Tag Archives: maternity leave politics

An open letter to Senator Mary White about her shared maternity leave bill

Dear Senator White

I’ve sat on writing this letter for a week since I first read about your “Parental Leave Bill 2013” because I needed to chew it over.

Well, that’s not necessarily true.

As soon as I read this article on Journal.ie, I immediately tweeted

An open letter to Senator Mary White about her maternity leave bill www.mindthebaby.ie Mind The Baby Blog

But then I thought I’d let it sit with me and evaluate its merits, after all I am 100% supportive of paid paternity leave for the benefit of families and Irish society as a whole.

Here’s the thing though. Your press release managed to successfully talk me out of supporting your bill.

This is what did it for me:

“The greatest challenge facing the country is to create employment to offer hope and a potential living to the 300,000 unemployed and the young people in our schools and colleges. The only way we can create jobs is to encourage new enterprise”

followed swiftly by:

“The biggest untapped source of enterprise is 50% of the population which are Irish Women who face multiple barriers in becoming entrepreneurs and developing business”

and then this corker, which to be honest, really pushed me over the edge:

“This flexibility in the maternal leave scheme would allow women entrepreneurs to devote more time to their enterprises.”

Are we noticing a theme here, Senator White? Jobs, enterprise, business, entrepreneurship. I thought we were talking about maternity leave – the time a mother takes out of the workforce to give birth to and nurture her tiny newborn. But reading your comments, I actually realise we’re talking about “the economy“.

Can we get real about your bill here for a minute please? Becoming a mother – be it for the first or tenth time – is a physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually challenging time. It is exhausting and all-consuming. Most new mothers may find that it takes months – not weeks – to adapt to their new role and I’m fairly willing to bet that unless they’re a participant in The Apprentice, getting all entrepreneurial and starting a business is probably the last thing on their mind. There’s two exceptions to this – 1. the woman who already runs her own business and you can be well sure she’s not taking 26 weeks maternity leave in the first place and 2. the woman who realises that, for her, life isn’t all about working for someone else Monday to Friday, 9-5 (or 6 or 7) once her baby comes along and she looks for a new working solution that will keep her at home with her family. The latter lady most likely only swings into action with this when the end of her maternity leave is fast approaching and the idea of having to go back into the workforce is a frightening and unappealing prospect.

You say women face multiple barriers to coming entrepreneurs. You’re right, they absolutely do, but one of them is not because their pesky maternity leave is just too long and getting in their way. Could I ask you to point out to me the women who are celebrating your proposal and shouting from the rooftops

“well thank God for Senator White. Finally I’ll have a bit of flexibility with my maternity leave so I can devote more time to getting back to work.”

If we’re all so desperate to get started on setting up a business, why do so many women lie about their due date so that they can work as late as possible into their pregnancy to secure those precious extra weeks with their baby at the other end? Why do so many families scrimp and save so that new mothers can take as much of their unpaid leave as they can possibly afford once their maternity leave ends?

Although I admire your efforts, your bill will actually impact negatively on new mothers and babies. What mother in the country is going to deny her partner the opportunity to take some paid paternity leave when their little one arrives if it’s something he really wants to do? How could we? After spending decades calling for paid paternity leave for our partners,  how could we turn around now and say

“oh no sorry, you can’t have any of mine!”?

Women will be forced to cut their maternity leave short to accommodate their partners equal right to spend time at home with their child.

What impact do you think this is going to have on our already paltry breastfeeding rates? Once your bill is in, the pressure to wean babies to formula will be even stronger than it is now and many mothers will feel obliged to give up breastfeeding before they return to work even if they’d prefer not to. Breastfeeding support in this country is so bad at the moment that most women don’t know how to access the expertise to help them keep breastfeeding and return to work.

You call your bill “innovative” but you know, really it’s just sneaky. You’ve dressed it up as a modern, progressive, egalitarian proposal when it’s really robbing Peter to pay Paul and the State won’t have to invest a penny.

Here’s something really innovative. Why not take the brave step of suggesting that paid parental leave is extended to 12 months – or if we’re paying heed to the extensive, international research – 18 months and insist that fathers must take a minimum of three months of that? Our Scandanavian cousins have had huge success with this model. Look at Iceland, paternity leave is now a normalised part of society.

“But we couldn’t possibly afford it!”,

they’ll cry. That’s what they said when the European Union insisted we lift the marriage ban in the 70s. That’s what they said when the concept of maternity leave was introduced in the first place. Yet look at us now. All thanks to the outside influence of our European counterparts.

12 – 18 months of paid parental leave will mean children under the age of one will be nurtured by their primary caregiver in their own home, something that research has proven time and again is best for babies. It will mean that babies are more likely to be breastfed for longer. Just read this report from UNICEF UK to get even the slightest inkling of how much the Government would save on a reduced health bill if our breastfeeding rates increased just marginally. It would mean that society would accept that fathers have a place in the home caring for their children. If they all have to take time off work, then of course it’s the most normal thing in the work. If mothers have happy, healthy babies and they’re not worrying, worrying, worrying, I’d say the chances of them turning their head to setting up that new business are suddenly all the more realistic.

Senator White, please, please, can I ask you to take the summer months, give your bill some serious thought and change it before the Autumn session begins. Change it for the better. Do something good for Ireland’s babies, for its mammies and its daddies, for society and the economy as a whole. Take the long view. Look to the future and see the consequences of your suggestion and then mine.

Don’t rob us of our precious maternity leave to win brownie points in the name of equality.

You’re going in the wrong direction.

Yours sincerely,

Mind the Baby

Mother of 1, Full time employee and budding entrepreneur.

 

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