Jess Phillips: “I found early motherhood horrendous”

Labour MP Jess Phillips on having children at an early age, being a teenage party animal – and how her family coped when Jo Cox was murdered

At 16 I was a raver, a party animal to say the least. Weekends would start early on a Friday night, round at my friend’s house where we’d get ready. Then we’d be out, maybe to a local party at someone’s house. Then on Saturday it was an all-night rave until the wee small hours of Sunday. School was okay. I didn’t get into fights but I stood up to people in power, often. So I did get into trouble. If I was being scolded for something I hadn’t done, I wouldn’t let up defending myself. Once a teacher threw a chair at me.

I started going out with a boy right after my 16th birthday. I went out with him for five years. It was horrendous at many points throughout. We split up and got back together lots of times. It took me a long time not to feel I’d wasted the formative years of my life with him. I went on holiday with my friend Marcella after we broke up and she made me say a nice thing about him every day so I didn’t feel I’d wasted five years of my life. Five years, all through university, as I was becoming an adult – I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other things I could have done.

It was horrendous at many points throughout. We split up lots of times

I turned 16 in 1997, when Tony Blair’s Labour government got in. My parents were very left-wing and I’d been heavily involved in the campaign. My house was one of the places it was run from. Even my frail old grandad was out canvassing. So we had a real street party vibe for the weeks running up to the election. I remember vividly us all sitting down to watch the results coming in – me and my three brothers and our friends upstairs – the adults getting gradually drunk downstairs. When Portillo lost his seat you could hear my dad cheering all through the house. The next night my parents had a house party which went on all weekend. We revelled in it for hours and hours. I was born under Thatcher, I’d only known a Tory government. It felt genuinely life-changing.

Jess Phillips

If I was to tell my 16-year-old self about how the Labour Party has developed since… how would she feel? I think she would be depressed about some of the things which have happened but also really proud. The things I cared about were women’s rights and equality and I think the Labour government did loads to push women forward. Things got better for women under Labour. But in 2005 my parents left the Labour Party due to the war in Iraq. They’d been paying my annual fees so when they left, I ended up leaving up too. And I didn’t seek to rejoin for a long time.

My mum died in 2011. I actually rejoined the party in 2010 during the leadership election, when Ed Miliband was elected. My mum regretted voting for Tony Blair as leader, rather than someone more left-wing. She knew she was dying so she didn’t think it was worth re-joining so I re-joined and voted for Ed Miliband on her behalf. My dad re-joined too. He’s painfully proud of me when he’s talking to other people – he must be a real pain in the neck actually – but with me he’ll just say, you did well. We come from a very working-class background where there’s this almost superstitious feeling that if you put someone on a pedestal you’ll lose them.

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When Jo Cox was murdered [in June 2016, by a far-right extremist], my family really struggled. Especially my three brothers. When I get abuse on social media or anywhere they can get very… ‘I’m coming down to have a fucking word if you ever talk to my sister like that again’. One of my brothers was particularly upset. He rang me up and said, I thought it was you, I really thought it was you.

My teenage self wouldn’t be surprised that I became an MP, I think that maybe I always thought I would do that. But she would be shocked that I had children so young. I used to be sure I’d be an amazing human rights lawyer or something incredible, a real career woman. The fact that I had babies when I was 22, that would shock the girl who went on marches for the rights of women to have abortions. I had this moment just after my son was born of, oh my God I’ve got a baby, what was I thinking? My now-husband and I had only been together a few weeks, though I’d known him all of my adult life. I found early motherhood horrendous. I mean, I loved my son Harry, though if I’m honest that took a while. I love him much more now but I found it really really hard. It was lonely and crushing at times. I felt a lot of guilt, I wasn’t good enough. But in the long term, I think I handled it well. We carved out a good life together.

After my son was born I thought, ‘Oh my God I’ve got a baby, what was I thinking?’

I didn’t get into politics seriously until 2011. I was working with Women’s Aid and I got involved with government policy. And I really liked it. Around the same time, my mum died. Maybe I thought, right, I’ve got to get on with life. And it was a distraction; it’s sad when your mum dies. And she was a campaigner. Her friends get in touch quite a lot and tell me how proud she would be of what I’m doing now. But I know that. She would be immensely proud. I have so much of her, she’s like a coat I keep on. I’ve always thought, I would give all of my life’s earnings, my house, everything, just to have one more phone call with her. But never more so than since I became an MP.

I think it’s an achievement that I became someone that people listen to. I don’t think my children are my greatest achievement – they’re their own achievement. Sometimes I think they’re good in spite of the fact that I’m their mum. I think maybe my relationship with my husband might be my greatest achievement. We have total equality. I see very, very few examples of real partnerships in relationships and we definitely have that.

Jess Phillips and fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy
Jess Phillips and fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy

If I could go back to any time in my life and live it again, I’d go to a moment in 2010 when I was in the car with my husband and my sons. We were on the way to see my mum. My second son was about one year old. When he was born, I felt like he completed the square. I remember thinking in the car, we all fit in this one tiny space together. This is my life, these people I love and want to spend my time with. And this is all we need.

Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth by Jess Phillips is out now (Cornerstone, £14.99)