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As a large batch of MSPs with young children settles in for new parliament, we ask how easy it is to juggle life as a politician and a parent

© Jamie WilliamsonSNP MSP Siobhian Brown and her daughter Scarlett at Ayr beach
SNP MSP Siobhian Brown and her daughter Scarlett at Ayr beach

Despite its intentions of being a family-friendly parliament, Holyrood has in the past year seen the loss of a significant number of MSPs due to a lack of work life balance.

Aileen Campbell, Jenny Marra, Gail Ross and Ruth Davidson are among the MSPs who decided not to seek re-election because they wanted to spend more time with their children.

Now with a record number of women elected to the Scottish parliament, and politicians warning that Holyrood will continue to lose talented people unless it tackles the issue, The Sunday Post speaks to four newly-elected MSPs with children about the challenges they face and how they believe politics can only benefit from having a more family-friendly culture.

Siobhian Brown, SNP

In one of the election’s most dramatic results, the SNP’s Siobhian Brown won the constituency seat of Ayr that had been a Tory stronghold for 21 years. The South Ayrshire councillor and former legal firm office manager has three children, the youngest five-year-old Scarlett.

She said: “When I had my two older kids, life was more difficult because we didn’t have the free childcare that the SNP government has brought in. More than half my wages were going on childcare. I think it is challenging for all working mums, but I do see a progression towards a family-friendly environment.

“With the Covid pandemic and people working from home and having to adapt to online meetings, I think there is potential as we move forward for flexibility in working. I don’t think we’ll be going back to the way we used to work.”

Brown said allowing MSPs to attend meetings or vote remotely after the pandemic should be considered by Holyrood.

“Especially when you live quite far away from Edinburgh, it makes family life a little bit easier. Not necessarily working from home the whole time, but enough for a balance between work and family life.”

© Jamie Williamson
Ayr MSP Siobhian Brown with daughter Scarlett

She now faces having to spend up to three nights a week in Edinburgh away from her family.

“Getting up at 6am to be there for 8.30am and not getting home until 8pm would be exhausting in itself but is of no value to family life. I would be away before the children wake up and the youngest one would be in bed by the time I got home.

“My husband and 17-year-old daughter have been helping, and my mum is taking my youngest daughter to nursery in the morning for me. Everyone is chipping in, but it does show that you do need the family support structure.”

She added: “We still have a distance to go, as we know from the number of MSPs from the last parliament who left. In her departing speech, Gail Ross said that she had been told before the pandemic it was not possible for her to work virtually, but as the pandemic progressed everyone adapted. It is a possible way of working, and I would like to see flexibility not just for politicians but for all the workforce to make it easier for working mums.”

Karen Adam, SNP

Karen Adam made history as the first MSP to take the oath in sign language, which she did in tribute to her father, Len, who is deaf.

The mum-of-six and single parent has been an Aberdeenshire councillor for the past four years.

The Banffshire and Buchan Coast MSP said: “Being a councillor was really good for me as a carer and a mother of young children at school. Meetings would start later in the morning so I had time for the school drop-off. I was on a committee that only occasionally ran past the school pick-up time, so I only had to arrange childcare a couple of times a month.

“This past year going online has worked out quite well. I was able to sit in meetings and attend briefings and workshops while folding my laundry. Remote working opens a lot more avenues and gives more flexibility to people, especially those with younger children.

Karen Adam and son Isaac, nine.

“It’s so good to have been in parliament this week and to see people in person. I don’t know if that’s because after a year of being in lockdown you want to see other human beings.

“But going forward, we have to have some kind of blended approach, particularly for those MSPs, like myself, who have a few hours’ travel to get to parliament.”

Karen is a mum-of-six, of whom the youngest is nine-year-old Isaac.

She said: “I co-parent my youngest children with their father, so they would spend time with their father on their own anyway.

“I won’t be there mostly for the school days, but I might have more weekends and recess with them, so I’m quite happy about that. I went for this because it was good timing for myself, but I can see for other people where difficulties could lie.”

Carol Mochan, Labour

Small business owner and former NHS worker Carol Mochan reassessed a career in politics when Labour MSP Jenny Marra announced her decision not to seek re-election.

The mum-of-two, who joined Anas Sarwar’s “campaign cabinet” in March as the party’s spokesperson on mental health and older people, was elected as an MSP for South Scotland.

She said: “Jenny had been at parliament for such a long time and was a very competent politician. When she announced she was standing down for family reasons, it did make me think about the work/life balance and what it would mean for my family.

“My husband and I discussed about how we make sure there is time for the kids, who, although they are now 11 and 13, still need you emotionally as they go into the teenage years.”

She hopes that Holyrood will attempt to become more family friendly following the loss of MSPs with young children.

She said: “When Alison Johnstone was elected as presiding officer, she spoke about parliament making big leaps in terms of diversity. The parliament has achieved a lot, but there is always more to be done, and maybe in this parliament we need to look at people who have family responsibilities, whether it is children or other family members they support.”

She now faces spending part of the week away from her family.

“I will always look to see what is the shortest period of time I can be away from home.

“When my husband and I looked at how long it would take to get to parliament by public transport, we discovered it would take me over three hours.

“It really shouldn’t take that length of time to get from Mauchline to Edinburgh on a train and bus. Better public transport routes would definitely help someone like me.”

Continuing remote working would also help parents, she said.

“MSPs have told me that remote working has been so beneficial and I think parliament should look to continue offering that to give people a work-life balance.”

Sandesh Gulhane, Conservative

Sandesh Gulhane became the first male of Indian heritage to be elected to Holyrood. The Glasgow region MSP is a GP and the father of seven-year-old son Aarish and one-year-old daughter Ellora.

He said of combining family life with his new career at Holyrood: “I’m absolutely aware it is going to be a long, demanding process. I will try to get home every night and put my baby to sleep. That’s my goal. I want to do my son’s homework with him. I want to see them in the mornings before breakfast.

“I realise that sometimes that won’t happen and I’ll have to be out the door before I can take them to school. It’s about having a plan and knowing what days that will be.

© PA
Scottish Conservatives’ newly elected Sandesh Gulhane.

“My wife is a GP as well and she has a very busy schedule. We’ve got to find ways around it. My mother-in-law works too, so we can’t always rely on her for childcare.

“I noticed there was a creche at parliament, though it is closed at the moment. Being able to take my daughter in and drop her off would make a huge difference to me.”

He said that remote working should continue after the pandemic.

“The genie is out the bottle with remote work. It might be the case that my daughter is sick, for example, and my wife can’t take the day off work, so I’ll need to look after my daughter and dial into parliament. That shouldn’t be frowned upon.

“It’s that type of thing that I think will make a difference, to allow us to be a bit more flexible with our time.

“But we also have to be clear that this is a really important job that people expect me to be committed to. So there is that balance to be had with it.”