Nick Clegg announced yesterday that from 2015, new mothers will be able to return to work two weeks after giving birth, and thereafter share twelve months of parental leave with their partner.
The idea, I think, is to attempt to make life easier for parents by giving them greater flexibility about fitting together the often mismatched needs of work and family life. I can kind of see where they’re coming from: in an ideal world, with desk-bound jobs, compliant employers and hands-on fathers, it could work brilliantly. How it will play out in the real world is another matter, and not really what caught my eye about the announcement anyway.
The thing which caught my eye about it was:
I went into labour with my first baby 10 days after my due-date. He didn’t really have the idea, bless him, and ended up being born by emergency caesarean. We spent five nights in hospital, running the gauntlet of infections, hopeless failure to establish feeding, and blood pressure so far down in the doldrums that standing up gave me a whitey. We staggered home on the sixth day, and settled into a cordial hell of colic, sleeplessness and utter disorientation which (eventually, and I’m glad I didn’t know this would be the case at the outset) lasted for about six months.
Even when babies behave impeccably; birthing themselves with barely so much as a cough, waking only to take – perfectly – exactly the right amount of milk, becoming a parent is a big deal. Especially when it’s a first baby. No matter how difficult a pregnancy may be, it’s a kind of phony war. Suddenly, irrevocably, there’s someone else who always comes first, no matter how rubbish you may feel yourself. There are no evenings off or long weekends. It’s a time of profound reassessment of self image and relationships; it can be magical or a nightmare, but it is intense.
And it’s important, too. The period immediately following birth is a time to form attachments, to recover physically and emotionally, and to start to put down the foundations for living as a family. The old concepts of “lying-in” (and even, to some extent, churching) recognised that this was a distinct period in a woman and a baby’s life, and that it needed to be delineated as such, but now (and I was just as guilty of this) there is a spirit of competitiveness about returning to normal as quickly as possible after having a baby.
Some women may well be ready to work after two weeks, but I would hazard that the majority aren’t. My fear is that this proposal will create expectations and put pressure on the latter group; if it becomes seen as a feasible proposition, then women will increasingly feel unable to stand against it. It would make breastfeeding a near impossibility, and it also adds to the sense I sometimes have that natural birth – as unpredictable and inconvenient as it can be – is a selfish, messy option, when booking in for an induction or even a caesarean is available.
It also plays to the idea that maternity leave itself is a bit of a lark. There’s a Sky advert at the moment with Lily Rose Cooper (I had to Google that, because I suspected it was a celeb but wasn’t altogether sure who) looking radiant and gloating at the chance to “watch an entire box set while the baby sleeps”. Lucky her. My idea of “me time” when my eldest was a baby was cutting my toenails in peace. I was a total victim of karma, in that I had honestly envisaged maternity leave as an extended period of time off work, studded with set pieces of myself beatifically holding a (doll-like) baby and glowingly pushing a pram. The reality, an endurance test of crying, laundry and an unhappy little baby who only slept while being walked around was perhaps no more than I deserved, but was reality nonetheless.
I don’t want women to be told what to do. Without external pressures, we are perfectly capable of making the right choices for ourselves and our families. Those external pressures do count, though – whether financial, cultural or practical. I wish that we could find a way to relieve those pressures and allow women to enjoy (or at least focus on!) a period of time which most will only experience once or twice in a lifetime.