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The maternity leave dilemma

According to one critic, new BBC drama The Replacement should carry a health warning for pregnant women. Its plot centres on a mum-to-be who leaves the office to have a baby and feels threatened by the person covering for her. Stephanie Bell and Helen Carson spoke to two Northern Ireland mums about how they felt when they were away from work.

'You can't take your eye off the ball or you could lose clients'

Cathy Martin (43), from Holywood and mum to Valentina (5), runs her own public relations company CMPR and is director of Belfast Fashion Week. She says:

I took a conference call within a few of hours of Valentina being born. I never took any maternity leave and never planned to. I did have a team of six staff here to help, but I am very hands on with my business and at the time we had some big projects going on, and two major clients - Benefit Cosmetics and Diet Coke - which I felt I needed to be there for.

Valentina (right)was born at 31 weeks and previously I had suffered a stillbirth so, obviously, there was a good bit of stress and worry that she was going to be born so early.

When I went into labour they didn't have an incubator in Northern Ireland, so I had to be rushed in an ambulance to Dublin and get a Garda escort from the border.

At one point they were going to airlift me to Ayr in Scotland. So there was a bit of drama, but it was really quite scary.

I remember Valentina was born at 4am and about 10am the next day I took the conference call. I didn't tell any of the people I was talking to that I had just had a baby, as I didn't want to make a fuss or take the focus off the project and I suppose I just wanted to be professional.

Now, looking back, I should have said something, but I felt pressurised to get back to work. While I was confident in my team I feared a competitor could take advantage of my absence and try to take a client away from my business. But to say this was the main motivator to start working again so soon wouldn't be the case.

I have always been confident in my ability to do my job. Yes, there are bitches out there... both women and men and it's not unique to my industry. There may have been some who thought I might lose my touch after I had Valentina, but I knew once I got fit and back to work I would be able to do everything (in business) that I wanted to do.

After she was born Valentina was transferred to the Ulster Hospital, where she spent four weeks. She was too small to be breast-fed so I had to express my milk and it was fed to her through a tube.

She needed skin-to-skin contact every day so I would hold her against my chest with one hand and be typing on my laptop with the other.

When she got out of the hospital I brought her into the office with me. I had a Moses basket there and a breast pump and it wasn't until she was 12 weeks old that she was able to latch on and feed.

She wasn't even 5lb in weight when she left the hospital at five-weeks old. As she got older, Valentina would go with me to events and the models got used to having her backstage at fashion shows, maybe colouring in.

She still comes with me to events and I think with parenting there is no rule book, you do what you feel is right. And if I thought she was unhappy or not being stimulated or it wasn't good for her, I wouldn't bring her.

While I don't mind delegating at work, there were so many decisions with different projects that I felt I needed to make.

Working in the office three days a week and bringing Valentina with me and working from home for two days became my routine.

My clients are not surprised if I turn up to a meeting and Valentina will be in reception playing on her iPad because I'm a working woman.

When she was a baby my biggest and best investment was a night nurse.

She would be there eight hours, three nights a week for 12 weeks and she was amazing. We are still friends today. She got Valentina sleeping through the night for me.

I think when you have a good night's sleep, you can cope with anything. When she was 18 months old I put Valentina into Merdyn Nursery in Holywood, which was a lovely wee facility and she still has friends from there today and I'm still friends with some of the mummies.

When you own your own business you can't take your eye of the ball or it could be very easy to lose clients.

But it's women, from my female friends to women in business, who have supported me from my pregnancy to when Valentina was born and now too.

Women do support each other but not as much as we should do, and we can be our own worst critics."

‘Some women are made to feel surplus to requirement on return’

Sinead Larkin (44), a family law solicitor and partner in her practice, Larkin O’Connor Cassidy, lives in Belfast with husband Declan Steele, a consultant at the Sports Council of Northern Ireland, and their three sons, Se, (9), Oisin, (8) and Senan (6). She says:

When I got married in 2006, I knew I wanted to have three children, and when I returned to work after Se was born, I was three months’ pregnant with Oisin.

Leaving Se at home caused me a high degree of anxiety and I felt so guilty that I wasn’t at home with my son — I didn’t want to go back to work.

When I was growing up, my mother was at home for me every day when I got in from school.

Solicitors working in family law are predominantly women, most of whom will have a family in their early 30s, so while they are not senior professionals, they have been practising for up to 10 years. However, when a female solicitor is on maternity leave, there are many women in law who see that time as an opportunity for them to prove to their employer they can do the job just as well. It represents a chance for younger female solicitors to make a name for themselves.

Having just had a baby, many women in the law are returning to work in a situation where they have been undermined, possibly lost status and earn less money than a colleague promoted in their absence. While I was supported by my female colleagues when I returned to work after having three children, some women are made to feel surplus to requirements after maternity leave.

The legal profession could do better for women coming back to work after maternity leave in terms of support.

I set up my own practice five years ago after I had my youngest son, Senan.

It is family-friendly with all the arrangements in place to provide our staff who have children with the right work-life balance.

It’s important that women don’t feel undermined when they come back to work after having a child.”

‘She was lovely... I knew she wouldn’t stitch me up’

And Belfast Telegraph journalist Claire O’Boyle says ...

As maternity leave loomed before me almost exactly two years ago, I wouldn’t quite say that I was looking forward to it.

I was knackered of course, and my stomach was so huge I was called ‘Weeble’ at work as my colleagues wondered every day if gravity might finally tip me over.

But despite the name-calling, I was used to being around lots of people. I liked it and mostly they were interesting, challenging, bright and fun.

And here I was getting ready to head off into the unknown for the best part of a year... with a little tiny person I hadn’t even met yet.

At the time I was working at a tabloid newspaper in London, where I’d been for eight years. For all its faults it was a home away from home and I loved my job.

I knew the girl who was taking on my role in my absence and I knew she’d be great. Probably better than me. Yikes.

But I also knew she was lovely and wouldn’t stitch me up (and in case you’re waiting for the evil twist that she actually did — she didn’t). That’s not to say it all went smoothly though.

What worried me most about maternity leave was boredom — being bored, being boring and hanging out with boring baby-obsessed mums boring the legs off me with breast pump talk.

None of my extremely smart and funny best friends had had babies yet so I was dreading downgrading to a bunch of dreary yummy mummies.

And without a huge experience of people who’d had kids — other than my big sister Helen who lived in Northern Ireland — I didn’t have a clue what to expect.

In hindsight, nothing could have prepared me or my husband Andrew for the arrival of our little whirlwind Betsy, so it was just as well we knew we were going in clueless. A big fear had been that I would spend months pining for work. I loved keeping on top of what was going on in the world, and I loved knowing things other people weren’t allowed to know yet.

I was scared my contacts would run away and give their stories to someone else, so in the weeks before I headed off, I waddled into central London on the Tube to remind them how excellent I was at my job. I wanted them to be chomping at the bit for my return.

In reality, once Betsy arrived I couldn’t care less. After my first priority of making sure she was in one piece from one end of the day to the next, all I could think about were those dreamy zzzzzs.

I didn’t need to be told twice to sleep when the baby slept, and at any other conceivable moment I could squeeze in. Sleeping was the new booze, news, sex and everything else in our house.

But after a few months, I came out of the fog and thoughts inevitably returned to work.

I was called to my office to be told things had changed, my title was different, that it was a promotion... of sorts.

So I geared myself up for my big return after nine months off. It was great for a while —about a day-and-a-half. And then I realised things just change when you have a baby. They did for me at least.

My job involved long and often unpredictable hours. The work didn’t stop just because I had a baby, as someone kindly reminded me. And while most of my female colleagues were welcoming and glad to see me back, a few were frustrated that my priorities had changed.

And as much as I’d hoped it would be a breeze, over a bottle of wine one night, Andrew and I decided to pack it in.

His TV job had similar challenges, and we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this? To work all hours to afford our tiny, expensive house, and never see our baby or each other?’

So very unexpectedly we left London and moved to Belfast just a few weeks after Betsy’s first birthday. I did fear maternity leave, but for entirely the wrong reason. I thought I’d be bored with Betsy — the least boring person I’ve ever met.

In reality, the impact she had on my life and work was bigger than I’d imagined.

But would I go back and swap late nights in the office and a soggy commute for the hanging out with the best dancer and hugger I know? Not for a minute.

And because I didn’t give you a twist earlier — here’s one now: I’m going off on maternity leave again in just over two months’ time.

What havoc will the next one wreak?”

Belfast Telegraph

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