Tuesday, 9 February 2010

maternity leave? what maternity leave?

How did you feel seven hours after giving birth? Me, I was quite perky (it was a Caesarean: I was off my head on painkillers) but nonetheless I wouldn't have tried anything as complicated as, say, getting out of bed.
Feeble stuff compared to Helen Wright, a headteacher at a private girls' school who apparently went back to work seven hours after having her third baby. She is terribly gungho about great it all is having the baby at work with her, but it's hard to read without feeling faintly exhausted and depressed.
Nonetheless, the kicking promptly administered by today's Daily Mail, who seem to think she should have been sectioned instead, seems unkind.
When Wright says parents at her school expected to see an 'excellent role model' in the job I did wonder whether she felt under pressure not to be away: did she worry the parents wouldn't have tolerated a head absent on maternity leave, when they're paying the fees?
It's all a bit reminscent of Rachida Dati, the impossibly glamorous French minister (as was) and single mother who went back to work days after giving birth. Everyone condemned her for general heartlessness: a few weeks later, Dati was dropped from government, and it became clear that she had actually rushed back because she was terrified of losing her job if she didn't.
And she won't be the only one. When I was writing a piece about the impact of the recession for the Observer last year, one of the saddest things I heard was that nurseries were seeing an increase in very young babies (six weeks and up) coming into their care because their mothers didn't dare take proper leave while redundancies were flying around. In parts of the City, it's normal not to take longer than three months max (otherwise you don't look committed) while in politics, it can be even less (I know at least one MP who dictated letters all through her labour and was back doing constituency work within two days, terrified that her constituents would revolt if she didn't).
It's probably too early for figures to be available, but I'd be really interested to see what impact the recession has on uptake of maternity leave. I doubt many people have cut it to seven hours, but maybe Dr Wright's approach isn't as unusual as it seems.

UPDATE: The Daycare Trust, whose annual report on childcare costs is out today, apparently confirms anecdotal evidence of rising demand for childcare because of women taking less maternity leave during the recession.


  1. Its an interesting dilemma for women in senior positions. Take too long and you are perceived as slacking, taking a year out,not totally committed etc. Take too short a time and you are seen as setting a bad example to others, being a poor role model and a bad mother. At the end of the day it is meant to be everyone's own choice, but that 'choice' is all too often scrutinised! You can't do right for doing wrong - that's the only certainty.

  2. I got made redundant at 25 weeks pregnant so they made the decision for me!

    My friend had an interview the other day where the woman actually said to her face "Well,you have qa great CV but we won't be hiring you as you'll be off to have others soon enough"!!!!!

  3. The way to balance the problem for women is simply to give men the same leave. That way employees see the same risk either way and it stops being an issue. For that reason I like the idea of couples getting a parental leave pot which they divide between them as they choose.

    As for heading back to work indecently early - I suspect the only way to stop that is to legislate a minimum. Rather like the working time directive does to prevent people being forced to do silly hours by their employer. Of course, with that you can opt out, but you can't be penalised for not doing so - perhaps the same would work for maternity/paternity leave. I would have thought a month was a bare minimum for a mother, and a couple of weeks a bare minimum for a father - but not being either others probably have more insight there!

  4. My mum was a teacher and when she had her first baby, my brother, in May 1964, she marked exam papers in the maternity ward where you had to stay for a week whether you liked it or not. Then straight back to work, leaving baby with a nanny, until the summer holidays. She had me in the summer holidays the following year and was back to work four weeks later in September. There was no maternity leave, so it wasn't a scandal, just a necessity. She doesn't complain, that's just how it was and she was the family's major earner, but she must think that being entitled to up to a year's maternity leave is a real luxury for our generation. It is of course only to be enjoyed (is that the word?!) if you are the mother, not the father, and wealthy enough to manage on SMT after your work maternity pay runs out (six weeks in my case), which most aren't. I'd have preferred the government to establish a maximum of six months maternity leave, but to increase the level of SMT for those six months, a more realistic option for most. The other difficulty with taking 12 months off is the relatively painful return to work after such an extended period of time off. As for being back in the office days later, I'm plain envious they were so fit and well, I was a wreck for weeks after all my babies were born and lack of sleep prevented normal funtioning for months, if not years. I have worked with a woman who came back to work very soon with her baby, who slept in her office between feeds, and she was just different to me (and much more senior, so she could do what she liked pretty much). Such superhumans do exist and should be admired for doing what they want to do, not vilified.

  5. Gosh, here in the States, most working women can only wish for a 3 month leave. Many workplaces give only 6 or 8 weeks. Wage jobs usually offer no pay during that time, so low-income women either have to go back right away. If they can find affordable day-care, that is. (Funny, but no one ever obsesses over the well-being of a poor mom's baby when she goes back to work right away.)

    I don't know the solution, but it's a huge problem over here for working women. If the US has more stay-at-home moms than Europe (and I don't know if that is so), then the horribly short maternity leave is probably part of the reason. Many middle class women plan to go back, but after the birth, they think about putting their 6 week old baby into day care for 9 hours a day and decide to just chuck the job.

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