When it comes to maternity leave, I have two main questions:
- How long should it be?
- By the end of it, just how insane are you likely to have gone?
By the end of both my maternity leaves, I’d gone completely up the wall. It’s a rubbish thing to admit to, not least because it sounds like an insult to stay-at-home mums (who are, by implication, mega-insane, only they’re not, although I’m not sure why). Anyhow, that’s just how I was. With only my children all day, I was basically very lonely. I never really got into the social groups that would have made my adult conversation go beyond comments such as “ooh, he’s got hair. Mine hasn’t got hair. Has yours got teeth?”. I imagine if I’d met someone with whom I’d really clicked it would have been different. But I’m quite shy and I was always waiting for the moment when people at baby group would realise how boring I am (usually it’s when I start with the hair and teeth comments).*
I first began to suspect something was really wrong when I began baking cakes and fresh bread every day. In theory, that’s quite nice. Fresh bread and cakes are delicious, even when I’ve made them. But somehow, none of this really felt like me. On top of that, I became even more obsessed with makeup. I was dismissive of the Yummy Mummy stereotype, but upon opening the change bag in the middle of town and finding six – six! – shades of lipgloss and no wipes, I had to take things a bit more seriously. The final straw came when one weekend I decided “yes, I will use reusable nappies! Not because it’s good for the environment – it’s just that washing and drying really adds rhythm to the day!” At that point I had to admit Betty Friedan was right, at least when she wasn’t being a homophobic nutter. I was truly facing “the problem that had no name”. I needed to get the hell out.
It pains me to admit that I got bored. Being with a newborn is delightful and magical and my memories of the early days are the happiest of my life. But being sleep-deprived and stuck in a bedroom with a two-year-old who wants to play with his trains for hours on end and a seven-month-old so desperate to walk he screams if you’re not holding him upright all the sodding time … I remember all of those days through a kind of yellow fog (there’s no great metaphorical meaning to this; I just literally see that when I think back to that time). I used to pop into my office whenever I could, desperate to get back. When I ran out of keep in touch days I used the cakes as an excuse. If all this had gone on beyond nine months I’d have been offering to make my colleagues’ lunchtime sandwiches (on my freshly-baked bread, of course).
I know, and my partner knows, that it would have been better if we’d been able to share, instead of me having to face this extreme oscillation between lives alone. We know it could have worked, since at one stage we half-managed to try it out. When I returned to work after our first child, it coincided with him finishing a contract and, between jobs, he took care of our son for two months. He absolutely loved it. I loved it, too. I was able to return to the office without the same jolt of guilt I got when sending my youngest straight to nursery. It made the transition so much easier. And now, by comparison, it’s also made me aware how much easier it is to be a parent who works if you also have one who doesn’t. Being the breadwinner’s a piece of piss. It’s important to be able to see the other side, and I have. Traditional family men? You’ve had it easy (not that my partner was literally waiting with pipe and slippers when I got home. He was too busy stressing about the cheese soufflés and drinking the sherry hidden under the stairs).**
All of this is why, tentatively, a bit of me rather likes proposals to reduce maternity leave to 18 weeks, with the option of splitting up the rest of the year with the baby’s father. At least at first glance I’m attracted to it, albeit on a very personal level. I think it could have saved my sanity and made the first years we had as a family more responsive to the people we actually are.
I can see breastfeeding might be an immediate objection, but even there I’m not so sure. Not all women breastfeed in the same way. I liked breastfeeding, but resented the way it tied me to the baby all the time. I used my Avent breast pump obsessively, even when it gave me RSI (I’d got rid of the electric one – the one that played the Byker Grove theme tune – as thoughts of Spuggie kept preventing me from getting let-down). I’d get paranoid if there weren’t at least four neatly labelled and dated bottles of EBM in the fridge. I thought of them as my “freedom units” (I never said this out loud, mind. “Freedom units” sound very post-9/11 America, don’t they? I’m not having my breast milk dragged into the War on Terror).
I do have my misgivings about the 18-months proposal, though. First, because it’s a government proposal so I’m obviously going to have misgivings, and if I didn’t I’d make them up. But also (unless this is a made-up misgiving), I’m worried that in actual fact, this could really just fuck things up for everyone. Why? Because this what I imagine happening in reality:
- As is happening in education, policies are being cherry-picked from other countries without any attention paid to the wider cultural context. So Scandinavian countries have shorter maternity leaves and also do a lot better than the UK in many of the markers for gender equality. That might not be because they have shorter maternity leaves, though. There might be wider cultural trends in play, such as people not being sexist to begin with, for instance. Moreover, Iceland might have shorter gender-specific parental leave patterns, but what about the debt? And the alcohol problems? And Björk?***
- We in the UK still have a significant gender pay gap and significant stereotypes surrounding gender roles. Hence what will happen in practice is that people will do what saves the most money and the most face. It might not even cross most people’s minds to do any different. For one or two couples it might work. However, for a small minority of women who do want to stay at home with their babies for the whole year, there may be unwelcome pressures from partners (or ex-partners) to go back to work or to swap over the main carer role. If conflicts were to arise, I don’t think we’re a mature enough culture, in terms of gender politics, to handle this without reverting back to restrictive mummy essentialism and/or F4J machismo.
- Employers will see a change in policy as a total pain in the arse. In the Age of Austerity they’re already getting more and more like the Fat Controller every day. Flexible parental leave is not Really Useful. Employees will be made aware of this. Before you know it, the upheaval will have created a situation in which women are expected back at work after 18 weeks, and men aren’t expected to take any leave at all.
- All of this fannying about distracts from real issues such as no one being able to afford not to work, no one being able to afford to pay nursery fees, no one being able to do anything, really, unless they’re David Cameron, in which case you just leave your child in a pub or something (this is a story I have not cared to follow).
So basically, what I’m saying is, I’m more or less in favour of this policy, but we can’t introduce it until everyone’s turned nice. And until we’ve considered the impact this might have on sales of strong plain flour and Dr Oetker baking ingredients. Of course, all this may take some time. Still, at least we’ve got a government that doesn’t blindly rush into things with no thought whatsoever…
* This is why I like Twitter. In real life, you can’t tell someone at baby group “hang on, I’ll just nip out to Sainsbury’s and I’ll have thought of a clever response to that by the time I return”. You’re meant to answer people straight away! I can’t be doing with that.
** We did, for our own amusement, like to pretend that I was Terry and he was June. I’ll always regret forgetting to buy a parasol and re-enact the hilarious “collapsing on Terry’s head” moment on the patio.
*** Actually, Björk’s okay. I met her mum once, at a wedding in Iceland. I was very drunk and the only things I could say in Icelandic were “how are you?” and “I smoke”. I’ve since given up, so that’s already half of my Icelandic studies down the drain.