Parenting

Jess Phillips: 'Motherhood made me feel like I mattered. I wish that wasn't the case'


It is fitting that before Jess Phillips can sit down to talk about her new book on motherhood, she has to spend a few seconds encouraging her son to go back to his school work, with all the plain-speaking (“go back to school!”) we’ve come to expect from the Labour MP for Birmingham, Yardley. She straightens herself on her sofa, and smiles through my laptop screen.

For Phillips, as for many working parents, this lockdown has been hard. She wasn’t impressed with the prime minister’s open letter of praise to parents last month. “I don’t want his patronising, thanks,” she says. “I want the government to pull their finger out and to have noticed that mothers across the country existed a year ago, and to have done something about that.”

Phillips has been thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother – she has written a book, Mother, for the Pound Project, an independent Birmingham-based crowdfunded publisher. The book explores what motherhood means to her – in her personal life and in Westminster – and in society. Women who choose not to become mothers, she says, “are literally my superheroes. I put them on such a high pedestal – people who decide not to have children and then stick to it, against all the social pressures and almost everybody in your life assuming that you’re either infertile or cold and heartless. I think anyone who can buck social conditioning to that level, hats off to you.”

For women who want to have children, but, for whatever reason it doesn’t happen, “that must feel like terrible emotional pain. I know what it feels like to want to get pregnant.” When she was a young woman, and diagnosed with various gynaecological conditions, she was told she might not be able to have children. “To add on to [the pain of infertility], the idea that society paints you as a body that didn’t fulfil its purpose, that’s the worst. We’ve got to move on from the idea that our worth as women is only in our wombs. I’ve met some mothers who I wouldn’t trust to do anything. I’ve met plenty of fathers like that.”

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The pandemic has brought the role of mothers into strikingly sharp focus: according to the TUC, more than 70% of women had their furlough requests as a result of school closures turned down in the first lockdown. This month, a report by the women and equalities committee warned that the government is at risk of “turning the clock back” on gender inequality by ignoring the impact of the pandemic on women.

Phillips with Kaveri Mayra, Betsy McCallon, Rev Kate, Diana Flores and Mary Brandon as part of a panel talk at Glastonbury festival in 2019.
Phillips with Kaveri Mayra, Betsy McCallon, Rev Kate, Diana Flores and Mary Brandon as part of a panel talk at Glastonbury festival in 2019. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“We can’t just come out of the pandemic and not target schemes and support for the people who have paid the greatest price: vulnerable children, and children full stop, but also women in the labour market.” Phillips is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women and work, and points out that many nurseries and childminding businesses are close to collapse, yet the government is focused only on male-dominated sectors such as the building industry.

“All the talk about rebuilding the economy post-pandemic, post-Brexit, post-austerity, is always about diggers,” she says. “I mean, do something to make sure everyone gets to play with the digger. What have they done to get more women signed up to digger courses? Make sure I can control a digger,” she says, and although she’s half-joking, I have a sudden vision of Phillips in hard hat and hoop earrings, unstoppable at the wheel of some heavy machinery.

It’s the same with domestic abuse, says Phillips, who is also the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding. “It took until the third [statement during the first lockdown] for the prime minister to even mention it. And the first penny that reached the frontline was five months after the crisis started. It’s not for the want of people like me, in the beginning, being like ‘we should think about this’. When Covid-19 was still just a thing in China, we were talking about rising rates of domestic abuse that were being reported by Chinese charities.”

Her impression of the government’s attitude to policies that would improve the lives of women is that it’s “always considered an add-on, rather than a fundamental part of our society”. And then, when small steps are made, she says, “they expect a bloody round of applause. I’m sick of having to act grateful.”

Phillips, who worked for Women’s Aid before becoming an MP, says she feels “actual pain” knowing there are no places in refuges for women and children trapped at home with abusers. “I’ve met women who were raped repeatedly in the early lockdown and didn’t feel that they could escape. When they tried, there wasn’t a bed.” When the domestic abuse bill was passed by MPs last summer – which, among other things, will place a duty on local authorities to provide refuge spaces – she was thrilled. “We matter as much as bins? This is amazing,” she says, laughing. “I’m not saying refuse collection is not important, but I do want people to not be beaten up and killed in their homes just as much.”

Now Phillips is supporting Sammy Woodhouse, one of the survivors of the Rotherham grooming scandal, who is calling for children conceived as a result of rape, as her son was, to be recognised as victims within the law, giving them specialist support and the potential to prosecute their “father”. “We need to understand that children suffer harm from violence against women and girls. Even if that violence never touches them physically, we’ve got to start recognising the toll that takes on children and set up services to help them, because they don’t exist.” And the vital way to support children, she says, is to support their mothers. “We punish mothers for falling prey, rather than see how we can help them be the best moms that they can be and support them. We treat people terribly – we tell people that it’s their fault that they’re victims and that they’re going to have their children removed because they haven’t protected them.”

Phillips with schoolchildren and parents at the gates of Downing Street in 2019, protesting against cuts forcing schools to close early on Friday afternoons.
Phillips with schoolchildren and parents at the gates of Downing Street in 2019, protesting against cuts forcing schools to close early on Friday afternoons. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

A powerful section from Phillips’s book deals with the grief of losing a mother. Her discussion of what it is to be motherless is – in her unsentimental style – breathtakingly clear and raw. “It would be hard, in the case of my mother, to have hyperbole about how close we were,” she says. “There wouldn’t have been a day where I hadn’t been on the phone for at least an hour, I don’t even know what we used to talk about.”

On the surface, Phillips says her politics are much more like her dad’s – an outspoken, lifelong socialist. “I’m not quiet – I get that from my dad – but my mom would quietly get on with trying to change something and doing the detailed, often tedious work.” Her mother, Jean Trainor, was the daughter of a dinner lady, and a clever child who would eventually become an executive in the NHS, while also raising four kids and several unofficial foster children. Before Phillips was born, Trainor took legal action against a drugs company after her mother’s angina medication was linked to the loss of her eyesight. “I just can’t imagine a woman at the age of 26, with two kids and another one on the way, taking on a global legal action to ban the use of a drug, from a terraced house in the Black Country,” says Phillips. She learned from Trainor that was “it was never a big deal to try to change something. She always thought: ‘Well, there’s probably something that we can do’. That’s not scary then, is it?”

Phillips was 28 when her mother died, and it was, she says, the reason she became an MP – her grief was dulled by distraction. “I had, like, three jobs and was a councillor, and started to do a master’s. And I had two kids. In hindsight, I can see that I had to occupy my time.” There was an element of wanting to make her mum proud, to do the sort of things Trainor would have done, to gain the platform that she might not have felt was open to her. “I don’t know,” she adds, “it’s never rational. Emotions aren’t, are they? But if my mom hadn’t died, I don’t think I’d be in the position I am now. I suppose you’re always trying to prove yourself to someone, and they’re not there, so you’ll never achieve the moment of ‘you did it, well done’.”

She says she tries not to think about what her mother has missed too much. “When I was selected to be the candidate, she’d only been dead about 18 months, and I remember thinking: ‘I’m not asking much of the celestial beings, I just want a phone call, I just want to tell her.’” There’s a catch in her voice, but she instantly becomes the pragmatist. “I don’t try to paste any idea of what she would think, because some things she wouldn’t agree with. But don’t worry,” she says with a smile, “my dad is always there for those helpful hints about what I’m doing wrong.”

Phillips is more sad that “my nephews never got to meet her, I hate that”. Her brother beat heroin addiction, “and she never got to see that. That I find painful.”

Coming from a large family, Phillips always wanted children. She became pregnant at 22, soon after getting together with Tom, her husband (they have two sons). “My mom smashed the idea that it wasn’t the right time. She just said: ‘Well, there won’t be one.’” Motherhood, she says, “made me feel like I mattered. That’s awful, and I wish that wasn’t the case, because women who don’t have children matter and all those caveats, but I didn’t feel like that. It gave me a sense of purpose that I didn’t have before.” But, partly inspired by her mother’s example, Phillips never thought motherhood was everything – it was “a nonsense” that she wouldn’t also have a career.

Phillips at home with her son Danny.
Phillips at home with her son Danny. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

When Phillips entered parliament in 2015, her sons were at primary school and they adapted to the routine of Phillips spending half the week in London. It is much harder, she points out, for women with babies or younger children. Her friend and fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy, who is pregnant with her second child, is threatening to sue the government for discrimination after it announced plans to give cabinet ministers six months’ paid maternity leave – but would not extend the plans to backbench MPs. Phillips smiles broadly when I bring it up. “When Stella told me, I thought, maybe I’ll get pregnant just to join in with the class action.” She laughs. “I thought: ‘I wonder if a 12-year-old vasectomy could be reversed?’”

Phillips supports the bill – which was passed to allow the attorney general, Suella Braverman, to keep her job while on maternity leave – “because it is better than what we have at the moment, but it’s not good enough”. About 54,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs through pregnancy discrimination, and campaign organisations say the pandemic means the true figure will be higher. “If you can rush it through because of a cabinet minister, why can’t you rush it through because of the people the cabinet ministers are meant to serve?” she says.

Phillips’s children are aware of some of the abuse and threats their mother gets on social media – and the increased security at home after her friend and fellow MP Jo Cox was killed in 2016. “They’re friends with Jo’s kids, so it’s a reality to them,” she says. After Cox was killed, Phillips’s elder son said he didn’t want her to do the job any more. That must have been awful to hear? “It is, but you just have to try to be honest with them and explain it in a way that they can understand.” She says she isn’t going to be frightened out of doing her job and – she points out – the job has given her children immense advantages. “The idea of moving to London and getting a job is nothing to them any more. Most of the kids round here don’t feel like they could do that. My parents were not unprivileged, but the level of privilege that my children receive, would you swap it?”

By now, it’s lunchtime and Phillips’s son comes in to say he’s hungry (“I’ll make you some lunch in a minute”). Her phone is also going off with work calls. How many working parents – and mothers in particular – are dealing with this exact scenario? Stretched in all directions, juggling and, in Phillips’s case, if not for all of us facing similar pressures, looking as if she’s absolutely on top of everything.

Mother by Jess Phillips is published by The Pound Project and is available now. Order at poundproject.co.uk



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