My sister is in labour. Right now, at this moment. She is three weeks early. She is 36 years old. She is also the head of HR at a blue chip multinational, and I could have told you this would happen months ago. Six weeks ago, she left work with strong contractions. Stay off work, I told her, start your maternity leave early. There is nothing to be gained though having your baby early. The best way for you to continue your career – for which she is the major breadwinner in her household, and for which she intends to return to work after the six months for which she is paid her salary, and for which she has put in blood sweat and tears for the best part of a decade to accrue to right to do so, is to keep that baby in for as long as possible.
She didn’t want to, she said. She wanted to work until her planned maternity leave, which would have begun on March 7th. Today it’s February 24th. Her baby was due on March 19th.
I could have told you this was going to happen because her body’s been telling her this for months. It’s not that she struggled to get pregnant, but her second to last pregnancy ended at 11 weeks. The one after barely made it past the blue line. There may be myriad reasons for this – her age, perhaps; her health in general. But I’m not so sure. A stressful house move at the time she miscarried may have played a part, granted. But her job, for which she often works till late – a 9 pm finish is standard for her – seems to me a more likely culprit.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame her. She works in male-dominated industry. Her attitude has always been, if I don’t keep up, I may lose ground. I believe her when she says she had no choice but to keep going at the crazy pace she always has. After all, she is the major wage earner and the world is becoming increasingly precarious for employees, at whatever level they operate. She should know. She works in HR.
Her baby will probably be absolutely fine. In the grand scheme of things, 37 weeks isn’t far off term, but actually, when you are just 37 weeks old, a few extra cosy weeks in the womb are pretty important for snagging, and putting the finishing touches on things. It might lead to developmental delays, a brief Google search tells me (I’m not claiming to be an expert) – for all mothers were routinely induced early in the 80s and 90s to fit their own – or their consultant’s – schedules. We know now that this is basically not great for the resulting child. None of which is terribly convenient for a mother hoping to return to her career at the earliest opportunity. And this is the rub.
Short-termism is at the very heart of capitalism. Taking a bit of time off earlier may well have saved time, potentially stress and god forbid, heartache later – for her and, more importantly, for her baby, and ultimately for her workplace. But it’s hard to make a case for the unknown, especially in business, even if it was all, actually rather predictable from where I’m standing.
What message does it send out to other women at my sister’s employment, if the head of HR is more concerned about keeping up with the hours her male colleagues put in than the health of her baby? The thing is, I don’t blame my sister for feeling she needed to. I blame a working world that is congenitally blinkered to what it really means to be a mother. Where the medical world is, at last, catching up on the fact that mother’s bodies know best when it comes to bringing their babies into the world, the working world still has some catching up to do to enabling women to do what their bodies are telling them.