The in­sult­ing ques­tion that makes new moth­ers like Ser­ena and me livid

The Mail on Sunday - - Comment - Al­le­gra Strat­ton is ITV News’s Na­tional Editor

WHEN I saw Ser­ena Wil­liams smash­ing her racket on court last week­end, I recog­nised im­me­di­ately what was go­ing on. The world’s great­est woman ten­nis player has been back at work af­ter hav­ing a baby for six months now, but she’s still try­ing to prove she’s got it, that moth­er­hood hasn’t di­min­ished her fight­ing spirit.

Ser­ena’s baby Alexis Olympia is one year old, my sec­ond baby Xan­the, a bit older at 16 months. We have both been gripped by the mad­ness of new moth­er­hood. We are crawl­ing and clam­ber­ing our way back, some­times in­el­e­gantly. And it’s hard.

De­spite nearly dy­ing in child­birth, Ser­ena had no choice but to quickly get back on the cir­cuit. The Women’s Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion op­er­ates a potty sys­tem where a player loses their rank­ing, or seed­ing, the mo­ment they stop play­ing. Ser­ena went on ma­ter­nity leave ranked world No 1. She re­turned ranked a ridicu­lous 451.

That meant she was pit­ted against top-ranked play­ers in the form of their lives in the early stages of tour­na­ments. Thank­fully this rule looks like it’s about to be junked.

In my case I was BBC News­night’s po­lit­i­cal editor when I be­came preg­nant with my first child – now a lively boy aged four. Eight months into the preg­nancy, just be­fore I went on ma­ter­nity leave, my BBC edi­tors made it clear I would have to fight for my po­si­tion when I came back.

Af­ter one par­tic­u­larly fraught meet­ing, I had my last an­te­na­tal ap­point­ment be­fore my due date but the stress of the meet­ing had caused my baby’s heart­beat to rocket. Un­less it calmed down, the mid­wife told me, she would have to in­duce it. Thank­fully the heart rate did re­turn to nor­mal – but that was the point when I gave up fight­ing my bosses.

When I re­turned to work af­ter six months, my (male) editor said to me: ‘But the ques­tion is, Al­le­gra, are you hun­gry?’ Yes, I was hun­gry. And tired. And ter­ri­fied that I would never be the same jour­nal­ist again. I was des­per­ate to prove I was up to my job. Like Ser­ena, noth­ing I had done be­fore felt like it counted. I was start­ing all over.

Sec­ond time around my new em­ploy­ers, ITV News, were much kin­der to me. When last year’s snap Gen­eral Elec­tion was called, I was on the sec­ond day of my ma­ter­nity leave, wait­ing to drop, and a boss rang to alert me. It was thought­ful of her. She was just keep­ing me in the loop and I was grate­ful. But when I took the call, I was at the top of a play­ground hel­ter-skel­ter with my tod­dler and I was, well, stuffed.

But that in­sen­si­tive and in­sult­ing ques­tion – ‘are you hun­gry?’ – was like a worm in my mind. And I knew then that I had to be back on air for the Elec­tion night pro­gramme – even though it was go­ing to be pre­cisely four weeks af­ter my sec­ond baby’s birth.

So the first days of Xan­the’s life were spent lay­ing next to her in bed feed­ing… and hold­ing my iPhone up above her read­ing hun­dreds of con­stituency pro­files. Try­ing not to drop it on her. Come Elec­tion night, I squeezed my­self into the smartest nurs­ing dress I could find and loaded a taxi up with quite an en­tourage: my mum, my baby, car seat, crate of baby bot­tles, breast pump – and my sleepy head. Off we went to the TV stu­dio.

Through­out the eight-hour marathon live broad­cast, I was sur­vey­ing the re­sults from con­stituen­cies, analysing what the shift­ing pic­ture meant. But my pro­ducer and I were also look­ing for some­thing else: bor­ing bits.

AS MY fel­low pre­sen­ters, Ed Balls and Ge­orge Os­borne were munch­ing Haribo (and c hort l i ng o ver Mrs May’s hu­mil­i­a­tion), I’d qui­etly slip off set into the green room where my mum sat knit­ting, keep­ing a watch­ful eye on sleep­ing Xan­the. I’d go to the cor­ner, strap my­self into my hor­rid breast pump, ex­press milk, then head back to the stu­dio.

The whole op­er­a­tion got off to a dis­as­trous start. At around 8:30pm, I was sit­ting in the make-up chair ahead of the polls clos­ing and I couldn’t work out what the odd stain creep­ing across my chest was – un­til I re­alised I’d for­got­ten my breast pads and was leak­ing milk. I burst into tears.

I felt pre­pos­ter­ous. I hadn’t ac­tu­ally been re­port­ing on the cam­paign trail as I would nor­mally have been and as I think you must to get the pulse of the coun­try. I had been jog­gling a baby. Not so much an arm­chair jour­nal­ist as a rock­ing- chair jour­nal­ist. I was a phoney and my pun­ish­ment was go­ing to be leak­ing milk live on tele­vi­sion. I was go­ing to be­come a na­tional laugh­ing stock.

As it was, I swapped into my back-up nurs­ing dress, put dou­ble lay­ers of breast pads on and pulled my­self to­gether.

No one fore­saw the re­sults that night and it turned out that I was as well placed as any­one to dis­cuss what hap­pened. Af­ter that, I went back on ma­ter­nity leave for an­other four months.

My point isn’t that women should be awarded medals for tak­ing mi­nus­cule ma­ter­nity leaves. There is al­ready an un­healthy whiff of fe­male machismo in the com­pe­ti­tion to go back to work the ear­li­est.

Five to six months away felt right for me and my ba­bies. But I pas­sion­ately be­lieve that or­gan­i­sa­tions, from the BBC to the Women’s Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion, need to un­der­stand that, if they treat women well on ma­ter­nity leave, they’ll get back so much more in re­turn.

This isn’t frilly virtue sig­nalling, this is cor­po­rate self-in­ter­est. The woman who walks back in the door is of­ten more mo­ti­vated than when she left. New moth­ers have a drive to get back to where they were – a drive that pushed Ser­ena too far last week­end.

But given such hunger, if I was a boss, I’d want more new moth­ers on the staff – even if we do suf­fer the oc­ca­sional melt­down.

MELT­DOWN: Ser­ena Wil­liams dur­ing her on-court out­burst last week­end

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