Babies are not rigid so why is maternity leave?

Thursday, Aug 16, 2012, 05:48 AM | Source: The Conversation

Olivia Carter


Max is now approaching 4 months old. So after 14 weeks of maternity leave from the University + 2 weeks of holiday leave + 2 weeks unpaid leave, this week I return to work part-time.

I am fortunate to have a supportive husband who is now working four days a week and will look after Max during his day at home. The remaining day and a half will be shared between both sets of grandparents.

The decision to return has been a difficult clash between emotions, preconceived expectation and purely practical considerations. Even harder to manage is the clash between my two selves – Parent (fighting for baby Max) versus Scientist (fighting for career) – the battle going something like this….

Mum:“20 hours a week away from Max seems like a lot”
Scientist:“Yes but that leaves you 148 hours a week with him… should be plenty!”

Mum: - “Does it make me a bad mum if I go back to work so soon… even if it is ONLY part-time?”
Scientist: - “If I am ONLY working part-time, will my students suffer? Change my peers’ perception of me? My productivity be too low to be competitive for my next fellowship application?”

Mum: - “Will he be OK without me?”
Scientist: -“Of course… It will be good for him to have some quality one-on-one time together with his Dad and grandparents.”

Mum: -“What about the feeding? I will have to make sure there is enough expressed milk and that he will accept the bottle from different people.”
Scientist: - “Yes feeding is a logistical nightmare – Nobody warns you about this as an obstacle to balancing family and career. .. good luck with that Mum!”

Mum: - “What if there is a problem and I need to go home?”
Scientist: - “Not even I can rationalise around this…. In a way that was never expected, children have become first, second and third propriety regardless of how inconvenient that can be…”

All of these different arguments have been bouncing around my head. At the end of the day, however, the primary reason that I have decided to go back to work part-time now, is that the reality is that I am already doing some work, so I figure that I may as well get some “credit” for it.

Max joining in a meeting with PhD students Virginia, Jody and Anna.

Academic jobs are fantastic in respect to general flexibility with it being possible to do much of the work from any location or at anytime – indeed work with international collaborators often requires Skype meetings at all times of night.

The flip side of this is that it can be impossible to switch off from work entirely. The emails keep coming, collaborators continue to send drafts of manuscripts through and students continue to have questions.

Some people might find it easier to turn the computer off, but my stress levels seem to increase in direct proportion to the number of unanswered emails and jobs hanging over my head – as much as I try, I can’t let these things go.

Max has been a fantastic sleeper so I have really valued being able to spend 1-2 hours a day responding to emails and dealing with any problems that have popped up with work. I was also able to take Max into university a few times – a nice opportunity to get out of the house and touch base with my students.

If possible, I would have chosen to officially maintain a 10 hours/week load for the eight months following Max’s birth. But due to administrative regulations I am forced to take four months at 0 hours/week followed by four months of 20 hours/week. For reasons that remain inexplicable to me, this is because you become ineligible for any maternity leave payments as soon as you return to work in any regular capacity.

I am not sure if this is nation-wide legislation but I know it is a regulation of both my University and the new National paid parental leave scheme.

I presume many women share a need or desire to keep in touch at work by doing a few hours a week. So why is it that women are penalised by, either losing any remaining maternity leave, or having any work achieved while on leave go unrecognised?

In a society trying to increase female involvement in the work force, increasing the flexibility of when and how parents take their allocation of maternity leave entitlements should be a no-brainer.

The Conversation