The painful truth: Why parental leave matters | Women's Agenda

The painful truth: Why parental leave matters

I’m a double dipper. I confess I once may have gone in for an extra helping of gherkin dip with the same cracker while no one was watching. And I also received maternity payments from both my employer and the government when I had my first child.

But it wasn’t the Australian taxpayer I was ‘ripping off’. It was actually the taxpayers of another country I am fortunate enough to share my citizenship with. A country with a government that sees the value of allowing a mother to be with her baby full time during the first 26 weeks of its life.

My ‘before child’ mind did cartwheels when I heard the combined benefits from both my employer and the government meant I would receive 26 weeks full pay on maternity leave.

“Wow! This is going to be a great holiday! Can’t wait to put the baby in its pram and hit the shops!”

But at first 26 weeks felt too long to be away from work. So I resolved to take five months maternity leave instead. Surely that would be enough time to hang out with my new baby so we can drink babyccinos together?

And then he arrived.  A feisty little baby boy who slapped me in the face and screamed: “Welcome to motherhood!” That slap left a confusing sting of love and anxiety. And when my husband and I nervously carried our crying bundle of joy into the house for the first time, I was confronted by a new reality I didn’t see coming.

I didn’t realise how much our baby would scream to be fed. Heart wrenching screams that reached down to the pit of my stomach and gripped my gut with startling anxiety.

I didn’t realise how hard it would be to feed and nourish him. That breastfeeding for me would be just as traumatic and painful as childbirth. That it would bring feelings of such intense pressure driven by the fear that I would fail as a mother if my body did not produce enough milk to satiate my baby’s hunger.

I didn’t realise my poor baby boy would suffer reflux. That once the struggle to feed him was finally over, his little body would reject my milk, burning his tiny oesophagus on the way out.

I didn’t expect the beating my body would take. That I would constantly bleed for six weeks after childbirth. That my breasts would swell so much they would become hard, hot and painful to touch. That the very things I was battling to nourish my baby with would be afflicted by not one, but three bouts of mastitis. That this mastitis would make me so sick I would be forced to take antibiotics that came with the unwanted side effect of reducing my milk supply even more.

I didn’t realise how desperately helpless I would feel when my baby just wouldn’t stop crying. Despite being fed. Despite being changed. Despite the medication we gave him for his reflux. Despite the burping I so diligently conducted on him after every feed. And how alone I would feel when I turned to friends for help, but they too had no answers.

And I didn’t realise that I would have to cope with all of this on such little sleep; I remember one day I actually Googled: “can sleep deprivation kill you?”

Suffice to say, there were no babyccinos shared on our little holiday together. Instead we spent the time getting to know each other. Gently trying to work out how to make this mother and son thing work.

Despite the desperately exhausting and depressing moments, there were also many that were heart-achingly beautiful. Like the time he first smiled at me. The time he first reached up and played with my nose while I fed him. And the times he would lower his little head onto my shoulder bury his face into my neck and drift into a deep sleep. As I reached the end of my five months ‘holiday’ I knew that neither of us were ready to be apart. We needed more time to get to know each other so I extended my leave to the full 26 weeks.

So yes, I did ‘double dip’, but not because I was licking my lips with greed to rort the system. It was because I was so desperate to spend every possible minute with my baby to care for him, to bond with him, to breastfeed him, to learn how to be a mum.

The first few months of your first child’s life can be so overwhelming.  And while I’m all for supporting mothers who wish to work (in fact, I’m passionate about this) I’m dead against pushing new mothers back into the workforce before they and their babies are ready. And this is what could happen as a result of the Federal Government’s proposal to gut paid parental leave, leaving 80,000 new mothers each year with a reduced benefit, or in some cases, no benefit at all.

And as I write this I can hear the rumblings of the online world: “But why should I have to fund women who want time away from work to have kids? If they can’t afford it, they shouldn’t have them!”

Because here’s the thing: the human race has a habit of breeding. In fact, it’s what it is designed to do. Planned or unplanned, people will keep having babies until the end of time. And as ‘healthy parenting’ (or lack of) is cited by many as critical for a healthy society – and if it really does take a village to raise a child – is it right that we are making it even harder for new mothers to spend time with their babies before they return to work?

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