Sarah Todd: Maternity leave isn't when your children need you most of all

ONE of Britain's leading businesswomen has dared to pour cold water on long maternity breaks.

Columnist Sarah Todd says mothers should not be resented if they don't spend a year on maternity leave.

Lady Barbara Judge, the first female chairman of the Institute of Directors, has been brave enough to say those who take a year off work are at risk of losing their jobs.

She’s right. Women have been conned into the trap of thinking they can have it all. The real world doesn’t work like that.

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Many new mothers come back to work after long absences to be faced with a job that has changed beyond all recognition or a boss who has realised they can manage without them. Colleagues, especially in small businesses, can be frosty after being left to take up the slack.

As somebody who took just six weeks maternity leave – an absolute age compared to Lady Judge’s 12 days – today’s months and months away from the workplace are a source of amazement.

How can any woman expect to be respected if she disappears for a whole year?

Of course, parenting experts have been quick to hit back against Lady Judge’s comments. Yes, it would be a backwards step to take these hard-fought maternity rights away. But is it not very naive to think taking the maximum time won’t have any downsides?

A practical one is that the longer mothers spend with their babies the harder it is to go back – and commit fully – to work. With mine handed over to the nursery at six weeks, it was easy to get into a routine. They didn’t care who was spooning organic mush (the curse of guilt-laden working mothers) into their mouths and changing their nappies – just so long as somebody was.

Lady Judge referred to something her mother used to say about having to finally “be there” when your child gets smarter than its nanny. Although there’s been no nanny (not high-flying enough) for yours truly’s brood – there is a lot of truth in this comment.

Do babies, toddlers and young children really know or care who is looking after them? It’s my belief that it’s much more important to be around for older children. There are thousands of latchkey pre-teens and older children who won’t be able to remember the sacrifices their mothers made while they 
were tiny, but feel every day 
the sadness of returning to an empty house.

The school bus dropping off at our lane end opens the floodgates for about an hour of chatting about who did what and general letting off steam about their classroom capers.

On returning from primary school, all they wanted was a drink and a biscuit and half an hour in front of the television. It didn’t matter who provided it.

We recently bumped into a childminder who had looked after them pretty much full-time for a good few years before they started school.

“You were rude,” they were scolded afterwards. “Why didn’t you say hello and ask her how 
she was?”

Turned out her former charges hadn’t a clue who the nice lady in the supermarket was. It didn’t matter how many carefully-prepared meals they had eaten in her kitchen, books read on her knee or somersaults turned in the garden. They had no recollection. She was a stranger.

Interestingly, a study published last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that the only stage at which the quantity of time parents spend with their offspring really matters is during adolescence.

The study of 1,600 youngsters by the University of Toronto showed the more time teenagers spend with parents at meal times and family occasions, the less likely they are to do drugs, drink alcohol or indulge in illicit behaviour. “Illicit behaviour” sounds rather exciting, but maybe it’s fear of this that is behind a growing trend of mothers taking what’s becoming known as teen maternity leave.

They may also have been swayed by a Children’s Society study of 53,000 children in 15 countries, reporting the fact that British youngsters are among the unhappiest in the world. They feel worse about going to school every day than their peers in Ethiopia and Romania, with bullying and anxiety about body image prime concerns.

There’s plenty of debate in our house. The peer pressure faced by my nearly-16 year-old daughter to either colour or cut off her mane of naturally blonde hair is a common one. We’ve negotiated our way through the odd bottle of cider at parties, deleted strange social media messages, discussed what to wear at the dreaded non- uniform days and dealt with the occasional unwanted approach from some lad or other. Simple things, but if her mother hadn’t been around would they have grown into bigger worries?

There is no right or wrong way to handle maternity leave, but new mothers would do well to remember that parenting is a marathon not a sprint…

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.