Laura Perrins is a former barrister turned stay at home mother. She campaigns for Mothers at Home Matter.
The Liberal Democrats recently abolished maternity leave. If you did not think maternity leave was abolished – well, it was. It has been replaced with a “recovery time” of two weeks for new mothers, and the rest is parental leave that can be shared between Mum and Dad. So, yes, they have abolished maternity leave.
This has been spun as a way of getting dads to bond with their child – but only if that comes at the expense of a mother bonding with her child. To deprive mothers fof adequate time to recover from labour and delivering a baby is misogynist. To deprive new mothers of time to establish breastfeeding (if this is what they want to do) is misogynist. To deprive newborn babies of the care of the person who has carried them for nine months, and is best placed to bond with them is a breach of baby’s human rights. To label as “old fashioned” the belief that mothers are the primary carers for infants, as Nick Clegg has done, is misogynist. To turn new mothers into mere baby incubators, without respecting their desire to care and their new infant’s need to be cared for by their mother is misogynist. And to spin this as a victory for equality and dads is manipulative and odious.
The new parental leave scheme allows a mother a mere two weeks “recovery time”. It is not now referred to as maternity leave, because anything maternal is bad and maternal feelings must be stamped out for the good of equality (LibDems) or the economy (Conservatives). The very short recovery time is what I object to the most. Where, oh where, did they get the period of two weeks from? Were any obstetricians, gynecologists, midwives, breastfeeding counsellors or health professionals consulted?
It will usually – not always, but usually – take longer than two weeks for a mother to recover from labour and delivering a child. It is called labour, for a reason. Even the straightforward labours are still (believe me) laborious. Some mothers will suffer first, second, third or (rarely but it does happen) fourth degrees tears (consult the internet if you do not know what any of these are). Many will have at least, at least an episiotomy. Others still, may have a caesarean section. The NHS offers mothers a post-natal check at six weeks, a full month after the two weeks protected time. So why did they choose two weeks, a time period that completely ignores the impact that labour has on a woman’s body? It turns women into mere baby incubators, and it is inhuman and barbaric to not give them enough time to recover before they are expected to return to paid work. This is not progress; this is medieval.
Newborn babies want and need their mothers. Feminists may not like this, the Liberal Democrats may not like it and Nick Clegg may not like it, but it is a fact. They know their smell and her voice from the womb. They know the rhythm of her heart beat, which is why they want to be held all day long. They recognise her voice before all others when born, and do not recognise Dad’s voice until sometime later (Nicola Lacey). Many mothers want at least to attempt breastfeeding, and we know that this is what is best for baby. It takes at least six weeks for breastfeeding to be established in full. Not two, not four but six weeks at least – so, again, this is much longer that the two weeks “recovery time” offered. For the state to set up a system that puts social and economic pressure on mothers to return to work before baby is ready is a breach of that child’s human rights.
Many say this is about equality for women. But equality is not about treating different situations in the same way. As mums are the ones that carry babies and labour, deliver, and feed those babies they are (at this point in their lives) very different from dads. This is something that should be respected, and catered for in employment laws by the state – and is not something that should be ignored or minimised at all costs. To ignore these differences is, in fact, discrimination. And when it is accompanied with stigmatic language designed to denigrate mothering as “old-fashioned”, it goes beyond discrimination and becomes misogyny.
But many will say, what about Dads? They want to bond with newborn baby too. It pains me greatly, and indeed infuriates me that this has been set up as dad-versus-mum. Of course dads wants to bond with new baby but this should not be done at the expense of mums doing so. Mums are in a better position to bond with baby, due to the hormones generated by labour (oxytocin) and breastfeeding (prolactin). Both oxytocin and prolactin are referred to as “the hormones of love”, and promote attachment between mums and babies. Dads can support mums while they lay the building blocks in those first few month,s and can bond with baby in many ways. But the Liberal Democrats want more that this – they want him to usurp Mum, not support her. This is why this policy is so poisonous.
Is there any benefit to this scheme at all? I am willing to accept there could be some benefit if it means that where mums must return to work soon after birth now dads, instead of working too, can care for babies instead. This of course is an improvement, but I suspect the numbers will be very, very small. So the question is will this benefit be such that it makes up for the negative impact on mums and babies who are separated too soon? In other words, is it proportionate? I do not currently believe that it is.
The other argument is that mums are not being forced back to work after two weeks if they do not want to, and they can take the full year if they wish. Well, how do we know that some new mothers will not feel under pressure to return too soon? It is very likely that because of the relentless economic and social pressure that new Mums are being put under that some, at least ,will return before they are ready. This all comes at a time when there is an opinion out there that “maternity leave is for wimps”, and new mothers should just suck it up and get on with it. It also comes at a time when politician after politician refers to the economy needing mothers to return to work, and that caring for children at home is a lifestyle choice. Essentially the point is: if a mother does return to work prematurely (and suffers a prolapse, infection or mastitis as a result), it should be on her conscience.
Where are the Conservatives in all this? Well, their silence has been deafening. I have not heard one female MP express concern that either the two-week recovery time is grossly insufficient for mums and far too short for babies. The fact that the policy was delivered by a Minister who herself is eight months pregnant (you can just imagine the smugness in the hierarchy at that one) makes the betrayal even worse. So much for the sisterhood, then: thanks a bunch.