“I am 35 years old and about to take maternity leave for my first baby. I am successful in my work and have worked hard to reach a senior position. My job can be kept open for me for six months but I would then have to return to full-time work if I wanted to keep it. I would have liked to stay with the baby until it was 2 or go back to work part-time, but this particular job means a lot to me. It is not for the money - my partner earns enough - and, anyway paying for a good nanny is going to be very expensive. How do I weigh up the respective costs?”
Short-term maternity leave has been both a triumph and a problem. On the plus side, it has helped employers realise that pregnancy and birth are to do with life and are not unmentionable diseases. In some areas of work, women felt that their menstrual clock inclined employers to clock them out rather than have them clock in. However, the triumph is not large enough. Martin Allen, for example, of Queen’s Park Rangers was fined two weeks’ wages for leaving the team to be present at the birth of his son. Leave for both men and women, separately or together, should be automatic and far longer for the earliest stage of their child’s life. Meanwhile, short-term leave, though an improvement, poses problems.
Mary was a successful academic in her late 30s when she became pregnant. She was unsure when she would want to return to work so she resigned her post. Once her baby was born she was surprised to find she wanted to stay at home with her and only when the child was 3 and started at nursery school did she find a new part-time job. “If I had been told I would only get maternity leave if I came back full-time when my baby was six months old I’d probably have not let myself get so attached to her”. Where parents know they need and want to either work or stay at home the choices are clear. However, some mothers are not so certain. In those circumstances the length of maternity leave can be a pressure that denies the mother or father the chance to follow their emotional timing.
Ms. B.L. has told us there is no economic factor involved in her choice and this is true for a certain number of older professional women. Indeed, even with less affluent women, child-minding or nanny costs can almost equal the salary that is gained, showing us that in those cases it is emotional need that makes the parent return to work rather than financial issues.(I am not talking here about the situation where two incomes are required just to make ends meet.) So what is happening when a mother or two parents are unsure about being with their child in its first year or two? Sometimes parents have little emotional choice. If they themselves were left to the care of nannies, au pairs, child-minders or boarding school then that experience will have had a major effect. Even with a loving nanny or child-minder who stays for years a small child tends to take from the experience the message that their parents do not want to be with them at this time. Those who speak of the cycle of deprivation in poor families with children facing multiple caretakers often forget the middle and upper class variations of the same theme. Many parents who find their children interesting when they can talk but not earlier may be passing on unconsciously their own child experience. Some of the cruel boarding school rituals of “welcome” that still take place can be understood as older children passing on their feelings of being sent away and abandoned on to the new rejects. The fact that such regular abandonment takes place within upper class circles does not lessen the emotional deprivation.
Sometimes, one parent can make up for the gaps in the other’s resources. John, for example, a freelance translator, works from home and looks after the baby too while Maureen goes out to fulltime work. If neither parents feels able to be at home with the baby there are two choices. They can go for help in exploring what is hindering them. Or, if they know they are going to work because they need to (for whatever reason) then they need to accept that and do their best over substitute care. A child then gets a different message from that given if the parents have denied their difficulties over this. Bright statements like - “Oh, she just loves her nanny, she can’t wait for me to go”… “Babies don’t know who they are with anyway”… “I think it is important for little children to see their mother has a career” can cover over fear of staying close to a tiny being and having your own infantile needs stirred up; especially if those needs were not met well in your own infancy.
Uncertainty at being home-based is not helped by the denigration of the term “housewife”. It seems that one way we deal with our fear of staying close to small children is to mock those who do. Working with children usually has less status and a lower salary than work with adults. College lecturers earn more than infant teachers. There is a major cultural propaganda machine at work that spreads the myth that going to work is more adult and being at home is childish. In fact, going to work can satisfy one’s infantile needs whilst being at home with small children can require the fullest adult capacity.