baby, maternity leave

MATERNITY LEAVE – Have we got this wrong?

by Fabian Dattner

Question: when did having a child become something we went off to do on our own?

Question: when did having a child become something that didn’t fit into our working world?

Question: when did having a child become something that you had to think about in conjunction with planning your career so that you did it at the ‘right time’?

I wonder if Maternity Leave is a grand idea that logically took us down the wrong path?

Who invented it? When did it become main stream? How did women come to accept it as fair and reasonable?

Here’s a completely different perspective.

Having children is actually central to the survival of our species (anyone else noticed this). It requires both men and women to start the process (also worth thinking about). It’s natural (all animals do it). For countless thousands of years, getting pregnant and having a child were just part of what you did as a woman, while continuing to do the millions of other things that women did (sew, cook, build, mend, create, plan, care, and of course talk). It never occurred to us that having a child made us less able to do the other things. It never occurred to us that having a baby around after it was outside our body, intruded on all the things women did together, or for and with men. We just got on with it.

Having children is unavoidable (and in large part) as desirable and necessary as eating, sleeping, breathing and going outside to fertilise the ferns. Nature is wonderful in this way, sets us up to enjoy doing the very things that prolong our individual and collective lives.

It seems to me we’ve integrated all the other non negotiable survival things into our world of work. No one has said that eating (either quickly at your desk, or slowly at the pub with mates, or slower still at the restaurant with clients) has to be banned. No one has suggested that drinking water on a Monday, or juice on a Tuesday, or beer after work on hump day, or a few whiskies on Friday arvo are the death knoll to productivity (although we’ve all observed when they do in fact affect our cognitive functioning). And no one, in their wildest imaginings, has suggested, when you have your legs crossed, are going red in the face, or god forbid, fart accidentally in office, that you absolutely should have found a way to do that before work or had the wherewithal to wait until you got home!

We are even getting pretty adept at understanding our emotions, and the fact that, despite the best efforts of the 18th century rationalists to persuade us otherwise, they are necessary to good decision making. People, who recognise, use and understand emotions, who are good at managing emotions in themselves and others, actually make better leaders than those who don’t. Damn, isn’t that an exciting development.

So, why haven’t we dealt with having kids effectively as part of our working lives? Why do women have to go off on maternity leave, have a baby largely on their own, worry about their weight, image and career, and then fumble their way back to work anxious about fitting in again and trebly anxious about leaving this wonderful and sometimes confounding new addition to their lives in day care.

Some organisations are proactive around helping families through this time, some help women alone, and an awful lot see the whole thing as a legislated inconvenience, and do the minimum required.

Either way, it seems to me that we’ve come to accept Maternity Leave as something that we are lucky to have.

I think having children is not accepted in the Western world (in particular) as part of normal working life, because, as Thomas Kuhn (American physicist, mathematician and philosopher) so notably observed, paradigms (set of rules we live by) simply don’t change from within.

Some simplistic observations: we now work in hierarchies (good but not the only way people can function). We have set up rules of conduct within these hierarchies, and in particular at work, that are largely structured by and maintained through ways of operating together that men developed. And men (that’s half the population I accept) are not the ones to actually carry children, are not the ones to produce them and apparently, within the existing paradigm, are not the ones to have to manage those first 6 to 18 months of care at home (certainly increasingly so, but still…) .

I think we’ve come to believe as true, what I consider to be myths about children and working spaces.  We do not need silence to be productive (tho sometimes it’s heavenly). We do not need neat and tidy offices to be professional (tho some might say it is preferable). You are not less credible because there are toys under your desk (tho it can be a hazard). You have not lost face because you definitely need to feed your baby and whether or not it is awake, there are tell tale signs (tho it can be funny and uncomfortable).

These are just signs that our community is healthy and producing.

Is there merit in having children at work? Do we ask ourselves this freely, outside the prevailing structures and beliefs about what’s right or ‘professional’ at work.

Personally,  I suspect we need children (and incidentally, likely as not the elderly) around us more. I wonder if the messy sometimes noisy impact of their voices and their calls to their parents, help us all remember we are part of community? Is it possible that we make better decisions when kids are around, we remember that we are part of a flow? Would we take more responsibility for our footprint if the next generation were more visible?

I think we need a wholesale re think on how we share the responsibility of raising children. Instead of leaving it to women to go and deal with having children on their own, I wonder if the journey of procreating should be back where it has always belonged  – fair and square in our shared laps.

I well understand that some women are going ‘lord I want to leave my kids at home’ and others are going ‘don’t be ridiculous, I simply couldn’t do the work I do with my kids around – or anyone else’s for that matter’. I understand this, but I do wonder what price we are paying for this separation, and I wonder, really wonder, if having children were accepted as part of the ebb and flow, what other solutions would we have found to creating quiet, thoughtful work spaces or meaningful time out with our families.

Having quality time with our children, away from work, is as important to men as to women. Women do have to deal with the real challenges and changes that occur both during pregnancy and immediately after birth. For many women, time with a baby is magical (no question) as it is for men. Women want and need time to recuperate from the physical challenges of childbirth; men and women want time to integrate a child into life, and time to assess the challenge and joy of parenting. We’ve come to call that time ‘maternity leave’ (and increasingly ‘paternity leave’) and to make it something separate from our working lives, because that’s what we have come to accept as the right thing to do in Western Society in particular. Winning ‘Maternity leave’ has been seen to be a great step in the right direction, but I truly wonder, is it?

So, let me offer a different way of viewing this; what if maternity leave were something that actually occurred at work, as part of the working community? What if ‘maternity leave’ translated into support we provide new parents as a community, about the sharing of child raising (rather than sending people off to do it on their own). Aren’t our work spaces increasingly our most relevant community more and more? Aren’t we spending longer and longer hours at work, the edges of our private and work spaces blurring somewhat?

Does it truly make sense to us all, this strange and dislocated approach to human community?

And ultimately, is it really healthy for children?

Thought starters all, from a 180 degree perspective on something we think is an asset.



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