Sometimes women have a baby and then, after a while, they return to work. If, for example, a woman takes a year off work (by royal appointment), she may find the job of caring for a baby fantastic, lonely, stressful, mundane and soul-destroying, all at the same time.
Each new mother’s response will be different; for some, the 39 weeks statutory maternity pay (which can be split into shared parental leave) is too long and the desire to return to work increases with each day spent in front of daytime TV or Peppa Pig.
For others, the end of maternity leave will loom like a nightmare from the Handmaid’s Tale, where your enfant child is wrestled from your embrace as you are forced to return to the 9-5 treadmill in order to spend all your hard-earned cash on childcare.
These are stark choices and apparently make new mothers about 40% more stressed than anyone else, with millennials saying they cannot afford children at all. Ayesha Vardag is a divorce lawyer who, after the birth of her fourth child, said: “It’s like maternity rules were set up by men in the 50s. You should be with your baby all of the time and, if you’re coming back, you better come back full-time or we’re not interested.”
The problems escalate when women return to work – if that job still exists. One report found maternity leave discrimination leads to 54,000 women losing their jobs each year and we now know non-disclosure agreements have been used to silence women sacked after having children. Of those working mothers who keep their jobs, three-quarters say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace. The motherhood penalty, in other words, is the rule rather than the exception.
Vardag’s solution is to invite women to return to her law firm as soon as they feel ready for as much time as they want – even if that is half a day a week. She is open to employees breastfeeding in the office and offers a nanny service to longer-serving staff. This is what a flexible, humane and pragmatic maternity policy could look like. Instead of endlessly obsessing over what makes a good mother, how about overhauling an unfit-for-purpose system that ensures mothers can never be good enough?