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The hot potato of maternity leave politics

Although always bubbling away in the background, the topic of working mothers and maternity leave has come to the fore again recently, mostly stimulated by the appointment of pregnant 37 year old Marissa Mayer to the position of CEO in Yahoo (Go Marissa! What an achievement) and her subsequent comments on combining work and maternity leave. Or her non-existent maternity leave, if we’re to call a spade a spade. Mayer has said she’ll take two weeks off after the birth of her baby boy but will continue to work from home during that time.

Of course consternation ensued and admittedly I reacted badly myself until I read Annie from PhD in Parenting’s post where she poses the question “does it matter if Marissa Mayer takes maternity leave?”. The answer, when I got down off my high horse, is obviously “only to Marissa, her partner and her child”. But Annie raises bigger questions about Marissa’s greater responsibilityin her new role to affect change in American corporate culture so that women who are getting on with working, and are not high flying CEOs with unlimited support options, have access and workplace acceptance of quality maternity and family leave arrangements.

This is all playing out in the States where there is a chasm between maternity leave rights compared to European standards. Women are expected to return to work six weeks after giving birth, something totally unheard of – and indeed frowned upon – in Ireland. Given their extraordinarily high rate of Caesarean sections, I would be interested to know from any US readers what happens in that situation, especially when the estimated recovery time is up to six weeks. Do they still just go back to work? Are they not utterly exhausted, both physically and emotionally? Are they even insured to drive their cars?  In Ireland it’s in and around six weeks before your car insurance covers you for accidents depending on your insurer.

US commentary on Melissa’s maternity leave announcement is grounded on this acceptance that  six weeks is a perfectly adequate length of time for a working women to spend at home with their newborn and that they are fit for the workplace and rearing to go. Look it, it’s not. No matter what way you spin it.

Source: The Atlantic

When the marriage ban was lifted in Ireland in the 1970s and maternity leave was introduced for working mothers – fought tooth and nail by employers at the time, it must be said – it was for a period of twelve weeks. Looking back now, it sounds barbaric to pressure new mothers to hand over their tiny infant to child care and return to work. I know my own mother found it particularly difficult when she had to return to work eight weeks after the birth of her second child because he was nearly four weeks overdue and his late arrival ate into her precious time off with him. No wonder the breastfeeding rates from that era are minuscule.

Now women working in Ireland are entitled to 26 weeks maternity leave and may receive State financial benefits and perhaps salary payments from their employer depending on their circumstances. They’re also entitled to an additional 16 weeks of unpaid leave which they can avail of directly after their 26 week entitlement. During their time off women still accumulate all of their annual leave and bank holiday leave that they would have been entitled to if they had been working. All in all, depending on your financial situation, you could find yourself in a position to stay at home with your baby for a year. I was lucky enough to be in this position. Although the Irish system is already comparatively generous, I think all women should be entitled to take a year off to be with their babies.

I’m throwing that hot potato out there!

Now, before you throw it back at me, I’ve chosen my wording carefully. I think all women should be entitled to take a year off. I’m not saying they should whether they want to or not, I’m saying they should have the choice, without discrimination or loss of employment rights or indeed stigma.

I should probably say something politically correct here like “or, a year’s leave should be divided between both parents to share as they see fit”. This would be great, but it would also be extra great if mothers got a year off and then Dads got their leave too. This policy would be particularly effective, I think, in encouraging the take up and continuance of breastfeeding.  Returning to work after six months puts pressure on breastfeeding mothers to wean their babies to formula and solids so that their children are “child care ready” before they go back to work. I have to say I would have found it very hard to go back to work when my baby was six months and let my husband stay at home. Not that I would have a problem with him being at home but I would want to be there myself with my baby. I wouldn’t change a thing about my maternity leave.

For some women, the idea of being off for a year fills them with horror. For others, they thought that they’d definitely, definitely use all of their leave entitlements but then they got to a stage where they realised that actually they’d prefer to go back to work earlier than they planned. A choice to stay at home, a choice to go back when you’re ready. That’s how it should be.

Ultimately, every woman should be in a position to do what’s right for her but I think this should be done holistically, taking in your own personal well being, the needs of your child and honouring the birth process as something profound and life changing.  It’s not a box to be checked.

I know one woman, who owns her own business (and in my opinion, culturally this is the only time that this is acceptable here) and returned to work two days after her first child was born. She ran a public relations company and arrived at a client’s photocall with her newborn. I know another woman – who heads up a human resources department incidentally – who never really took her maternity leave but instead worked one day a week for a few weeks after the birth of her three babies and then came back part time for the rest of her maternity leave. This upset her female colleagues greatly especially given her position and her employers insisted that absolutely no one put her under pressure to do this. But they didn’t stop her either.

These women made these personal choices for them.  Laying my cards on the table, I personally don’t think this is right. Having a baby isn’t like other big ticket items in your life that have a long build up period, followed by a milestone event and then perhaps an anti-climax back to normality such as doing your Leaving Cert, getting married or buying a house. Having a baby changes everything forever. It’s a huge physiological event which ends with the addition of another human (or humans). You can’t just get back to normal as quickly as possible. You have to learn to adapt and accommodate this new life that it utterly helpless and dependent on you. You also have to physically recover. Regardless of what the celebrity-obsessed media tell us, that doesn’t happen in a few short weeks. I also think that you reap what you sow.

Short maternity leave of a few weeks create difficulties for successful breastfeeding. Short maternity leave puts societal pressure on women to believe they must get back to their old lives as if nothing has happened and makes them feel guilty and like failures if they don’t.

46.5% of the Irish workforce is female. That’s a lot of child-bearing women. Why is it so hard for us to accept that women can have a career and a family life? I’m not talking about having that exhausted ideal of “having it all” but taking the long view that it’s likely that women of our generation and beyond are probably going to work into our mid seventies. You’re looking at a working life spanning approximately 55 years. That’s nearly three generations. What’s wrong with taking a few short years to have and raise your family? It’s a drop in the ocean comparatively. Why do we think that having children will derail women’s career prospects? Because at the moment it does and we need to take action to change that.

I’m not saying that all mothers should be working. I believe we should have choices. Choices that are best for us, best for our families and best for society as a whole. Taking the long view again, if we all concentrate on our careers and refrain from having the babies, who do we think it going to pay for our pensions and her nursing homes in decades time?

Women have to have babies. Women work. Let’s marry those two facts for the betterment of everyone.

As a parting note, my mother worked all of our lives. For her the right choice was to pursue her career rather than make sacrifices that would stall it in favour of staying at home with her family. I honestly believe it affected our relationship probably more than she is aware. However, I know my mother very well and I can guarantee you that if she had chosen to stay at home with her children, then this would also have affected our relationship and not in a positive way! She made the right choice for her and her family. We both share a value on this topic – it’s about making your decisions, whatever they might be, and being happy (or even just prepared) to live with the consequences.  There’s no connotation attached to “consequences” here, they’re both positive and negative. I said it earlier but I think it’s relevant here again: you reap what you sow.

This topic is MASSIVE and volumes have been written and fought over it. I’ve barely scraped the surface here.  What are your thoughts?

PS On related topics, I thought you might be interested in this great articles I came across this week. The first, from the Irish news site www.journal.ie, talks about how a baby’s relationship with its mother in the first twelve months of its life affects all its future relationships. The second is an incredible article by Ann Marie Slaughter called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. If you’re interested in the struggle to balance motherhood and pursuing your career goals, Slaughter’s article is a must-read. She covers literally every aspect of the debate. It’s one of the best opinion pieces I’ve ever read. Pop the kettle on though, it’s a long one. Let me know what you think!

The Journal: Here’s Why Your Mother Sets Your Love Life – And How To Change It

The Atlantic: Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

4 thoughts on “The hot potato of maternity leave politics”

  1. Thanks for sharing great information about how we in the United States lag behind the rest of the world, including Ireland, in supporting working mothers. I appreciate your thoughtful post on this divisive issue. Cheers!

    1. Thanks themommyquad and welcome to the blog! I’ve just read your blog and I’m so delighted you commented because now I’ve got another fantastic blog to follow. Looking forward to your next post.

  2. ‘You reap what you sow.’ I’m not sure how this is intended to link to the topic of working parents. There’s a bit of judgement here despite the effort to avoid it. A child raised in a loving caring home, given quality time with parents seems to do very well, regardless of whether or not they spend time outside the home during the week. I have a happy, healthy 1.5 yr old who has loved ‘school’ since day 1, over a year ago. She loves the activities and social interaction. she paints and draws and knows songs and dances. She sleeps 12 hrs a night and has tremendous energy during the day. So she’s doing great despite, or maybe because of! 40 hrs a week in crèche. she’s independent too and waves us off everyday with a smile. I share parenting and housework 50/50 with my husband. We both have careers and a kid we are passionate about with a second on the way! Our main gripe is that we woud like more flexibility on sharing maternity/paternity leave. I agree it’s all about choices for parents (not just mothers). Historically women lost out on satisfying careers but men also lost out on building close relationships with their kids. The kind of closeness that only comes from hands-on parenting, with all that poop and the occasional puke!

  3. Hi JennyB, I have to admit after reading back this blog post I’m a little bemused that in an article that is pro-working mothers, pro-personal choice and calling for more flexibility for working mothers over the life time of their careers, that you read that I was criticising other people’s choices! In the first instance, I’m in no position to criticise yours because our situation is identical.

    I stand firmly by my use of the expression “you reap what you sow” and as I explained above I meant it in the context of mothers’ decisions having implications for their families lives – both positively and negatively. I think it’s hard to argue that every family’s personal circumstances doesn’t impact directly on their children’s life experiences and their relationship with all family members. If a mother chooses to stay a home full time with her children she will have a very different relationship with them than a mother who works outside the home full time. I’m not saying one choice is superior to the other, I’m just saying they are choices with knock on effects.

    If you want me to say something critical, then I will say this – and it feeds into your comment about men losing out on building close relationships with their kids – if a mother works so many hours in a week that she’s gone before breakfast every day and never home before bedtime and her weekends are regularly taken up with work commitments, I don’t think she can be surprised when her teenage kids turn around and say “you don’t know me!”. Of course, this applies to both parents, not just mothers. The only people who can truly “judge” those decisions are the children in question and their parents. But the reality is that someone has to work those jobs or society will fall apart. The question is who will choose to work them and do they accept that there are trade offs between work and family if they choose to have kids?

    On a closing note, you mention “quality time”, I mention “quality time”. I think we’re more on the same page than you think. I believe it’s the loving homes with family quality time that makes the difference. It doesn’t matter then who’s working and who isn’t.

What do you think?