The Great Maternity Leave Debate

Child having just been asked to practise the piano

Honey, having just been informed she is to come with me to the office

As ‘working mother’ role models go, the example from Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer is about as welcome as those tiresome celebrities who publicly prance about in skinny jeans about two seconds after giving birth. Mayer, who is expecting twins, has announced she is only going to take two weeks’ maternity leave. Whether this is what eventually happens is not the point. The message here from the trim, coiffed and supremely successful Mayer – and plenty of other American execs, is that spending time with your newborn baby is for wimps. Of course, maternity leave is a conundrum which will not be  smoothed out and agreed upon. Discuss, with additional input from Victoria Beckham, the Duchess of Cambridge and Mary Poppins.

I had my first three children within the embrace of the BBC, and each time, returned to my position as a news correspondent when they were each about eight weeks old. It was tough. Quite apart from the necessity to sit in the loos pumping breast milk on a regular basis, every time I walked past a TV screen showing a Teletubby or the inexplicable Fimbles, I felt like crying. Sometimes I did actually cry. There was the sadness about missing those first tentative smiles, the huge expense of childcare (something which probably will not concern Ms Mayer) the eternal anxieties about whether said childcare was good enough, safe enough, loving enough, too loving. Actually, I wasn’t bothered about this last point, even though my kids all said the nanny’s name weeks before mine. I wanted them to be loved, a lot. (I was  much more exercised about the nanny who, we later discovered, had a part-time job as a hooker, or the one who nearly got them all knocked down by a motorbike).

Yet let’s be realistic. While I loved being a mother, I also loved doing my job. Would I want to go back to the newsroom after a lengthy break of (say) a year or two? Not at all. I was already slightly freaked out by the legion of  (male) colleagues who would email me immediately I had let it be known that I was knocked up, and ask me a) when I was going to be off, and b) could it be for as long as possible, please?

The ideal time came when I had my fourth child, by which time I had left the BBC and was freelancing. “Oooh, I bet you will miss your old maternity leave arrangements,” everyone said. I don’t think so. Here was the best of both worlds. I maintained child care arrangements for the older lot (then aged 2, 5 and 7), and simply carted the baby around with me. It won’t work for everyone, but I think this does suggest a glimmer of hope on the vexed work-life seesaw. Many large workplaces already provide in-house restaurants, gyms, beauty salons and healthcare outlets. Some already provide in-house nurseries, but perhaps many more should. If you could take your baby to work with you, the dread portcullis which usually comes crashing down between work and home life is instantly dispelled. Furthermore, it would be a huge plus for those mothers opting to breast feed, because the recipient is only a corridor away. If you get your timing right, you would not have to perch on a loo for twenty minutes attached to a buzzing plastic milking machine. Or – the worst – sit in a meeting fearing to look down because you suspect that there are two dark circles of wet material gradually expanding on your chest.

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