would instead make for a difficult, if not impossible, working environment, harsh on co-workers, and harsh on working mothers, many of whom I doubt would want to take their children to work in the first place.

It has been suggested in the past that the House of Commons sets a poor example thanks to their non-family friendly practices. But allowing mothers to take their babies into the voting lobby would surely set the worst example of all.