Is there such a thing as a 'right' amount of maternity leave to take?

Maternity leave can come as a shock, but what's the right amount to take?
Maternity leave can come as a shock, but what's the right amount to take? Photo: Shutterstock

Having at least six months off work after giving birth is optimal for baby bonding, but women who take more than a year’s maternity leave could see their careers suffer, according to experts.

Deciding on the "right" amount of maternity leave to take for yourself, your baby and your career is one of the most challenging decisions a parent can make. It's one influenced by privilege, personal choice and circumstance.

In January the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made headlines by cutting its paid paternity leave offering from one year to six months. The Foundation’s chief human resources officer Steven Rice said the organisation found one-year leaves too "disruptive" to its teams. Parental leave is now capped at six months and parents are provided with a taxable (USD) $20,000 stipend to cover childcare.

Perinatal relationship expert, Elly Taylor, said The Foundation’s decision was disappointing, as women should prioritise their mental health when thinking about returning to work given the high rates of post-natal depression and anxiety.

Ms Taylor also said parental leave was crucial for establishing the bond between mother and baby. “Attachment is ... particularly important in the first six months when the neural pathways are being established so if [the baby is] not with their parents for any reason, it's important that they're with a caregiver who is warm, responsive, reliable and predictable in meeting the baby's needs.”

However Professor Marian Baird. from the University of Sydney School of Work and Organisational studies. warned taking more than a year out of the workforce could be detrimental to a woman’s career.

"There's a lot of research about this at the moment but between nine months and 12 months is [about optimal]," Professor Baird said. "If it gets longer than that it can be more difficult for the employee to return, for the employer to manage the absence and you can lose skills and confidence."

Robin Barker, author of the classic Australian baby guide books Baby Love and The Mighty Toddler said her "unpopular" opinion is that parents, and ideally the mother, should stay home with their baby for at least the first two years. During this time babies are highly dependent and labour intensive.

"I understand people have lives set up and expectations of what they’re going to do, and often need to for money or whatever, but pushing childcare as the answer [means] we have gotten to a point where childcare is seen as the optimum," Ms Barker said.

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"I don't believe [putting babies into childcare] causes long-term problems, it's about the quality of life at that time in their lives," she said, noting that nothing can replace the commitment and love of a parent, particularly a mother.

A joint report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and Workplace Gender Equality Agency released earlier this month found flexible workplaces with paid parental leave schemes are integral

to retaining female staff members during and after pregnancy.

Employer-funded paid parental leave schemes of 13 plus weeks halved manager resignations during that leave compared with managers who only had access to the Australian Government scheme (which pays minimum wage to those eligible for 18 weeks). Workplaces that provide on-site childcare prevent the loss of female managers during PPL by almost a fifth.

Mother of two Antra Kalnins said her employer’s understanding and support of flexible working arrangements made the transition back to work much easier after maternity leave.

Ms Kalnins returned to her job in communications at Macquarie University when her first child Evelyn was 11 months old, to ensure she had a spot at the university’s onsite childcare. She took 13 months off after her second daughter Clara was born.

"The whole higher education sector is generally very progressive when it comes to friendly policies – I’m conscious that parents in other fields probably find policies and attitudes there more challenging. It’s definitely one of the reasons I chose to work in the tertiary sector," she says.

Ms Kalnins' husband, John O'Mahony, an economist and partner at Deloitte, has also taken up his company's offering of a four day working week for the past 12 months.

"I wanted to be an active and involved dad," Mr O'Mahony said. "I think my experience shows that that it’s possible for both men and women to combine a successful career with being a parent."