ARTS & CULTURE

How maternity leave messed with my mind

Author Michelle Francis on how maternity-leave anxiety threatened to take the shine off her baby joy

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By Michelle Frances on

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When I was pregnant with my first child at work, there was talk of my maternity cover. Perfectly normal, perfectly standard practice. The person who was lined up to ‘take over’ (a deeply rankling phrase that was used frequently, as it sounded as if my replacement was planning a coup) was a delight. A friend! But still, I couldn’t help worrying about putting my trust in her. I needed to know she wouldn’t spoil the projects I’d set up, damage my reputation or restructure my team. I needed her to be good. On the other hand, I didn’t want her to be as good as me.

Most of these concerns are standard and justified feelings that many women get when handing their job over to someone else. I was being treated fairly, unlike a friend at another company who got pregnant just as she was gearing up to produce her first drama. Her boss didn't approve. Plans were made to replace her, and her junior team was told that she was no longer the producer of the show – all before she was even consulted.  

If you go back to work, someone else takes on a portion of your childcare. If you want to be the sole caregiver, someone else will do the job you loved

As the day of my departure loomed closer, I envisaged my maternity cover being so brilliant that my boss would be reluctant to have me back. I felt that by someone else doing my job, the way that did my job would be up for scrutiny. (The latter is unavoidable, I fear. If someone else is doing what you used to do, there will inevitably be comparisons.) I left telling myself that a year wasn’t so long, that I would keep in contact regularly, and would even read scripts and feed back notes on projects. I would be present without actually being in the office.

Once I’d given birth, everything changed. Suddenly, the job I loved had shifted down a notch. I loved my child more (this took several weeks, as at first I felt as if I had been run over by a train and was terrified of her). But I had worked hard to get where I was in my career, and practically, I needed to keep on earning. Plus there were drama projects I’d started that I wanted to see through. I thought back to a conversation I’d had with a senior film and television producer several years earlier, who told me ”You can have it all”, and wondered how on Earth this was possible.

Reason number one: you can't be in two places at once. If you go back to work, someone else takes on a portion of your childcare. If you want to be the sole caregiver, someone else will do the job you loved.

Reason number two: putting my trust in my maternity cover was only the first hurdle. The next, and arguably bigger, problem was: should I stay on maternity leave for as long as possible or go back to work to continue developing my career?  (I was aware that this dilemma actually stretched beyond maternity leave, but couldn’t cope with facing up to this one just yet.) The answer for me was compromise.

I ended up going back to work when my daughter was eight months old (I would have done the whole year, but couldn’t afford it). After wanting to do nothing else in my adult life but produce TV shows, I realised that several weeks or months on a set, often miles from home, working 12-hour days, was not what I wanted any more. The idea of leaving home when my child was asleep and returning when she was back in bed made me feel incredibly sad. I resolved to keep with an office job. My maternity leave was at an end, but all the pressures and anxieties it brought were nothing compared with juggling being a mother and an effective employee. At times I would wish I could have two lives, one of me working and one at home.

I chose to explore this thorny and emotive topic in my latest novel, where we meet Carrie who, in her early 40s, had never wanted a child – until she accidentally falls pregnant. Suddenly all cards are off the table. She has a very high-powered job she’s worked her socks off for – and this young, bright thing who comes to do her maternity cover is good. Too good.

Maternity leave is a mostly wonderful thing.  It’s just a shame it doesn’t exist in a parallel universe.

The Temp is available now. Click here to buy a copy

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