What it's like having a baby at Parliament

New Zealand was the first country to grant women the vote, but it's been incredibly slow to make Parliament a welcome place for mothers.

When the first woman was elected to Parliament in 1933, a 'No women permitted' sign hung over the Bellamy's dining room. In 1943, the bathrooms were still for 'gentlemen', and it wasn't until the 1990s that Parliament finally got a crèche.

Since then, incremental steps have meant Parliament is a bit more welcoming to parents of small babies.

This term, Speaker Trevor Mallard has made bit of a show of it, conducting a House debate over paid parental leave with Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime's baby on his knee.

Speaker Trevor Mallard conducts debate on Paid Parental Leave with baby Heeni on his lap, the daughter of Willow-Jean Prime.
Speaker Trevor Mallard conducts debate on Paid Parental Leave with baby Heeni on his lap, the daughter of Willow-Jean Prime. Photo credit: Parliament TV

At one point this year, there were seven MPs with new babies: National's Simon Bridges, Chris Penk and Tim van de Molen, and Labour's Kiritapu Allan, Kris Faafoi, Willow-Jean Prime and Chris Hipkins.

Now there's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's new baby, which will be joined by Minister Julie Anne Genter's baby within weeks.

On sitting days, MPs might be at Parliament from 7am until at least 10pm, when debating ends - hours that pose a particular challenge for new parents.

Here's what Parliament is like for the parents of new babies - the adjustments that have been made and the challenges of making Parliament a place where parents are welcome, and where mums, dads and non-birth parents can bond with their babies.

The pool

Parliament has a pool and a gym. You'll have to imagine what they look like because we are not allowed to take photos of them, but they are located in a building attached to the Beehive. The gym and pool are for MPs, staffers and the press gallery.

The gym is well-used. You'll often see MPs running on the treadmill during their dinner break and police minister Stuart Nash is known to enjoy pumping weights.

The pool, however, is notoriously underused. It's not quite long enough to do proper laps, or perhaps it's that people are embarrassed to be seen in their togs.

A new ruling from Speaker Mallard means family members are now allowed in the pool. Parents of young babies in particular have made use of the new ruling.

Labour MP Kiritapu Allan's baby, nine-month old Hiwa-i-te-rangi Allan-Coates has had a few dips in the pool, as have some of the other babies.

"That was a good activity I found I could do over the dinner break with baby. That was exceptional for us," Allan told Newshub.

"During a sitting week, if baby is with me, it's good to be able to have a range of things to do."

There's also a playspace planned for the lawn out the front of the Beehive.

Trevor Mallard with Hiwi-i-te-rangi Allan-Coates.
Trevor Mallard with Hiwi-i-te-rangi Allan-Coates. Photo credit: Kiritapu Allan

The debating chamber

For a brief moment in late 2017, new babies were a familiar sight inside the debating chamber, where the most important Parliamentary business takes place.

Both Prime and Allan, and Speaker Mallard whenever he could, cuddled newborns during long stretches of debates.

As those babies have grown older, they're seen in the chamber less. The debating chamber varies from a dull to raucous place. For older babies, it wouldn't be much fun. It's filled with adults sitting at desks.

Allan's baby is now nine months old, and wrigglier than ever. Allan says little Hiwa's appearance in the chamber a couple of weeks ago was probably her last.

"She was quite vocal and they are a bit more mobile, so it was more of a headache than an ease," Allan said.

The first female MP to give birth while holding office was Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, who returned to Parliament just two weeks after giving birth in 1970. She went on to have two more babies and became the first female minister to have a baby. Babies weren't allowed in the chamber until 1983, when Ruth Richardson was permitted to take her baby inside.

Wheti Tirikatene-Sullivan, NZ's longest-serving female MP.
Wheti Tirikatene-Sullivan, NZ's longest-serving female MP. Photo credit: File

The Speaker said, so far, "it's only women who have brought their babies in".

The Whānau Room

The Whānau Room is a filled with couches, a TV, a bathroom, a couple of cots, a change table, toys and a microwave. It's right by the debating chamber, so it's handy for feeding or changing a baby when Parliament is in session.

Parliament's Whanau Room.
Parliament's Whanau Room. Photo credit: Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub.

The room is well-used by partners in particular. Babies can then be brought into the chamber if they need a feed or whisked to the Whānau Room if they're too restless for the chamber.

"What's important to me is the availability is there and parents with a primary care role but who are not an MP, they feel they can come in as often as they want," Mallard told Newshub.

"I encourage people to do that, even to the extent where when bonding is going on, the dads or non-birth partners can be involved in burping the kids, giving them a cuddle, bonding."

A cot in the Whanau Room.
A cot in the Whanau Room. Photo credit: Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub.


Once a baby is too big for the chamber, what happens?

There's a childcare centre near Parliament for children aged six months to five years. If you work at Parliament, you get bumped up the waitlist. The problem is, it closes at 5.45pm - hardly useful for an MP who works until 10pm. Not many MPs use it, but National MP Nicola Willis' 2-year-old does attend. She gets picked up by dad or grandma on Ms Willis' longer work day. It costs $72 a day or $323 a week.

Parental leave

As elected office-holders, MPs aren't entitled to formal paid parental leave. Ms Ardern will be unpaid during her six-week baby leave. Ms Allan took only a few days off the campaign trail when her partner gave birth three weeks before the election.

Mr Mallard allows MPs to take leave to tend to baby matters, but it's no 22 weeks off with the baby.

In the UK, politicians voted in January to allow votes to be cast in proxy for new parents - a kind of baby leave for politicians. 

Recent changes - highchairs and a playground

Highchairs have only just been introduced to the café in Parliament, which is currently just for Parliament members and staff, but will be opening up to the public on non-sitting days in the future.

Opening up the café is part of Mallard's attempt to make Parliament more welcoming to the public, as is the construction of a small play area on the grounds out the front of Parliament.

Highchairs are a little thing that can be done to make Parliament more accessible, Mr Mallard said.

"It's never going to be easy being a parent - especially a mother - and having a big job, but I see it as part of my role to make it as easy as possible.

"From my perspective, it's important we keep broadening the group of people who think being an MP is for them. Part of that is including women of child-bearing age," Mr Mallard said.

Office spaces

One of the luxuries MPs get that many other staff members don't is private office space.

When Allan and Prime had babies at similar times - right before the election - their party gave them side-by-side office space and had the place altered.

Willow-Jean Prime with a very young Heeni.
Willow-Jean Prime with a very young Heeni. Photo credit: Getty

"In those first few months, we created a space where there were a lot of toys, sleeping areas, an area for - she had her mum, I had my wife - where they could be with the baby," Allan said.

The hours, the travel

In many ways politicians with babies are in positions of great privilege. They earn well above the average wage and, increasingly, provisions are made for babies in their earliest stages at Parliament. Other staff members at Parliament are much less likely to be seen with a baby on the hip.

But there is no denying the huge challenge MPs face in the long hours and, for electorate MPs, the travel away from home.

For Allan, who has a long commute from the east coast, the spousal travel entitlement didn't stretch far enough in those early months.

"It worked out to around about one trip per sitting session per year," she said.

"That was hard, juggling a new family, because you go down four times in a sitting. Baby and mum couldn't travel with me. That was a real challenge."

Former MP Holly Walker has spoken about these challenges before.

"I was an anxious, sleep-deprived wreck for the nine months I lasted as an MP after my daughter was born," she wrote for The Spinoff.

Mallard's youngest child was nearly three when he became an MP, and the demands of the job meant he did less parenting.

"There were times I probably did more - nothing like what his mother did - but more than many men do today. When I was an MP role, I didn't do the amount of shared parenting I think people should.

"I did find it difficult, but it's fair to say in my era of parenting, we weren't nearly as good as sharing parenting roles as we are today."