The Vagenda

Making the Most of Maternity Leave

This week’s Stylist contains an article about the new ‘power maternity leave’ that is, if the Telegraph is to be believed, which of course it never is, becoming something of a trend. On the relaxing break that we all know constitutes maternity leave, high-flying women are getting bored with ‘sitting around watching daytime TV while your baby sleeps’ and becoming ‘mumpreneurs’, setting up their own small businesses at the same time. ‘A period away from work’,  Stylist tells us, ‘can be hugely positive – time to learn a language, take up a hobby’. According to psychologist Marisa Peer, ‘baby brain’ is a myth – ‘it’s mere tiredness’. Famously well-rested as new mothers are, they are not wasting even a second of their valuable ‘time off’, and are using it to write business plans and secure financial backing while their children sleep. 
I don’t have children, so I speak from a position of relative ignorance, but I am friends with women who do and, when their children were born, they didn’t look like they were casting around for a new hobby, to be honest. It looked like they were trying to cram several basic activities – having a shower, hanging out the washing, replying to emails – into tiny pockets of available time. Their days seemed to be filled with the enormity of being entirely responsible for another human life, rather than the notion that this might be a great opportunity to start learning Portuguese or take up the violin. They did not describe their sleep deprivation as ‘mere tiredness’. Still, what do I know? Turns out they were all starting up vintage-inspired stationery businesses when they said they were changing nappies.
As the cost of childcare makes the headlines, so too does the issue of whether it is possible to combine motherhood with fulfilling work. The solution implied by Stylist is that women should stay at home and look after the kids – just turn over £250,000 a year while they’re at it. They are not real entrepreneurs, after all, but ‘mumpreneurs’ and all four of the featured women say they felt they couldn’t maintain their previous line of employment while having children. Should it concern us that a woman feels she can’t be a policewoman and have a child, when presumably policemen don’t feel the same way? Stylist thinks not – she’s just set up her own coconut yoghurt company! The ‘mumpreneurs’ imply they did the majority of the childcare while running the business: ‘I had so many meetings – I took Summer along in a backpack!’ (One hopes she doesn’t literally mean ‘in a backpack.’) The businesses that chosen for the feature – maternity sportswear, vintage-inspired wedding dresses, Mumsnet – seem to have ‘stick with what you know’ written all over them, and appear synonymous with a certain type of middle class lifestyle. And what if you’re a single mum? Could you support yourself on maternity payments alone and somehow find the resources to start your own knit-your-own owl collective? 
As personal stories, the mumpreneurs’ are great, inspiring and I wish them well. I am delighted that motherhood has given them a new perspective, allowing them to fulfil their passion and still spend time with the kids, but I do not think their experiences reflect those of most women. Describing them as a ‘trend’ seems unhelpful to say the least. Is the solution to working motherhood that we all leave our jobs and set up cupcake factories? I can’t see it. 
The Stylist piece peddles the myth that childcare in itself isn’t hard work, when the reverse seems to be blindingly, obviously true. ‘Taking time off’, ‘career breaks’, ‘having it all’ – we all seem to agree that mums are having a whale of a time. Mothers who don’t work are ‘lucky’ because their husband can support them on a salary; mothers who do are ‘lucky’ to be able to pursue their careers. Office work and childcare – such treats! What lucky ladies! How have we managed to sustain this illusion that women are basically just lazing about, whether they are raising a child, earning a living or both? (Also, why are they defined using the crappy portmanteau term ‘mumpreneurs’? Not only does the pun not work, but also new fathers somehow manage to escape the indignity of being labelled ‘career daddies’)
One of the reasons that maternity leave is painted as a less busy time is presumably because women don’t want child-rearing to be considered the only thing of which they are capable, and, judging from the recent reports on childcare, ‘women in the workplace’ isn’t something we’ve got sewn up yet. But denying that motherhood is hard work doesn’t seem to be the answer, nor is it particularly comforting to think that if you feel have to leave your job, you can always set up your own organic evening-glove business or whatever. One new mother told me recently that the worst thing about motherhood was ‘feeling inadequate’. I am not sure the Stylist article helped so much with that.

7 thoughts on “Making the Most of Maternity Leave

  1. Oh for the love of god.

    If being at home with kids is so bloody easy why don’t all the men do it? And why does it cost so much to get someone to look after my kids? TELL ME THIS.

    Babies don’t sleep when you’re at home anyway – they sleep when you’re driving, pushing the buggy or walking around with them in the sling. These are not really opportunities to start a business. And anyway, I’m sure I don’t need to point this out, but when the baby does actually lie down to sleep, one’s priorities are these:

    1. nap for parent(s)
    2. actually eat something for the first time today
    3. shower
    4. laundry
    5. check emails
    6. tidy up
    etc etc etc. Daytime TV does not feature on the list. It gets watched when you are breastfeeding and are too scared to fall asleep lest you suffocate the baby. Hardly chillaxing.

    I could go on and on. I won’t. I’ll just seethe and feel inadequate that I merely resumed my career after my children were born, instead of opening a hand-knitted deli.

    • As someone who has a six-month-old baby, I can confirm that maternity leave is indeed about trying to cram basic activities into tiny pockets of available time (I also have a baby who likes to sleep in the car, in the pushchair, or on me, which doesn’t allow for a lot of free time). For three months I found this so utterly miserable that I resumed a bit of writing but it really is a battle to fit one or two posts into a week filled with exhaustion, mopping up bodily fluids and trying to get out of the house. I can only imagine that these ‘mumpreneurs’ must have chilled babies, help, or wait until the babies are a bit older and don’t have to be tended to 24/7. I certainly don’t see this new ‘trend’ as some sort of solution to having children AND a great job. I’m heading back to work in three months’ time a) because I need to pay my bills and b) because I want to.

  2. Thank you for this. I read the article on Tuesday and instantly felt inadequate that I wasn’t preparing myself to become a high flying mumpreneur. I’m eight months pregnant and was made redundant at 7 months. I finished work this week and already feel like I should be ‘utilising’ this opportunity. Why? I should be resting, taking care of myself and preparing for imminent motherhood, not thinking up business proposals. I’m so sick of ‘having-it-all’ articles that imply if we’re not enjoying an amazing career, bringing up 2 or more adorable children, whipping up perfect Victoria sponges and giving our partners a wild time in the bedroom we are falling short. I want to see some honest debates about sacrifices made by real life women, workplace rights, the ridiculous and rising costs of childcare and the impact on our careers.

  3. absolutely true. I would add that I bet the “mumpreneurs” are women who could afford to take longer than six months maternity leave, given that babies give you no free time, sleep etc until about then. Which indicates that these are probably women with access to reserves of cash and middle classness.
    Also, what Stitchandwitter said.

  4. Absolutely hilarious article and hits the nail squarely on the head. I will be sure to inform my sleep deprived, unwashed friends with newborns about all the things they could be doing with the opportunities maternity leave presents – if I’m still alive, I’ll let you know how that goes

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