Finance secretary Kate Forbes delivered key Scottish budget speech in throes of morning sickness

Finance secretary Kate Forbes has revealed she was in the throes of morning sickness when she delivered a key Scottish budget speech last week.

At sixteen weeks pregnant, Forbes says she feared she may have to flee the parliamentary chamber on live TV to be sick in the nearest toilet.

She said: “That was one of the worst weeks I had, where I just couldn’t keep anything down. Budget morning I was just sitting eating a cornflake every few minutes to try and build up my strength for the day.

“I was really nervous I would feel sick. Obviously you do get caught up in the moment and I was able to focus but I was watching the clock until the end.

“Amazingly, I managed to hold everything down and do the speech.”

The Finance Secretary says she has had to hold back sickness in the chamber
The Finance Secretary says she has had to hold back sickness in the chamber

Nausea, akin to car sickness, has piggy-backed her pregnancy so far and, until she announced the news last week, she struggled to hide it.

On Zoom to fellow ministers, she would switch off the camera and make full use of mute because “retching doesn’t look or sound pretty”.

She laughs about it now and is not complaining, just reflecting a common reality for pregnant women.

Forbes will become the first cabinet minister to take maternity leave from the Scottish Parliament.

But it’s a “first” she hadn’t predicted, having been told a medical condition would likely preclude her from ever becoming pregnant.

When she married widower Ali Maclennan last summer, she became stepmother to his three teenage daughters and thought her family was complete.

Forbes mutated herself during meetings to deal with morning sickness
Forbes mutated herself during meetings to deal with morning sickness

Forbes, 31, had two positive pregnancy tests but was in such disbelief she assumed they were false readings.

She said: “At the time, it felt completely surreal. In the past, I always felt torn as to whether I wanted a family or to pursue a career but there is nothing like finding out you are unlikely to get pregnant to make you realize you really want to have kids.

“So when I became pregnant I was really pleased and relieved.”

Ali’s girls are now 15, 17 and 19, and have certainly prepared her for motherhood.

She said: “Anyone who wants to have a baby should have to mother three teenagers first to see what it is like.

“They are absolutely lovely but they are teenagers.”

When she started dating Ali a couple of years ago, Forbes was thrown from being single into a family life.

She said: “They had to adjust to me being on the scene. I essentially married four people. I had to adjust in every way. I found myself chopping carrots while talking to UK Government ministers about really important matters.”

Her new family also gave her an insight into the guilt which dogs working parents.

The Finance Secretary says she can't wait for her baby
The Finance Secretary says she can’t wait for her baby

Her schedule is relentless as a cabinet minister in charge of a £41billion budget and as the SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch.

Forbes travels four hours from her Dingwall home to Edinburgh on a Monday night after family dinner and is rarely back before 11pm on Thursday.

She said: “It is difficult and, at the beginning, I felt like I was torn and doing both jobs badly, particularly when you are trying to build roots with a family and be there for the girls.

“Even small things like picking them up from school are really important. You feel like you are leaving the family to fend for themselves.”

Ali, 41, had been a single dad since 2014, juggling his job as a chimney sweep and so she knows their parenthood will be shared. And she will need his support from her.

MSPs Aileen Campbell, Ruth Davidson, Gail Ross and Jenny Marra all cited family as their reason for not seeking re-election at the last election, which Forbes cites as an indictment on “our politics, our society and parliament”.

Davidson said Holyrood’s claim to be a family-friendly parliament was “bulls***”.

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Forbes intends to use her experience of motherhood in the Parliament to push for change, for the accommodation of parenthood, of caring responsibilities of all kinds.

The pandemic exploited technology and accommodated the remote working that parliamentary staff and politicians have asked for years.

MSPs travel from all corners to the Parliament, some away from home for half the week and their family commitments are often thrown into disarray by last-minute changes to voting times.

The 31-year-old wants Parliament to be more supportive of new mums
The 31-year-old wants Parliament to be more supportive of new mums

The system is not conducive to stemming the attrition of female politicians who are mothers.

There is a creche at the Parliament but it is for visitors and guests, not staff.

Forbes said: “If the Parliament can find space for a gym, surely it can find space to look after the children of its workers. No-one is looking for a freebie.”

In 2020, Forbes appeared unshakeable as the first woman to deliver the Scottish Budget, after Derek Mackay’s resignation as finance secretary following scandal.

But she said: “The more the pressure, the more I focus. I thrive on being pushed out of my comfort zone. I get bored very easily.”

Rather than bask in the glory of breaking so much new ground, she finds it “absurd” progress for women has been so glacial.

She said: “To find out there are still so many firsts in the Parliament is quite remarkable. I think it is absurd.

“I grew up thinking feminists had worked really hard for my generation decades ago and had changed the world for us.

“I am nearly always in meetings full of men, nearly always the youngest and the only female.”

Forbes says Nicola Sturgeon has been very supportive of her
Forbes says Nicola Sturgeon has been very supportive of her

She is used to the raised eyebrows when she walks into a room as the holder of one of the most powerful positions in Scotland.

She said: “First there is the novelty factor that wears off quite quickly, in that I am younger, I am female and I am really short.

“Then people expect me to approach this job as a man would. I had a real challenge at the beginning thinking I can do this job in a more aggressive way, shouting louder, basically adopting the attributes of male politicians or I can just accept I am a slightly softer sounding version and my approach is not to shout but negotiate.

“I know I can do a better job when I am more authentically myself.”

Nicola Sturgeon has been a huge influence. Forbes said: “She is head and shoulders better than anyone else and she is able to do that authentically herself. That’s been an inspiration for me.

“Having discussions about pregnancy, maternity leave, she gets it and doesn’t ask stupid questions. She is very supportive.”

Forbes has been widely tipped as Sturgeon’s replacement when the time comes and while she doesn’t commit to that ambition, she wonders if such speculation will dissipate now motherhood has been thrown into the mix.

After flourishing in a hothouse of pressure for the last two years, she also wonders how she will adjust to being at home with her new baby.

She said: “Stepping back could lead to a bit of an identity crisis. The intensity won’t change because there will be a little limpet constantly with me.

“I don’t know what it means in terms of my future, whether it will change anything, but I am very thankful.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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