Baby Steps: navigating maternity leave
by Rachel Phillips, Associate Director, Head of Active

"Nothing can prepare you for the feeling of having something utterly dependent on you”

“I had to take you to your six week checkup and I thought ‘how can they expect me to get me and the baby dressed and out of the door for a certain time’?”

“I thought I would have four children, but then I had you and decided I would stop after two!”

These are the thoughts my mum shared with me before having my first child, and so set the tone for some of my expectations. As much as you can get the nursery ready, buy a million tiny babygros and the perfect pram, nothing can really prepare you for having a baby. On reflection, it is similar to the culture shock that comes with other significant life changes such as sudden grief or moving to a different country.

Your whole life is turned upside down and sometimes your transition from work to home happens very rapidly. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that in our recent survey for BBC Radio 5 Live, a quarter of mums (27%) did not enjoy their maternity leave as much as they thought they would.

 Contributing factors may include traumatic births, post-natal depression or loneliness - experienced by half (47%) of those we spoke to. NCT found that half of women who had recently given birth had had a mental health or emotional problem postnatally or during pregnancy, and of those, only half had received treatment for it. This has to change.

Social expectations

People in fragile emotional states are not helped by pressure to ‘paper over the cracks’. We found that half (49%) of mums felt obliged to be positive about spending time with their baby. I really hope that this is changing – I found the Unmumsy Mum particularly helpful in dispelling ‘yummy mummy’ myths, and more recently Disasters of a Thirty Something who posts daily ‘pits’ and ‘peaks’, to capture the range of emotion experienced by mums. I would encourage more mums to find their ‘safe space’ – mine was my church’s Babies and Toddlers group – to which you can drag yourself out of the house in whatever state you find yourself and be honest with trusted people about how you are feeling. Another resource to help, set up by Unmumsy Mum, is ‘Mummy Social’, an app that helps you connect with other local mums.

Be honest

The key message is that we need to be more honest about how we are feeling.  As with other significant life changes, the most important thing is communication - expressing how we feel - and that can be euphoric, miserable, anxious, or confident.

On a positive note, in our BBC Radio 5 Live survey ComRes found that two-thirds of mothers (65%) enjoyed maternity leave more than they thought they would, and the same proportion (66%) did feel well supported by friends and family during their maternity leave. These factors probably contributed to the finding that 70% wish they had had a longer maternity leave.

It can’t have been too bad for me as I did it all again two years later.

Methodology: ComRes surveyed 1,021 British women who have had a baby in the last ten years, have taken maternity leave and returned to work, online between 30th October and 5th November 2018. Data can be found here.