Earlier this month, the IoD's first female chair Lady Barbara Judge commented that long maternity breaks are 'bad' for women and can damage their career prospects. (MT broke the story here.)
Her comments were well-intended. And she's right; taking a very short maternity leave and delegating childcare to the nanny works... if professional success is your only priority. It's the way things used to be done when professional women pretended not to have kids and got on, without moaning. If they didn’t like it (and the numbers indicate they didn’t), then they simply quit. Over the last four years, my interviews with mothers working in positions of power show this approach still works well, especially when your first child is very young and you can afford plenty of help.
But (and it's a big 'but'), it starts to take its toll.
My interviews have explored the high cost of not taking maternity leave, in social, psychological and relationship terms. The most often cited regret of Power Mums is that they didn’t take more time off when they had the chance.
Many will explain that they needed more time to bond with their baby and recover from the birth. But there are other crucially important reasons for taking your maternity leave and using it well.
The first is that you need time to adjust to a whole new 'parent' identity. A friend hilariously (but painfully) describes how one minute she was presenting a PowerPoint at her office, when – still in the boardroom – her waters broke. Her colleagues wheeled her on an office chair to the next-door hospital where she was astonished to find herself naked on all fours bellowing as the baby came out. That shift – from 'in control', clean and adult to vulnerable and animal – is enormous. Off the record, Power Mums admit their adjustments involved a lot crying, some post-natal depression and various relationship problems.
The second value of maternity leave is that it gives you time to make and build new relationships in your local community. Women who have spent ten or 15 years in 'town' in the office don’t usually have local friends and family, or know their local area well. A KPMG partner I spoke to said she went from not noticing the family who ran her corner store to depending on them for refuge when she couldn’t cope with her crying baby.
Skipping this phase of making friends and building a support system locally bites back hard when your youngest child goes to school. The nanny is no longer needed, and, when your child is sick and you're locked in a board meeting, you need people you know well enough who can help you out. Everything about parenting is harder when you don't have anyone to recommend the best clubs to join, when you don’t know the woman who controls the admissions list at the local nursery, and no-one mentions the latest cream for chickenpox.
Then there is the pain of social isolation. Of course mothers leave the office when they can to put the kids to bed and so miss the work social scene. But, without a replacement, it dawns on them that on Friday night, while the office gang are rocking the town and the local mums are on the daiquiris in the wine bar, they are not with either. This can breed an unhelpful hostility towards the other 'lycra mums' and also build pressure on couples.
The weekends arrive after a stressful week and there isn’t enough respite. Kids stuff can be hard and boring, especially if you’ve barely seen them in the week and feel disconnected. It breaks everyone’s heart when your child falls over and cries not for mummy but for their nanny. If you don’t know the kids friends, it’s harder to fix playdates. Power Mums will blithely say 'oh the nanny does that', not realising until much later that their kids are invited to less stuff than their mates. Mothers organise playdates not so much for kids as to be with other mothers they know and like.
So if all this seems gloomy, what does work?
The happiest mothers are those that ignore Lady Judge. Those that take the time to adjust to their kids and keep up their local relationships by managing a few school runs each week. It sounds simple but that is the formula. If you can be connected locally – and engaged with your kids and local parents – you can thrive at work for the long-term and stay in your career to the benefit of your family, corporate life and, I would argue, wider society.
The bad news is that you may not make CEO of a FTSE 100 that way. But at least you'll be happy.
Christine is a contributing editor of MT, owner of www.villas4kids.com and a partner at Jericho Chambers. She'll be revealing 'The truth about working mums' at MT's Inspiring Women event on 16 November. Check out the programme here. And for a chance to win tickets, click here.
Photo credit: Jane Mingay