Emily Wilson: Life after birth

Breeding women may play havoc with the rota. But isn't it worth a bit of bother to keep a few of them in the workplace?

When I got knocked up, I was told that thanks to crazy new European rules I was eligible for a year's leave. A year's holiday! Hah! I was staggered by my good fortune. Who cared if I'd only be getting paid for half of it - somehow I'd manage. After all, it wasn't just a holiday - it was also about spending a year with my baby-to-be. Or like, whatever. A year off!

A childless male colleague found the news of my year off hard to swallow. Why should I get a year off, half of it paid for, while he, if he chose never to breed, would never be given similar perks? Why was that fair? He was quite logical about it, and - dizzy as I was with my year-off plans - it didn't seem like an argument worth having.

Actually, you will be amazed to learn, my year off didn't have quite the gap-year vibe that I'd looked forward to. I spent the first three months of it in hospital. After that I spent three months so entirely shattered from sleep deprivation that when visitors came round, I was sometimes too tired to lift my head from the sofa to greet them. Then a month after that I went back to work, five months earlier than planned, because it turned out that the first months of a baby's life aren't a great time to save money, and the money that was meant to last a whole year had been spent.

I wasn't ready, not by a long chalk, for the boy to be handed over to a stranger. And I wasn't ready to stop breastfeeding. But luckily, very luckily, my employers let me work from home part-time and, very luckily again, the baby's father was on hand to care for him while I worked. Which made it all extremely bearable, and a billion times better than the deal most British women get.

If my employers hadn't been so flexible (all praise to the Guardian), I would have quit my job, and the baby's father would have had to pick up the breadwinning baton. No big deal to the world at large, quite the reverse - another thirtysomething woman takes an off-ramp. But it would have been a big deal to me - I would quite likely never have got another staff job in newspapers. And of course there are an awful lot of women of breeding age taking off-ramps, which is why women are still getting paid so much less than men, and why there are so few senior women in the workplace.

The government's plans to increase paid maternity leave from six months to nine months sounds so eminently sensible that I'm rather astonished by them. Another three months of pay would have made a difference even to relatively-rich old me, never mind that it would only have been at the rate of £100 a week (rather than the 90% of pay that you get at the start of your maternity leave). The fact that, in the future, women may be able to hand over six months of this leave to their male partners sounds even more astonishingly sensible. Great for the fathers, of course, and for the babies, but also, if you're concerned about women being squeezed out of the workplace, really great for mothers - after all, the next best thing to being at home with baby, is baby being at home with daddy. Lots of women may even prefer it that way.

Would my childless male colleague approve of the government's plans? Probably not. Offices are all about fair deals for the individual, not about the greater good. But I realise now that it is an argument worth having. The bald fact is that if you object to the swing towards better maternity rights, you are basically saying: women can't have everything, so stuff them. And you are placing yourself in some rather unpleasant company.

Just last month "female boss" Sylvia Tidy-Harris was bleating on in the Daily Mail about how she would never employ a woman under the age of 45 for fear of her getting pregnant - or even a woman with young children, for that matter, since she'd be far too distracted to do her job properly. ("I don't have the same qualms about fathers," Tidy-Harris added. "But I would check at an interview that any man isn't in sole charge of his children.") Yesterday Tidy-Harris was back at it in the Telegraph, describing the government's plans to extend paid leave as "ludicrous".

Tidy-Harris hangs her hat on the old damage-to-small-businesses chestnut, but basically she's no different than a man I know who works in the Foreign Office who says that he never employs women (other than as secretaries) because "they're more trouble than they're worth" and play havoc with his rotas. People - there's still a fight to fight, and it's a good fight, and let's not forget it.


Emily Wilson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Emily Wilson: Life after birth

Big breasts, a low IQ and a personality bypass ... Emily Wilson reveals the awful truth about life with a small baby.

Emily Wilson

01, Sep, 2004 @3:20 PM

Article image
Flexibility at work isn’t just about women – men want more from family life, too | Anushka Asthana
Why are our ambitions for workplace equality so agonisingly low? Both parents deserve more than a kiss at breakfast and a few hours of playtime on the weekend

Anushka Asthana

23, Mar, 2016 @4:21 PM

Article image
Why is Fiona McIntosh, editor-in-chief of Grazia, going part-time?
She gave up her job as editor of Elle to spend more time with her children. But when she was asked to launch Grazia she didn't hesitate to say yes. So why is Fiona McIntosh now going part-time?

Fiona McIntosh

17, Mar, 2006 @10:43 AM

Luisa Dillner on when working mothers lie

Luisa Dillner: Most working mothers would lie about why they were late to work if the real reason was because their childcare arrangements had fallen through.

Luisa Dillner

19, Sep, 2007 @11:09 PM

Emily Wilson: Life after birth

Shows like Little Angels and Baby House may be all about the ratings - but they can be truly educational, writes Emily Wilson.

Emily Wilson

29, Jun, 2005 @3:20 PM

Article image
Welcome to the working mother penalty: less pay for work that costs you much more
A new report suggests that the gender pay gap hits part-time employees hard – as working mothers know all too well

Chitra Ramaswamy

05, Feb, 2018 @5:34 PM

Kate Clanchy: Life after birth
Over the past nine months Kate Clanchy has shared her experience of pregnancy in her column on these pages. In her final instalment she describes the moment her son Michael came into the world and the weeks that followed.

Kate Clanchy

05, Sep, 2000 @12:31 AM

Life after birth
Was Meg Mathews so wrong to live it up so soon after having a baby? Not every new mum has to be a saint, argues Kate Clanchy

Kate Clanchy

14, Nov, 2000 @2:39 AM

Article image
‘Families are desperate’: an au pair agent on life without EU workers
Jamie Shackell used to place 500 young people with British families every year. She hasn’t matched any since December – and some working parents are being forced to cut their hours

Emine Saner

18, Nov, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
New balance: will work be more parent-friendly than ever after the pandemic?
Between home schooling and hybrid working, the last year has brought rapid and radical shifts in our working habits, good and bad. Now it is time to see whether positive change can stick

Viv Groskop

13, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM