Maternity leave is a precious snippet of time in the vast expanse of your child’s life, and for most families, is the longest period of time you will ever have with your child. Think about this for a moment and don’t gloss over it. ONE YEAR is all parents and their babies have to just be. And in reality this isn’t even the case.
One year is if you are lucky and can afford it, because the system is set up so as to make it very difficult indeed to take the full year and you don’t get to ‘just be’. With your own journey of learning and adaptation into motherhood, you experience guilt at every turn.
I feel like shit, I am tired and I should be feeling happy- GUILT
I’m not sure my baby is getting enough breastmilk/ Sleep etc- GUILT
I haven’t managed to get any washing/ washing up/ hoovering done- GUILT
I did loads of housework but my baby just cried all day to be held- GUILT
I feel like I am not doing as well as I should be- GUILT
I am worried my partner/ mum/ dad/ siblings/ best friend/ other mums think I am a bad mum- GUILT
When I was pregnant I was worried I would struggle to return to work after my maternity leave. I knew before it began that for me a year would never be enough as I personally felt the best place for my children was at home with me rather than in a nursery. The whole of my maternity leave I dreaded the day I had to return to work and leave my baby, and would get upset thinking about it. In some ways it had an impact on the time I actually had as I spent so much of it fretting down the days rather than living in and enjoying the moment. It was a countdown.
Anxiety about separation is very normal and very common but it just isn’t spoken about. Women are expected to bounce back into their roles with open hearts and full of energy after maternity leave, as though refreshed from a full years break. The sigh of relief from overworked colleagues who perhaps took on extra work to cover your absence as companies still often do not recruit adequate maternity cover, adding to the sense of burden women are sometimes made to feel by women having babies. As soon as you return the full dump of work responsibility thrown at your feet with often no real consideration to the physical (tiredness, sore engorged breasts, post parturition complications) and emotional impact and consequences of returning to work as a mother.
But what about the guilt and pressure experienced whilst on maternity leave, like described in the list above?
Synonymous with maternity leave is the very common assumption and default role that being at home with the baby equates to the full take on of domestic duties. I’m not sure it’s ever discussed explicitly but for some reason when most mums (and no doubt fathers too) are on maternity leave there is the inherited responsibility of keeping the house tidy and clean, shopping and preparing the meals.
For many mums the reality is in order to feel like a good enough parent at home during maternity leave, mothers (mostly) are wasting and impacting their precious time with their new born by doing extra housework. In a feeling of needing to justify this time at home with your baby and show you can do it all, we put an extreme pressure on ourselves to suddenly become these domestic goddesses with the capacity of a gourmet chef, maid and cleaner, all whilst navigating new parenthood, looking after a brand new baby and trying to recuperate both emotionally and physically from the change baring a child brings.
We have this year when because we know we get one shot at it, and because we have been raised by the ideals of movies and generations past where the role of the mother is all encompassing, there is the pursuit to execute the role perfectly, without imperfections and all whilst being seen to be ‘enjoying’ the experience.
Looking back I feel furious at myself, and at society for perpetuating this idea that maternity leave is a “baby holiday” where you are essentially sat around doing sod all and therefore you have to earn your time at home and show to not be sitting around. After all, after physically making and carrying around a human in your womb, being physically shattered for months, physically pushing out little human and often mutilating your body forever in the process, how very dare you sit on your ass and rest? Waking during the night constantly to feed your baby? Oh well, suck it up and get that damned hoovering done!
There is the constant nag that makes you feel you need to keep on top of everything, keep it clean. Cook healthy meals. In essentially a guilt laden burden to be worthy of my time at home. To be seen to be a great mum. Many a time at the detriment to playing with my babies, with children wailing and being pushed aside and me struggling to multi-task.
I am not sure where this notion comes from, and I don’t think partners are necessarily saying or thinking, “excellent, now we’ve had a baby and my partner is on maternity, I no longer have to do any housework”, but it is coming from somewhere. I’m not sure how much of it is self imposed and subconsciously assumed within a couple, shaped by our own upbringings, often seeing our own mothers, aunties, grandmas, carrying the full domestic load.
It is important to distinguish here, the difference between being at home full time to care for your children, being a traditional housewife being at home full time when your children are all at school, or perhaps even without children, and having maternity leave.
Firstly having this time off is ESSENTIAL! Initially on a physical level whilst a woman heals but in an ongoing way it is necessary to build strong and healthy attachments with your baby, to establish breastfeeding and to accompany your child through those early developmental milestones of weaning, walking and talking.
Taking a full year maternity leave is still seen as a frivolity by many and this is consolidated on a basic level by organisations only having to pay you a full time wage for such a short time. I was luckier than others, in the NHS I received 3 months full pay and 3 months half pay, but many people get less than this. Even on this relatively generous scheme most people struggle to afford living costs on half pay. At 6 months the pay stops and you get statutory pay which is essentially about £100 a week and from 9 months you get a big fat zero pence. Now is it just me or is that not saying some very clear statements about what we as a society think about a baby’s early life and the value of parenting?
- Only those who are affluent or can afford it should have time with their baby
- Only babies of well off parents get to be looked after by them
- Some have to choose between paying bills and spending time with their baby
- 3-6 months is enough time with your baby
- If you can’t afford it you should miss out on feeding your baby its first foods, missing their first steps and first words
- Babies from poorer families by default of pressures to return to work will breastfeed for less time
- Work is valued more than life
It actually makes more assumptions than this but these are a few that immediately spring to mind. It seems absurd to me that despite the world health organisation and UNICEF recommending mothers to breastfeed to 12 months and discuss the benefits up to 2 years and beyond, that as a nation it is no surprise at 6 months only 34% of mothers who breastfed are still breastfeeding. At 12 months this drops to 0.5%. How can they when they have to work?
If you haven’t already been pressured by the anti breastfeeding brigade before this point, then returning to work may be the final hurdle!
As a society we continue to weave the web that tangles mothers in a prism of ‘perfect’ motherhood. We continue to repeat the script that being a mother is not enough by itself and to be granted precious maternity leave we have to earn our keep.
I have lost count of the times I have;
- Messaged my partner on a bad day detailing my stressful time in order to prepare him and explain why I might not do everything
- Given full accounts as to the horror of my day to justify not having done things around the house
- Described the children in a negative way such as being ‘clingy, needy’ etc as a way to blame them for me not getting chores done
- Got annoyed at my children for wanting me when I feel I should be doing housework
- Felt like a failure because my house is a tip and I didn’t get any jobs done
- Felt like a failure in a tidy house because I wasn’t available to my kids in order to do the jobs
- Prioritised chores over playing with my children.
Let me make it clear, this pressure is not coming from my partner expecting this or putting any direct pressure on me, it’s an internal pressure derived from the image society perpetuates and a silent subtle change that happens within your relationship.
At home the pressure to conform to this isn’t always explicit, your partner may not even have said they expect it, but sometimes being complicit and allowing it to happen is consolidating the problem. It is so ingrained into our societal norms many families never have to discuss it. As a partner if you are hearing the narrative of explaining why things aren’t done, if you are receiving the stress messages and you allow them to explain themselves then you aren’t helping. If as a partner you are enjoying all the food cooked, if you are now doing less domestic duties despite a new addition to the family then you are saying you also think this is a mother’s role. It’s unsaid. If you say “I’ve been at work all day…..” to not have to do something, what you are really saying is “I have been busy with important stuff, you have not”, “I don’t have time, but you do”.
I wish for all new mums to enjoy their maternity leave free from the constant guilt of having to do everything on top of being a mum.
It is such a short and wonderful time that flies by so quickly. There will always be housework, our whole life is making mess, but you won’t always have this time with your little one. Embrace it. Don’t waste it.
Pictures used in this post are a combination of authors own and free images from Pixabay and Unsplash