Maternity Leave: How was it for you?

Did you watch The Replacement last night? It tackles the age-old issue of maternity leave and so, in the style of Carrie Bradshaw, we got to thinking: how was it for you? Did you love it? Desperate to get back to the sanity of work? Haunted by the thought that your cover was out to steal your job?  

In The Replacement, Ellen is the star of her architectural practice, embarking on a potentially career-defining project. She finds herself pregnant, plans a brief maternity leave, and finds the perfect cover for her role in the form of Paula. Or is she in fact her worst nightmare: the cover who is better than you at your job and intent on keeping it for herself? (And, it turns out, who also wants to take over your whole life?)

I’ve had two maternity leaves. I’ve also covered someone else’s and landed a job out of it. Now, this could make me a prime example of a worst nightmare, were it not for the fact that I ended up job-sharing with the woman I covered. A job-share also meant that when I went on my second maternity leave, I knew there was someone brilliant to hold the reins: yes, she wanted the job, but that’s because she was already doing it.

The first time, I interviewed the candidates for my cover. It was the most peculiar sensation. Of course I wanted the cover to be really good – I loved my job and wanted it in safe hands – but not so good that my employer preferred to keep her rather than have me back. “I couldn’t get my head around the idea of someone else sitting in my seat,” agrees Ella*. “I worried she would be better than me and then i worried she wouldn’t be good enough and ‘I’ would be letting the team down.”

Maternity leave is a vulnerable time. I fell pregnant after spending years building my career and my professional title was a considerable part of what defined me. Add to this the hormonal maelstrom and the sleep deprivation of life with a newborn tiny tyrant and it’s a veritable hot bed (and an excellent topic for a BBC drama). You can find yourself on maternity leave (I created life and now I want to nurture it! Nothing else truly mattered until this day!) or you can lose yourself (Where is the smart, successful, together woman I once was? When is there ever going to be time for me ever again? And when will I not have vomit on my shoulder?)

It doesn’t help that from pretty much every corner we are besieged by ideas of how other people think we should feel. On the one hand, never has parenting been more analysed or motherhood more idealised in rose-tinted, perfectly-lit Instagram pictures. And on the other hand, we’re told to lean in, to stop being what Sheryl Sandberg calls “maternal gatekeepers” in order to maintain our career trajectory. We see Victoria Beckham tweeting “Maternity leave – what’s that?” after child no, 4, Harper, was born. Remember Racida Dati looking more chic and together than any woman has a right to five days after having a c-section, striding into a cabinet meeting? When Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, announced her pregnancy with twin girls, she added that she planned “to take limited time away and working throughout”. True to her word, she took less than a month.

The thing I’ve learned about maternity leave is that no two are the same, and you can never know how you feel until you’re in the throes of it. When I asked my friends to talk about it off-the-record, responses varied from “The hardest job, both physically and mentally, and also by far and away the most important thing I will ever do ” to “It took me away from the pressure cooker and got back to the more real version of myself. I stopped sweating the small stuff and enjoyed not being wrapped up in me, me, me. Prioritising someone else was very fulfilling.”

Rebecca* was intensely career-minded and had reached the apex of her field. She always assumed she would have children, take six months off, and resume her job full-time. It didn’t work out this way. It took years of heartache before she gave birth to her daughter and, suddenly, she found herself in love. “I would never, ever have imagined myself going to a baby class. I rolled my eyes at those smug mummies with their Bugaboos and coffees. I’d always imagined I’d be that person who jigs the baby whilst checking emails. Now I bloody love Monkey Music because she does. I love my mum friends. I honestly don’t think I’d care if my cover did stab me in the back and steal my job…”

And then there’s Lucy*, who ran (“often invented”) errands just to get out the house whilst on maternity leave with her little boy. “I really tried to get out there, but there just seemed to be so much time to fill. And no time to call my own. I really struggled with it. In all honesty, I found maternity very hard and quite lonely. My parents are hours away, my closest friends have moved away. After my husband left for work at 8am, some days I didn’t see anyone I knew until he came home again at 6pm. I’m much happier now I’m back at work (with new flexible hours) and have the balance of family life with other things that make up my own identity. Even though it does upset me that I didn’t enjoy it more.”

Ah, the weight of expectation has a lot to answer for. “I thought I would enjoy it more,” writes Leah*. “Maybe it’s the unrealistic expectations of the ‘perfect’ mat leave: playing with your baby, loving every gurgle… Babies can be rather boring. Second time around, with a toddler and a baby, I feel like I should be able to nail it, but I can’t.” (Leah, the clue here is toddler plus baby. Virtually impossible to nail unless you’re Mary Poppins. The secret, as my wise friend Claire says, is knowing when to let things go and just be easy on yourself. And it’s fine if Fireman Sam is in residence for a while.)

Whilst pregnant, I had visions of myself wafting around with a baby on my hip, cake baking in the oven (I don’t bake, unless you count haphazard fairy cakes and misshapen gingerbread men with my children), my home immaculate (I was always wearing a white floaty dress in this scenario, which just shows HOW LITTLE I KNEW) and yet my parenting style all casual-and-relaxed. The reality was that I decided that I loved sleep almost as much as my children so went with the routine option, am not the most laid-back of parents, but I do have a lot of fun with my children and I did – I realise now – land on my feet both times and found the most brilliant friends (I’ve made some of my closest friends through my children) and local support network, which is crucial on the sanity-saving front.

And what about when you’re faced with going back to work? Because whilst your children grow and change. so, too, does your company and your role within it. Time waits for no woman. Alex emailed me this very thought: “You can’t have it all. If you want to work and have a career then you have to compromise somewhere and that may mean having a shorter maternity leave. The bottom line is that yes, maternity leave is important, but be aware that the world won’t – and shouldn’t – stop for you.”

“I’ve realised I care more about my work than I thought I did,” confides Leah. “I was doing something I was good at; as a parent, there’s no way of knowing you’re doing a good job. I found going back the first time hard – like I was an outsider in my own team.” She adores her children, but rues the necessity (the age issue) of having them so close together. “It really set my career back. The nine months I was back may as well never have happened. I am completely out of the loop, everything has changed and it’s left me feeling torn between wanting to go back – and not wanting to go back and, in effect, start over.”

The first time I returned to work after a year’s maternity leave it was to a new role (covering someone else’s maternity leave) and full time. I came home and cried every day for the first week. My daughter woke and sobbed during the night, wanting more mummy. It was hard. But I stuck it out. I loved the role and that year was was worth it for my career. Ultimately, I think having children has made me better at my job. I am much stricter with myself: I want to leave on time which means I am much more engaged and focused. “My maternity leave gave me a new confidence in myself,” nods Ella. “I’m still ambitious, but no longer in such a hurry to climb the ladder. Striking a balance between career and my family life is a new marker of success for me. I now take great pleasure in being good at my job in the here and now.”

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Was your maternity leave (mostly) a pure joy? Were you desperate to return to work – or find yourself Googling ‘does it damage baby if mother works’? Did you have an evil cover a la The Replacement?!

*All names have been changed

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