I miss her: This is the ideal length for maternity leave

I am back at work this week after eight months maternity leave. As a first time mum I chose to come back at this time before my baby was born, and set the wheels in motion, and once started I felt I had to stick to that plan.

I didn't know much about baby development, so I picked this date based mainly on financial considerations. Therefore this week I have been thinking a lot about... knowing what I know now would I have still planned to come back now?

I always assumed I would want to go back, but once the baby was born I wasn't so sure. There were times I seriously contemplated being a stay at home mum, but in the end I wanted to be able to contribute financially for our family, and still pursue my career.

In a way it was good that I had committed in advance to come back on a certain date. If it had been open ended I would have kept pushing it back, so having a target date was good to aim for, but had I picked the right duration?

In Ireland we are lucky we get six months paid leave. In the past and in some other countries (hello my friends from the US) people get far less. When my baby was just a few months old the thought of going back would have been horrendous.

I seemed to spend all my time with her in my arms and could barely get myself dressed each day. I certainly wouldn't have been able to express milk, and would have felt guilty stopping breastfeeding. It's a very short sighted policy to give women so little leave from work and put pressure on them to return when their physical and mental health is impacted, and can't be good for company productivity.

At least I didn't have to make a decision then, I only had to decide if I wanted to extend my leave by taking up to an additional four months unpaid leave. I opted to take six weeks unpaid leave and three weeks holidays to bring me to just over eight months. My employer has also been good and agreed to me taking one day a week unpaid parental leave for six months, so I've got at least one day a week at home with my baby.

If this hadn't been an option and I wasn't taking that financial hit I would have probably stayed out a bit longer.

As a first time mum with not much experience around kids I naively thought that if maternity leave is six months then babies must be fairly ready to go to crèche at that point. I did lots of research on pregnancy and birth but hadn't looked further ahead. I figured the extra weeks I was taking would be bonus play time.

However, when six months rolled around in the blink of an eye, I was so glad I had the extra time. I still didn't feel either me or my baby was ready.

At six months we were just starting weaning onto solids. This is a messy process, because baby is learning a whole new skill. It requires lots of patience to make it a good experience for baby so she doesn't develop bad associations with feeding. It's not something I would trust to a stranger. It was also so rewarding watching her enjoy food and develop this skill and I would have hated to have missed that.

She wouldn't take a bottle at all, and at six months she also hadn't yet mastered a sippy cup, so we would have had a stressful few weeks trying to get her to drink milk.

She also still needed a bit of help to settle for naps, with rocking and cuddling and me staying close.

I probably would have trusted to leave her with a close relative at that stage, but that puts a lot of burden on families.

At eight months I feel she is much more ready. She eats solids well, drinks from a cup and can self-settle for naps, and she learnt all these skills in her own time without sleep training or rushing things. She is much more mobile and can show us when she is happy or not a lot more.

Now it is probably me that still feels unready to leave her because I miss her, but at least I'm not worried about her.

Even so if* I was doing it again I think I would try and save up some money and try and take the full unpaid allowance.

*(Note that's still an if - don't get excited Nana).

By 10 months she will be moving onto stage three of weaning and eating more proper meals. It would have been good to have been more present for that.

I think 12 months would be the ideal length for maternity leave. By then she could drink cows milk, so I could potentially stop breastfeeding, and wouldn't be feeling bad about her not getting my milk during the day.

Any longer and it would probably be hard to go back. I have found that so many things have changed in work, but in many ways so many things have stayed the same. It feels a bit like I've only been out a few weeks and I'm just continuing on conversations from before.

I've also had a ball on maternity leave doing activities with my baby... everything from baby swimming to classical music concerts and coffee and cake dates. They have been great memorable bonding experiences, but they also cost money. If I was out too long on unpaid leave I'd have to cut back on those sorts of things, and I would hate to get to the stage where I was bored or fed up being at home.

So for me 12 months would be the ideal duration I think. But we are all different, what suits me might not be right for you. So if you are a first time mum trying to plan your leave I would recommend talking to other parents as much as you can, so finance isn't the main driving factor.

And for people already back at work, how long did you take for leave, and would you do it the same again?

Joanna Melia

Living by the sea in north county Dublin I am currently making the most of my maternity leave to make memories with my baby girl. As a first time mum I am learning as I go along and loving the new challenges and joys of being a mum.

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