Lady Barbara Judge is wrong – maternity leave is so much more than bottom wiping

Lady Barbara Judge is the first chairwoman of the Institute of Directors. She recently hit the headlines when she made some controversial comments about women and maternity leave. This is what she said:

“I know it’s counter-cultural but I think long maternity breaks are bad for women…My mother used to say: ‘When the baby is born it needs to be fed, bathed and diapered. An 18-year-old girl can do that. Your job is to get the money to pay the 18-year-old girl. When you have to be there is when the child gets smarter than the nanny’.”

Her comments sparked a backlash from women across the country raising counter arguments which include:

1) The extortionate cost of childcare in the UK making it impossible for some women to return to work. Only the very privileged few can afford a nanny.
2) The reluctance of many employers to offer flexible working, again making it impossible for many women to return to work
3) The plethora of research that shows babies need an attachment figure for at least the first 6 months of their life, the stronger that attachment, the more likely the child will grow up to be happy and successful. Parental leave also gives the parent the opportunity to bond with their child
4) The plethora of research that shows women who take maternity leave are less likely to experience post-natal depression, are more likely to breastfeed their babies and are more likely to ensure their babies have their immunisations and health checks.

What is missing from this discussion is how maternity leave has been dismissed by Lady Barbara Judge as something any 18 year old can do. Not only is this disrespectful and patronising but it clearly shows that Lady Judge has reduced maternity leave down to a list of practical chores. The emotional aspect has completely escaped her. Her assessment that maternity leave is one continuous succession of feeding and bottom wiping is inaccurate and must be addressed if we are to value parental leave as something which has a benefit to society.

Giving birth to your first child is a big deal. You have a new identity, you are no longer an individual, you have serious, life-changing responsibilities. Looking after a child is one of the most complex endeavours a human can undertake. In addition to wiping bottoms, we are learning to bond, learning to love, learning to connect. We don’t just do this behind closed doors, a major part of maternity leave (or more accurately, parental leave) is about connecting with your child by connecting with others. Parents who have taken time out to care for their child have invested some of that time in forging new local relationships. This activity is the social glue that ensures neighbourhoods function. Parents are deeply invested in well functioning neighbourhoods, they want their children to have friends, they want to mix with other parents and they want their local area to be the best it can be as it is where their child will grow up. This is the foundation for community and without community there is no unity, no social collaboration. Since having a baby I have a completely new relationship with my local neighbourhood, I don’t just live in a house in Manchester, I am part of a community in Levenshulme. I invest in that community and nurture those relationships as raising a child is a social activity. Maternity leave afforded me the time and the headspace to be a part of my community. If every parent returned to a full time job straight after having a baby I believe this would have a negative impact on local relationships, ultimately eroding the communities which generate cooperative neighbourhoods.

More than all of this though, isn’t it about the kind of world we want to live in? I love my job and I have never considered myself to be particularly maternal, but the idea of giving birth to my son and then immediately handing him over to a stranger goes against every fibre of my being.

Lady Barbara Judge is the embodiment of neoliberalism, I am sure she sees her comments as a helpful way to ensure women can compete on an equal playing field, and in some ways, what she says is correct – women are punished for taking maternity leave. If we stopped taking maternity leave we would be less likely to endure maternity discrimination – but although this will solve one problem it will open up a pandora’s box of problems for future generations, including less cohesive communities.

Most insidious of all though, is the snobbery. Lady Judge doesn’t pause to wonder what happens when the 18 year old has a baby, there’s no nanny for the nanny. Of course professional women shouldn’t concern themselves with those lower down the pecking order, even if they are responsible for our child’s early brain development.

– Joeli Brearley


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