Friday was my last official day of maternity leave. I had brought Cian with me on a site visit, and as he sat in his pram staring balefully at us all, I wondered how the last ten joyous, sleep-deprived months had passed so quickly. The week before he was born I went on leave from my day job, but Council work never stops (I actually recall responding to casework emails from the labour ward). Since Cian Luca came into this world he has been with me almost constantly. He attended his first committee meeting at 4 weeks old, I breastfed him in the Council Chamber at 7 weeks, at 8 weeks he had sat in the BBC Talkback studio (while we discussed the trolling I had received for taking him to the chamber the previous week). He attended site visits and constituency meetings, he came to briefings and events – he even came along to a meeting in Parliament Buildings when the Assembly was about to get back up and running (Naomi Long asked Cian what he thought about her becoming Justice Minister… he thought there was no one better for the job) – and as smug as this now sounds, it all felt so wonderfully easy. I was praised for going back to work so soon, I was lambasted for going back to work so soon – but to be honest none of it felt like work, it just felt like I had the very best of both worlds.

As he got older I started to pump – I knew it was better for Cian to stay at home with his dad in a cosier (and politician-free) environment; and so off I went to my late night committee meetings, where I started to wonder if I really did have the best of both worlds. I tried not to dwell on the guilty sadness I felt each time I left him – as an elected representative I’m not entitled to maternity leave, besides I comforted myself with the belief that the sooner we got used to being apart, then the easier it would be in the long run.

And then came Covid. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you look at your life and whether it’s discovering how resilient you are, or that you love someone more or less than you realised, or even the profound revelation that you *can* bake edible banana bread – it seems through this fearful and uncertain time, we’re all learning something about ourselves. In gaining a maternity leave I never thought I would have, I reflected on the necessity to spend time well. I knew that if I was going to continue sacrificing being with my child in order to fulfill my duties as a politician, I could only justify it if I was doing it for the right reasons.

I got involved in politics because I had a genuine desire to see a progressive and inclusive Northern Ireland, and to be a part of that change. It could be easy to pin your self-worth on a title, to become consumed with keeping your seat or seduced by the perks of office (I’m not ashamed to admit I am very partial to the stamp with my name on it), and the only way I could keep my involvement meaningful, was if it didn’t mean everything. I wanted to expand my skill-set and develop other areas of expertise, and so I enrolled on a postgraduate course, I applied for a new day job – and here I am on the eve of a new beginning.

While I still feel guilty at the number of commitments I have, I’m told guilt goes with the territory.  And while I’m just a bit devastated this glorious bubble is about to pop, I’m excited for the endless possibilities that lie ahead. But mainly I’m grateful – grateful I had much longer with my baby than most new parents do, and that the space with him has allowed me to really reflect not just on how I use my time, but on how I am, for the both of us.

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