Licia Ronzulli with daughter in workplace European Parliament
Photo: Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli with her daughter Vittoria in the European Parliament (Getty Images)

WORK NEWS

Babies in the workplace? No, thanks

The suggestion that parents should eschew childcare and bring their kids into work is a distraction from the real issue, says Rachael Sigee

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By Rachael Sigee on

I must confess I am not a person who, on hearing a happy gurgle from across the office, leaps to her feet to catch a glimpse of the latest progeny to be paraded around the open-plan.

In my early twenties, I could barely contain my fury at a wailing child in my vicinity; nowadays, I find myself marginally more patient, but gripped by near-constant anxiety that something terrible is going to happen if I’m in the presence of a tiny and vulnerable human.

Neither is a particularly productive state in which to work.

In an article in The Guardian last week, Melanie Reynolds argued that the idea of new parents taking babies to work with them could be a much-needed solution to the debate on maternity and paternity care in the UK.

Now, there is an undoubted childcare crisis in this country, but is toting your offspring into work with you really the right answer?

For every cooing colleague who asks for a cuddle, there will be one who silently (or vocally) fumes about the noise and the distraction. For all the pudgy hands and chubby cheeks and cute tufts of hair, there will be the screaming, the smells and the sick.

Most workplaces are stressful enough without introducing tiny dictators with little concern for social niceties.

While Reynolds is right to address the issue that many parents might not want to be separated from their children so early on, her rundown of 19th-century workplaces – salt mines, mills and button factories – where kids accompanied their mothers to work, is more a picture of missing limbs than of serene childrearing.

She is also right to consider that many women in the UK do not work in offices, which are so often the centre of these debates. Reynolds acknowledges that some environments would not be safe for young children (“hospitals or building sites”), but says: “Ask yourself if it would really be so difficult to buy a frock from a shop assistant with a baby in her arms, or sleeping in a swing or sling.”

The answer is no. Most of us would not keel over in shock if, on reaching the till, the person behind it was jiggling a baby on their knee. But would that person (and let’s be real, it would most likely be a woman) be taking great joy in lugging their little cherub around the shop floor?

Having your baby in the office would mean you couldn’t get any work done and the unintended consequence would be that mothers are looked on as less employable

One friend with a 17-month-old son confidently says that she would NOT (capital letters crucial) want to drag him into work with her: “I love being a mum but I also love having the separate identity of being a journalist. When I am at work, I want to just get on with work and being an adult and not be seen as someone’s mum the whole time… even though of course it is very nice being someone’s mum.

“Having your baby in the office would mean you couldn’t get any work done and probably the unintended consequence would be that mothers are looked on as less employable.”

Another mum who works full-time in a busy office, while her three-year-old daughter is looked after by a nursery and childminder, says work and home are equally stressful but that on-site crèches would be the answer for a lot of parents.

“In my opinion, work is an island in a sea of home crazy, and home is an island in a sea of work horror. One appreciates each for what it isn’t. Big workplaces should have crèches… possibly with soundproofing. Childcare is insanely expensive, it’s difficult, it’s far away from work – you can add your commute on to the hours you’re paying someone while you’re working – and people can let you down. Crèches would probably get women back to work earlier, too.”

Just five per cent of UK business offer this option, although it is becoming more common for co-working spaces to target workers with families who would like office space with integrated childcare.

As ever, there is no one-size-fits-all solution here, but women already bear the brunt of childcare, domestic chores, emotional labour and parental discrimination.

Just because society is fixated on the image of a woman juggling her career and motherhood doesn’t mean that the solution is to literally have her physically juggle her newborn and her PowerPoint presentation. Just as babies might be distracting in the workplace, this solution is distracting from the real issues to be discussed: childcare costs, presenteeism, flexible working and gender discrimination.

You can advocate for breastfeeding in public to be destigmatised and still think that babies in the workplace is a horrible idea. You can support the idea of proxy-voting in parliament, so MPs who are parents can take proper leave, and still feel that you’re entitled to your workplace staying tot-free. And you can care about your employer’s paternal leave possibilities even if you don’t care about the views of a six-month-old down the line when you’re on the phone to your bank.

If your immediate reaction to the thought of a baby at the desk next to you is to flinch in horror, that does not mean you don’t support the rights of working mothers.

Now, when it comes to dogs, by all means turn the conference room into a puppy party immediately. You’ll have no complaints from me.

@littlewondering

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Photo: Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli with her daughter Vittoria in the European Parliament (Getty Images)
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