Tomorrow when the Queen gives her speech, she is expected to address the proposed new changes for maternity and parental leave as put forward by the Coalition government. After reading the proposals, I found them slightly chilling. The new proposal stipulates that mothers would be entitled to just 18 weeks maternity leave with anything further by personal agreement.
Currently, mothers are entitled to 39 weeks of paid maternity leave and 13 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Mothers can go back to work after just two weeks if they choose to or have little choice in the matter, but are entitled to take up to a year off which would not be paid at the decision of their employer. Fathers are entitled to two weeks of paid paternity leave.
The proposal put forward in the Government's Modern Workplaces consultation, published last year, would give mothers just 18 weeks of maternity leave, and at the employers discretion up to four weeks of reserved paid parental leave, followed by 17 weeks of paid parental leave and 13 weeks of unpaid parental leave, which could be shared between mothers and fathers.
There are some loopholes in the current wording putting parents at the mercy and sympathy of their employers and I personally found that when your working contract is at odds with legal maternal rights, no one, including Citizens Advice Bureau or Welfare Rights knows what to do with you. The new proposal sounds even worse for cases that may differ from the norm or at such stage involve complications often beyond the mother's control. At present, there is no allowance for special circumstances like medical need, including maternal problems pre or post-natally or conditions affecting the baby, such as infections or preterm birth. My own maternity leave, started the day Wriggles was born rather unexpectedly. From what I recall, my working contract did not actually include anything to do with maternity leave or in the event of, as I was a new graduate and at the time of employment, no one including me, knew I was pregnant. This made things even more complicated than they would have otherwise been and I was passed from pillar to post whilst someone tried to work out what I was entitled to, which was then further complicated by Wriggles being discharged on oxygen meaning that formal maternity leave went out the window and I ended up being on parental leave as a carer instead. However, for other parents with more watertight or appropriate work contracts, preterm birth can mean that maternity leave is brought forward drastically (one woman I spent the NICU journey with, started 6 months maternity leave after leaving work at 26 weeks to go on bed rest and then having an emergency Caesarian section at 27 weeks) or if you give birth spontaneously then maternity leave can start from that date.
The difficulty with a complicated labour, birth or neonatal period is that there are no magic answers, no fixed timescales and no promises. A rigid set number of weeks for maternity or indeed paternity or parental leave has no mercy on the world of NICU when things can change rapidly. If your child has been born prematurely and with no other obvious complications, parents are generally told to aim for discharge around the due date. Some get to leave early if things are going well and some stay in days, weeks and occasionally months afterwards. We all wish we had a crystal ball to predict things, but parents live on hope whilst employers and legal systems demand answers. Like, yesterday.
Even once you have escaped hospital, you have two things staring you in the face: 1) you have just lost a huge chunk of time sat next to an incubator staring blanking and jumping out of your skin every five minutes when the monitor beeps and 2) you have possibly also mislaid a chunk of your mind as you process what your little family has just been through. Some parents seem to be able to walk away with a shudder of the past; many, many others struggle if not immediately afterwards. It is so hard to predict also what problems relating to or independent of prematurity will arise along development and how that will affect your working ambitions and situation.
Looking at the dates laid out, I have looked back over my 'maternity leave' and was horrified that I might have had to return to work when my daughter was only just 6 weeks corrected: an utter newborn.
18 weeks 17th January
26 weeks 14th March
At 26 weeks (13 weeks and 6 days corrected) Wriggles had been weaned off oxygen in the daytime and was completing a sleep study with a view to removing it at night time too. She had had her first bout of suspected bronchiolitis. She was not yet on solids, although we started weaning the following week. She was sleeping for longer periods at night time and napping still in the morning, lunch and afternoon. She was in a pattern whereby she liked to have a bottle (100ml-125ml), go to sleep and then have some more milk when she woke up. She would drink roughly 20oz in 24 hours on a good day and had started teething, although no teeth would appear for another 6 months! She could hold her head up and smile and was very slowly beginning to tolerate tummy time. When on her tummy, she could raise her head for a few seconds and balance on her forearms and was beginning to learn the basics of cause and effect-.ie. hitting things on the baby gym. She could hold things briefly, like her frog rattle and the thing that made her smile most was our stuffed Very Hungry Caterpillar walking over her head and bopping her nose. I had been diagnosed with PND and was not coping marvellously well. I was sleeping and eating terribly, had lost quite a bit of wake and was struggling with social interactions and jealousy when other people held my baby. I had convinced myself she didn't know I was her mama and wouldn't care less who she was with; I loved her fiercely and this made my thought even sadder. The best bits of the days were cuddles on the sofa and Wriggles dozing on my chest. We still had weekly visits from the community neonatal team and had had the appointment for our 6 month check though.
Actually returning to work-33 weeks Early May
39 weeks 13th June
Although I would have preferred to have been off until at least 9 months corrected, if I had had to return to work at 39 weeks when Wriggles was 6 months corrected then it wouldn't have been the end of the world. Of course I already was at work and had been for over a month and with honesty was really struggling. I was too afraid to speak up in fear of jeopardising my position and barely had the time or energy to seek any advice which might have helped me. Further to the stress of having returned to work, we were in the thick of admissions and oral aversion meaning feeding was a struggle and we seemed to be at the hospital as much as home. It felt quite a bleak point for me, as it seemed that when Wriggles was well she was being looked after by someone else whilst I fiddled about with highlighters and when we were together it was at the blooming hospital again. I was finding things easier though in terms of mental health and my relationship with Wriggles felt stronger. I was finally accepting that she loved me back, and we were tentatively starting to go to mother and baby groups and socialise a lot more. Had I have been off until this point, I think I would have maybe had more chance to build and strengthen friendships with fellow parents, meaning I would have felt less isolated. I would have also felt more confidence in my mothering skills and certainty that I knew my daughter best.
52 weeks 14th September
At a year old, Wriggles could very-almost-nearly sit up for incredibly brief periods but was determined to master this skill. She did in the end a few weeks later, but was having wobbly periods of trying now. I was having much less wobbly moments although found her birthday harder than I had hoped I would. The oral aversion had been taken a little more seriously although the range of food she would accept if any, was very limited. She relied nearly entirely on milk although was more relaxed touching food. We had regular activities to go to and Wriggles was proving to be quite the party animal meeting other people. She has always been a social and smily baby, but the older she gets the more she seems to charm people! I do think, had I had all this time off then I would have returned to work with maybe a tear in my eye but ultimately well adjusted and ready for a fresh challenge. It would also have really helped as throughout the summer, respiratory infections came so thick and fast and each one was like a kick in the stomach. Things no one can warn you about truly whilst at NICU but something which nonetheless can be part of the package of a premature baby. Juggling this with a work regime is tiring, mentally and physically. Most evenings I would collapse on the sofa and it would be all I could do to try and concentrate on simple TV programmes let alone more adventurous stimulating hobbies.
Charities and parenting groups have already begun to express their concern. A key group of 17 groups wrote to the ministers outlining their concerns and pushing for a minimum standard of 26 weeks maternity leave to be implemented. They highlighted issues such as childcare problems, life with a newborn, parents coping at work and unforeseen complications such as a period of time in hospital for mother or baby or postnatal depression. The letter to ministers was signed by Bliss, Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice, Family Lives, Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, Mothers Union, National Childbirth Trust, NUJ, Prospect, Twins and Multiple Births Association (TAMBA), TUC, Unite, UNISON, University and College Union, Usdaw, and Working Families.
You can join the Six Months For New Mums campaign run by Working Families including on Facebook, which is campaigning for all mums to have the right to a minimum of 26 paid weeks of maternity leave.
The more I have thought about it, then more passionately I feel that new mums with whether their first, second of fifth child should be valued and respected enough to have a sensible amount of time off. I know we are in a recession and that employers and the Government do not have bottomless pits of money or are there to act as charitable causes, but to me this proposal is sending out the wrong message to women and parents alike. It looks set to widen the gap between gender, those with and without families and endanger long term pay and working situations for families as well as ambition and motivation both at home and in the workplace. We are supposed to cherish family life: not wish it away.