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As celebrities like Victoria Beckham are given flak for rushing back to work ...How long should a mum stay at home?

From a few days to a year, Stephanie Bell finds out what women here do.

Hard working celebrity mums have been maligned in the media for returning to work within weeks of giving birth. Amanda Holden was the latest famous face to come under fire for being back as a Britain’s Got Talent judge just three weeks after she nearly died giving birth to daughter Hollie.

Victoria Beckham, who famously tweeted ‘Maternity leave — what’s that?’ before giving birth to her fourth child, Harper, was last month accused of looking “tired and unhappy” as she unveiled two new fashion collections during New York Fashion Week.

Beyonce, too, was forced to go on the defensive when she went back into the recording studio within a week of giving birth to daughter Ivy Blue, announcing ‘pregnancy is not an illness’ and that wherever she goes, baby comes too.

It’s not just celebrities who are feeling the pressure to get back to work soon after giving birth. In what is become known as “micro” maternity leave, an increasing number of career women are also finding work commitments still have to be fulfilled even after the joy of becoming mums.

While women have fought hard to be given the choice of having a career and motherhood, for some having it all does come at a cost. Amanda Holden hit back at suggestions that she was not spending enough time with her newborn second child: “I'm lucky in that I don't work all day every day. So I'm with Hollie and Lexi more than the average working mum. I'm very privileged. Since having Hollie at the end of January, I've worked four days — most mums would kill for that.”

Victoria Beckham also put it in perspective for many women when she rounded on critics: “If people want to say I'm miserable then so be it. I'm really not. I’ve a lot on my plate. I'm not going to lie about it, I'm tired. I'm really tired, but I'm also very happy with my life. I'm basically like any woman who's working and has lots of children — it's tough.”

We talked to three local working mums who each faced different choices on returning to work and who all empathise with those women for whom the luxury of lengthy maternity leave is simply not an option.

‘I took a conference call in the hospital hours after giving birth’

Cathy Martin (38), director of Belfast Fashion Week and owner of Cathy Martin PR, was working within hours of giving birth to daughter Valentina on January 9. She is married to local businessman Julian Jordan. She says:

Valentina was born eight weeks early so I didn’t have time to make plans with work and I had a big event happening that week.

Six hours after her birth I took a conference call and was answering emails in my hospital bed.

In some respects because she was premature and had to go into an incubator it gave me time between visiting the neo natal unit to do work.

The day after I was discharged from hospital I was at a meeting. This week we have Belfast Fashionweek which is a massive event and we have had a few other major events since Valentina was born so there has been lots to organise.

I have a fantastic team in my office and I really couldn’t do it without them. I think as a business owner you can’t take your eye off the ball and maternity leave just isn’t an option.

I am organising my business around Valentina and although she doesn’t realise it, she also has had to fit round my business. I have a night nanny who comes in two nights a week to allow me to have two good nights’ sleep.

I try to schedule meetings for the days after those nights so that I can think straight. If you are well rested you can handle anything.

Lots of our clients are mums and there is a huge understanding there and quite a few of them have sent me lovely letters saying how great it is that I am back at work.

In a way they are helping too by facilitating me. I’m doing as much work as I can from home with my laptop and phone.

I have a Moses basket in the office and Valentina comes with me when I have staff meetings or things to do at the office. I have good family and a good network of friends and between everyone she will be surrounded by love and well looked after.

I am not an overly precious mum so I won’t mind her being looked after by family when needed. I’m just taking every day as it comes and it is a juggle.

The good thing about being self-employed is that you can be flexible even though the downside is you have to go back to work. This week will be hectic with Belfast Fashionweek.

I always stay in the Europa during Fashionweek and this year I will be taking two adjoining rooms and moving her nanny into the next one to look after her when I’m working.

‘I was lucky I could take a full year off with Abigail’

Claire Galbraith (30), from Bangor, is community fund-raising manager with the NSPCC. She recently returned to work after enjoying 11 months’ maternity leave with her first child, Abigail. Claire is married to Jonathan (29), an IT project manager. She says:

I feel very lucky that I did have the choice to take time off with Abigail. My job involves lots of travelling and can be very tiring and demanding so I wanted to take a few weeks off before the birth to relax and rest.

I was entitled to six weeks on full pay and 33 weeks on half pay and with my annual leave I managed to take almost a year off, starting over a month before Abigail was due.

It was wonderful to have that chance to spend those first months with her and go to baby yoga and baby massage classes and do all those special things with her. I felt it was very important for her and for me to have that time together.

It was also good to get the chance to learn and be more confident and be reassured about being a mum.

It’s not easy and I was lucky that I had my family close to me and every day in the first few months I had someone calling at the house.

When it came to going back to work five weeks ago I was ready to go back. I missed my colleagues and using my brain and the salary.

Fortunately Abigail is being looked after by her grandparents which has made it easier to leave her.

I really do cherish the time we have together now.

I’m also very fortunate in that my employers have given me the flexibility of doing compressed hours so that I now do 40 hours a week in four days, giving me an extra day off to be with Abigail.

I think being at home all day with children is a job in itself and I admire people who do stay at home. It is a personal decision and you do what is best for you and I think it’s great that women have the choice.

As a full-time working mum, you look forward to getting home and you do appreciate the time you get together.

I’m lucky to have had the time off that I did.

I know many women don’t have that choice especially women who are self-employed or run their own business.

I don’t think anyone should be criticised for having to go back to work as no one knows their personal circumstances and it doesn’t mean they have any less of a relationship with their child.

‘I was ready to return to work after five months on leave’

Allison Chambers (43), from Belfast, runs her own specialist pension advisory company, SSAS Solutions, and is married to David (51), a sales manager for an investment management firm. Allison has three children, Dara (18), Ryan (17) and Jasmine (10). She says:

I was working as a financial adviser when I had my first two children and had to go back to work for financial reasons. At that time, maternity leave was 26 weeks and that’s all I could take.

I personally would have liked a little bit longer, especially with my first child, I didn’t feel ready to go back to work. It’s all quite new with your first child and a bit overwhelming and a big change in your life.

When I had my second child (18 months later), I found it physically very difficult as I had two babies in nappies. By the time I had Jasmine, I was able to take five months off on maternity leave, which was just perfect for me and, in fact, I was ready to go back to work. Because I didn’t have a choice, other than to leave the children and go to work, I decided that I would make the most of it and carve out a rewarding career for myself. I continued to study for professional qualifications and changed jobs.

I joined Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in 1996 and my career took on a different tact and I began to specialise in Small Self Administered Pension Schemes (SSAS). I then went on to head up this specialist pensions unit, which subsequently became the centre of excellence for the whole of the UK firm.

Two years ago, I decided to go into partnership and set up my own business. For a long time, when the children were young, I was a single parent and there was a lot of pressure on me.

I think if I was starting a family now, as a self-employed person, it would be much more difficult to take maternity leave. Even now, I find it difficult to take holidays or even sick leave.

It is mentally harder to switch off when you run your own company. Working and studying as a mother makes it very hard to get a balance and you do have to accept that everything is not going to be perfect. As a mum, you do feel guilty and, indeed, your own children can make you feel guilty, especially as they get older and start to compare you to other mummies, who are at the school gates every day. I do think, though, that there are some benefits for them, in terms of me working, in that it teaches them to be independent and to value hard work and the financial benefits that come from that. I appreciate the time I have with them and they appreciate their time with me. Just because we have children, we don’t lose the right to our own identity.

I think people in the public eye have a tough time because they are under even more pressure to get back to their job because they are in the media.

It is unfair to criticise them, it’s not as if they are abandoning their children as I am sure they can afford to put very reliable childcare in place — not to mention being able to take their children with them a lot of the time.

your maternity leave rights

  • Mums can take up to 52 weeks maternity leave. This does not depend on how long you have worked for an employer. Leave can start 11 weeks before the baby is due.
  • The first 26 weeks are known as Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML). During that period, mums are entitled to the same rights as if they were still working, but won’t get the same pay unless their contract says so. Additional Maternity Leave of 26 weeks must be taken directly after OML.
  • Mums are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay for 39 weeks. For the first six weeks, that is calculated at 90% of average pay. During the extra 33 weeks, mums get SMP of £128.71 a week. All SMP is treated just like ordinary salary and employers may make the normal deductions for tax, National Insurance etc.

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