Let’s get one thing straight: if you’ve not had a baby yet, you don’t know what maternity leave is like. Your friends may have done it, your siblings have probably told you tales, but until you’re there – baby in one arm, box of Kleenex (various uses) in the other – it’s very hard to imagine. I know this, because two years ago I left work to start my first maternity leave. And I’d listened very carefully to my friends’ advice.
“Sleep, just sleep, as much as you can before the baby arrives. And then, when it gets here, sleep whenever they do,” said one. I smiled sweetly and promised to do so. But I wasn’t that tired so I didn’t bother.
“Stock up on box sets,” said another, “they’ll get you through the night.” I obediently logged onto Amazon bought Mad Men series 1 to 3 and a big pile of books. “Lovely,” I thought, “this is going to be fun.”
A bout of Norovirus and a surprise early baby later, it didn’t feel that much fun. I adored my new son but I was tired, so tired. Too tired to watch a silly box set. And the thought of reading made me want to weep. In fact, I did weep. Pretty much for three weeks solidly.
This wasn’t my expectation of maternity leave. But, on reflection, I’m not sure I really knew what to expect. My experience was different to my friends. In fact, my experience at day one was different to day 30. Day 31 was radically different to day 100. There was no one size fits all experience.
In last week’s issue of Stylist we ran a piece on Power Maternity Leave – women starting businesses whilst they also cared for their babies. I’ve never had a business idea in my life, let alone whilst sitting on my sofa at 3am wondering why Don Draper was such a womanising dog and ordering a giant size pot of lanolin cream, so I’ve always been in awe of any woman that has. But I’ve noticed an increasing amount of readers getting in touch to tell us about the business ideas they’d developed on maternity leave. Now this wasn’t one random email and a bit of a whim, I’m talking about hundreds of women. With hundreds of genuinely awesome ideas.
It turns out their maternity leave and their new families triggered ideas and passions. Some had always been there, some were born alongside their babies… others came a bit later. But there was no escaping the fact that many women were using their maternity leaves to start businesses. And I think that is pretty amazing.
I can tell you I didn’t start a business. In the UK we’re lucky enough to be able to take up to 12 months leave, which is quite amazing. In the seven months I had I managed to pop into work for a few keeping in touch days, I even managed a rather hazy meeting with David Cameron because I didn’t want to miss out on the experience (frankly I can barely remember it, so I’m not sure I was quite there anyway) and in between I managed to wash my hair and string a sentence together. Such is the nature of maternity leave. Some days are great. Others a little more challenging.
Our article featured four incredible case studies of women who had used their maternity leave to start incredibly successful businesses… inspiring women whose stories in turn inspired great debate. Some columnists have suggested the concept is a myth. But there is evidence to disprove this. Bloggers have suggested we were irresponsible to put more pressure on women at a challenging time. To be honest, I was always inspired by women who worked and cared for their children. It gave me hope that I could do the same.
I genuinely don’t think there is a one-size fits all description of maternity leave. In the same way I don’t think all women have to become mothers… or that all women should go back to work if they do have children. Each to their own. But I do think it’s important to know there are options. For some that’s so-called Power Maternity Leave.
With baby number two just around the corner I am already thinking about what my next experience may be like. This time I won’t get caught out by odd crying episodes and extreme tiredness. But with a toddler AND a baby I’m fairly confident it won’t be anything like last time. Perhaps this time I’ll have my big idea. And perhaps I won’t. But there will be a new baby and that’s totally enough for me.