Let’s admit it – maternity leave can be a chore
Month after month bonding with baby can be tiring and stressful. But dumping more of the burden on to men is no solution.
In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month, she argues that extending maternity leave is a poor substitute for a social solution to the problem of childcare.
At last, someone has said it: Extended periods of maternity leave and flexible working rights are not all they are cracked up to be.
Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, has told The Times (London) that generous maternity benefits – currently standing at one year’s leave, 39 weeks of which are eligible for the meagre Statutory Maternity Pay – have entrenched the assumption that only mothers, not fathers, bring up children. She is also concerned that employers are reluctant to take on or promote women because of the likelihood that they will get pregnant and abandon ship for up to a year; and that plans to extend the right to request flexible working hours until children were 16 could hamper women’s employment prospects further, as the vast majority of parents who have taken up this right so far have been mothers (1).
As The Times notes, business leaders have criticised the new maternity laws before, but ‘this is the first time that a criticism has come from an organisation that campaigns on behalf of women’. And it’s a rather brave move. Maternity leave is still considered as something of a perk to be enjoyed by women of a certain age – a part-funded gap year enabling endless lie-ins, domestic goddesstry and bonding with one’s precious infant.
Those of us who have been there might point out that the reality is rather less pleasant, involving lunatic bouts of sleep deprivation and hands raw from mopping up sick. But even mothers, in my experience, buy into the idea that protracted maternity leave is a good thing; for how could you possibly want less time with your newborn? It is striking that, every time the government increases the statutory maternity leave period, mothers feel obliged to take the maximum time off. Why on earth do we do it? What’s in it for us?
For first-time mothers, maternity leave can appear like a bit of a jolly. You’ve decorated the nursery, laboured over your birth plan, and are looking forward to taking a break from the daily commute and incessant office politics. And yes, some women love most minutes of their maternity leave, and only return to work because they cannot afford to stay at home. But for most, the experience is rather more mixed. You love the baby but you hate the endless feeding/cleaning/changing, and really you would rather be holding adult conversations than engaging in infant babbling. As the US academic Katie Roiphe has written in The Sunday Times about her return to work after a long maternity leave: ‘I realised that if I don’t start thinking about something other than what to make for dinner, I’m going to lose my mind.’ (2)
Even one’s own newborn baby is not, in my humble opinion, endlessly fascinating. Nine months in The Night Garden – the repetitive BBC show for infants that explores ‘the difference between being asleep and being awake from a child’s point of view’ – is an awful long time. Particularly if you are planning to have more than one child, in which case you’ll have to do the same thing again fairly soon. But woe betide you should ever admit this, by going back to work just as soon as you can. Instead, as Roiphe puts it, even ‘fascinating and brilliant women’ find themselves indulging ‘in a willing suspension of the world of ideas and immerse themselves in the rather dull world of kids’ trivia. You find yourself at a dinner party and, instead of talking about novels or politics, the discussion is about whether it’s important to make your own baby food.’
The cult of intensive parenting is such that we are expected to view maternity leave as a privilege, and the newborn baby not only as somebody requiring love and care, but as an endless source of entertainment and satisfaction. So mothers have little choice but to make the trade-off, taking the maximum maternity leave despite knowing that it will not help their careers and drive them a little bonkers. When they do not experience maternity leave as the best thing that has ever happened to them, but rather as something that saps their energy and destabilises their sense of identity, they feel guilty and anxious and somehow let down by it all.
So it seems to me that extended maternity leave is an entirely mixed blessing. But while others seem to be recognising this, they balk at suggesting any real alternative. Instead, they propose that dads, too, should suffer a stint in HMP Maternity Leave.
So Nicola Brewer, according to The Times, worries that maternity benefits have ‘failed to hasten a social revolution where both parents were equally responsible for caring for their family’. In response, the paper’s perceptive Alpha Mummy blog offers ‘five reasons why exclusive maternity leave is bad for women’, of which one is that ‘it sidelines dads’ who, as Jennifer Howze points out, are just as good as mothers at ‘peeling bananas, playing ball, reading stories and wiping tears’ (3).
Every new mother will at some point have been possessed with the vicious desire to force her partner to swap his cosy office tedium for the deafening squalor of a week at home with baby. ‘He just has no idea what I have to do all day!’ must be the most frequently-offered phrase in the post-natal coffee morning. But there is a big difference between a mother’s fantasy of sharing the misery and this being posed as the only policy alternative to exclusive maternity leave. How can it make life better for families if mothers and fathers have their employment prospects hampered on both sides, and the divide between parents and the childless is opened up even more?
The ‘dads too’ argument both buys into the notion that maternity leave is some kind of a perk, and that the full weight of childcare responsibilities should fall exclusively on the parents. It brokers little controversy among parents because we, too, have bought into the idea that it is Very Important for us to spend the first few months locked into intensive bonding with our new baby.
The bonding myth is an idea based on prejudice with a pseudo-scientific backing. It emanates from the political elite’s fear that parents will not love with their children unless physically attached to them for as long as possible. It is also, unfortunately, the organising principle of the UK government’s 10-year childcare strategy, which promotes ‘consistent one-to-one care’ for the first year – to be provided, for those of us outside the nanny league, by parents taking 12 months off work (4). In practice, people can pay for childcare from three months, but many nurseries and childminders only take babies from six months and there is a hefty price to pay in guilt.
So what to do? In itself, maternity leave is not a problem. What is a problem is the way that policymakers hide behind ‘flexible employment rights’ to head off any discussion about more imaginative, socially-oriented childcare strategies, and the extent to which the awkward work/life compromise of maternity leave is presented as a wonderful privilege for women. As working parents know, we are more than capable of loving our children and holding down a decent career, and it’s only bad policy that makes us feel we have to choose between them.
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