'I missed his first steps': how long should new parents take off work? | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh

We asked our readers how much leave they took off after childbirth, and what affected their decisions

Barbara Judge, an American-British lawyer and businesswoman, has argued that long maternity breaks are bad for women. She said the US had a better approach (companies with more than 50 staff provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave) compared with Britain (where women can take up to a year off), saying a bigger break from work left women at risk of losing their job.

We asked our readers how long mothers and fathers took off after the births of their children and why.

Natalia Graham-Ruiz, 43, from Berkshire: ‘I felt judged and guilty when I went back to work after three months’

Natalia Graham-Ruiz

My partner left me while I was pregnant with my first child, so I left London and my job to stay with my parents. But this meant that after the birth I couldn’t afford to take much maternity leave – only three months – as I needed to find a way of supporting myself and my son. I am now married, and with my second child my situation was very different and I was able to take 10 months off.

I have regrets about having only three months off with my first child. I missed out on so much. For example, my son’s first steps, the first time he rolled over on his own – there were lots of firsts I missed because I was at work. I also missed out on the friendships that new mums make when they take their children to baby and toddler activities. I didn’t do any of that because I went out to work. I was a very lonely working single mum, and when my son started school we didn’t have any of those important networks or friendships.I don’t think there should be any hard and fast rules about maternity leave. I don’t judge anyone on the basis of the amount of time they take, it is entirely up to them. I felt judged and guilty when I went to work when my son was only three months old, but I just did what was right for me at the time.

Meerat Kaur, 35, from London: ‘I rushed back to work as parenthood was affecting my mental health’

I was meant to take the full year off when my daughter was born. However, I rushed back to work after eight months because I found raising a baby incredibly difficult and it started affecting my mental health. I went from doing a job that I was great at to spending 24/7 looking after a baby and not really knowing what I was doing, feeling constantly stressed by everything. I felt a bit adrift and didn’t know what to do when my baby wouldn’t stop crying, for example. It was overwhelming and everyone was offering different advice on how to look after her.

I tend to always know what I am doing, or can at least figure it out, so I found my new role as mother difficult. Even with a good and happy baby, albeit one that didn’t sleep much, I struggled. I am not naturally good with babies (which I didn’t realise until I had one). I felt, at times, like I was drowning on maternity leave, rather than staying afloat. I also found every day quite monotonous and there was no break. Even when you’re ill you cannot really take a day off as a mum.

This all led to me feeling low, and it was a feeling that wouldn’t go away. I was struggling and I missed my job. I’ve always been used to having space to myself, which I didn’t realise was a coping mechanism for any stress I was facing. Suddenly I didn’t have that, and felt overwhelmed. Some mothers find looking after their children hard, but it’s not always openly talked about.

As a mother, society tends to expect me to stay at home with my child. The system was designed for that to happen, with me getting the statutory time off work. However, my husband would have been a much better carer for the baby than me. He is just much better with young children; patient, caring and understanding. He knows what to do when they won’t stop crying and is, ironically, much more maternal than me.

I am now much better with our girl as she turns six. We do lots of stuff together these days, such as going kayaking and having discussions about the state of the world. It would have been good to be able to sit down and talk about who looks after the children, based on who has the skills and desire to do so. This is more likely to happen due to the new rights introduced last year which allow parents to share 50 weeks of leave between them – 37 of those weeks paid. This means that with the birth of our next baby in January, I can share parental leave more equally with my husband.

Sam Elfer, 37, from Hove: ‘I was back at work barely a week into being a new father – it wasn’t long enough’

Sam Elfer

When my first child was born I took the statutory two weeks of leave, but due to complications my wife and new son didn’t come home for the first few days. This meant that I was back at work barely a week into being a new father, and it wasn’t long enough to adapt. I didn’t know what to expect with a new baby, but at the time it was a bit of a shock that this tiny creature needed almost 24-hour care. Going into work after a week of no sleep and trying to concentrate on anything more than making a cup of tea was hard.

The second time round, I booked a month off. I also booked six weeks of Fridays off. I’m lucky to have an understanding employer. The time I got to spend with my youngest was precious. On Fridays I could take the baby to the park and sit on the grass with him. We would then collect my older son from school and take him for ice-cream. It gave my wife a few hours out. Sometimes he’d sleep and I’d read the paper and have a coffee – a rare treat. I’d definitely recommend it to new dads.

A month off was ideal. After that, I needed to get back to work, but it’s different for everyone. Parents and employers need to be prepared to have a conversation about what works for both parties. It doesn’t need to be off or not – a phased return, more working from home and reduced hours can all help make the transition run smoothly. .

Anonymous, 39, from Kent: ‘It’s not realistic to expect lots of time off’

Two weeks is enough for the parent who is going back to work. It’s necessary to be there, but the immediate melee has largely subsided by then. A month would be lovely, but someone has to pay for it. Perhaps in some kind of utopia people would be allowed a sabbatical after each child is born, but we can keep dreaming about that.

I couldn’t really take full paternity leave. I’m a magazine editor and the biggest issue of the year goes to press mid-March, and both my eldest and youngest sons were born around this time of year. Obviously I knew the due date, so I worked like crazy in the weeks and months leading up to the births, but I still ended up being quite busy. I had to proof pages and send emails, chase images and copy regularly during the weeks after the birth.

It was a shame that I couldn’t fully relax and enjoy the first couple of weeks of their lives, but I was there at the births and changed their first nappies, so I experienced the important things. There wasn’t really a day that I wasn’t dealing with work, but this isn’t something I’m bitter about, it’s just the way it was.

Karen Farrell, 35, from Ireland: ‘My daughter was ill and that made me reassess my priorities’

Karen Farrell

I had nine months off initially. I thought financially it would be better to work. However, by the time my child was three, my wages were barely covering childcare. I also wanted to be with my daughter, so I left my job to be with her full-time.

There is no question whatsoever that getting pregnant and taking time off was detrimental to my career. However, my daughter was quite ill for the first year and a half and this made me reassess my priorities. I realised that work wasn’t the most important thing in my life.

It’s not helpful for people to say mothers and fathers should rush back to work after having children; some people don’t want to work if it means sacrificing time with their children. Additionally, all employers need to be more flexible as looking after a child can be challenging with strict working hours.

Anonymous, 39, from Peterborough: ‘No job could be more important than raising your own child’

I am about to enter my fourth year as a stay-at-home dad. My wife is also lucky enough to work reduced hours since the birth – she’s only in four days a week. We plan to keep this arrangement until our son goes to school, a few months before his fifth birthday.

I believe children deserve to be raised by their parents whenever possible. We were both cared for by parents until we went to school and we want to do the same for our son. We want to give our boy the full attention of one adult as I believe this helps when it comes to early-years education and emotional stability.

Because I’m the primary care person for him, when he’s upset he always calls for me. What would be happening if someone outside of the family was the person he was bonding with? There’s a lack of stability and a lack of continuity. Plus, I am loving every minute of looking after him, even in the middle of the worst tantrum, it still beats sitting in an office bored out my mind. I’m spending every day with the person I love most in the world. I’m seeing him grow and develop – it’s astounding.

In an ideal world, maternity and paternity leave would be equal and enforced, with 18 months or so allocated to each parent, letting them take it whenever they want. We’re all wired differently, but I find it very hard to understand how any job is more fun and more important than raising your own child.


Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh

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