Maternity leave and how much of it mums are choosing to take has been racking up headlines as of late.
The collective horror when The Duchess of Cambridge’s maternity leave was thought to have been cut short due to the Christening announcement, despite only giving birth last month and New Zeland's Prime Minster Jacinda Arden recently announced she would be taking a modest six weeks off work to care for her little one.
Jacinda notably said in an interview that she hopes to see the day where it would not be newsworthy to be interviewed simply because you were pregnant. Nor would it matter how long you decided to take off of work to nurse your new baby.
From maternity leave to menopause, women’s issues have always been under scrutiny, with people thinking that they have the right to comment on what they think they know best. Though I wasn’t quite running the country when I was pregnant with my son, my job as a personal trainer was high pressure and I worked right up until 8 hours before I went into labour. Though admittedly, he did arrive a few weeks early, I never planned to stop working. I loved my clients, and I have never been one to sit around and do nothing. So my bump was along for the ride. There were, of course, the usual challenges of being pregnant, but there were a few giggles on the way too. My bump was huge, I had put on 4 stone, and sometimes it was hard not to let my bump get in the way of a massage treatment!
After giving birth to my son, I returned to work after just a few weeks and was fortunate enough to have childcare available to me at work. I would feed my son, pop upstairs to work with a client or 2 and pop down to feed him again. This fit around my job and lifestyle, but most importantly it was my choice.
I’m not advocating women should go back to work quickly, but with 1 in 7 women go back early because of a fear of losing their job, or are ridiculed for going back later for abandoning their career. I’m advocating that women should go back to work when they feel ready, without being judged, and with the resources and support needed.
Going back to work after giving birth when we aren’t ready can have detrimental effects on both ourselves and our baby(s). It is damaging to our mental health and already fragile hormones and can cause high-stress levels that affect our baby. Stress can slow down the flow of breast milk, and stressed parents are less responsive to their infant's needs and your baby will mirror your stress levels. Work can already be stressful enough, without it having a major effect on our home life and baby’s development. The benefits of a good maternity leave period outnumber the benefits of going back to work and can have long-term effects. It can drastically improve relationships with your child, which will improve well being and nurture good mental health when they’re older.
We should never be made to feel that we should have to choose, and it should never be a choice between children or a career, but this is most often the case. Jacinda Arden’s comments are extremely important, and shouldn’t be treated as a passing statement. Judgements and misconceptions around these issues are dangerous as it sets a standard in both business and society of how we approach and perceive maternity and other women’s issues. No woman should be made to feel or question their decisions.
All we need to do is make decisions that are best for us and our circumstances. In this case, we really can have it all.
Lauren Chiren is the Founder of Women of a Certain Stage, working to normalise menopause in the workplace.