The march of the mummies and the mental health implications of maternity discrimination

On October the 31st, people are marching in cities across the UK to demand recognition, respect and change for working mothers. The well-being of mothers is important because mothers matter as human beings and citizens. However there is now a wealth of evidence showing the importance of parental mental health for the wellbeing of the child across the lifespan. We now know that many of the epigenetic processes that switch on and off DNA, and therefore programme future stress regulation processes, occur in the first 1000 days of life. Stress regulation has an important influence on whether we will develop mental illness when faced with life crises or traumas. In other words, if we are serious about halting the transgenerational transmission of Troubles related trauma and mental illness in NI, it is absolutely essential that we support parents, to provide the best possible environment for childrens’ developing minds.

However, we know that pre and post-natal mental illness is common. Being pregnant is a very real physical stress. Feeding, protecting and nurturing a baby or toddler is extremely demanding. The current maternity leave policies mean that many parents are put under enormous financial pressure at a time when they have effectively taken on a second full time job. The majority cope admirably, and are supported by armies of grandparents and friends who also provide their labour free of charge. However the financial pressures, time demands, and the heart breaking compromises that parents feel forced make about childcare, can for some create depression and anxiety that blights their children’s key years.

In addition, for women, the threat of unemployment and redundancy for simply being pregnant remains very real. 54,000 women a year are forced out of their job for getting pregnant and over three quarters of working mothers report negative or discriminatory treatment in the workplace. Having a tribunal time limit of three means that it is impossible for those affected to put their case together.

The impact affects both our sons and daughters equally, however the notion that childrearing is womens’ work may well be one of the key reasons why this scandal has not been addressed. The failure to respect the important and unique role that women have in nurturing the next generation is yet another example of misogyny and everyday sexism. Women, men and children all lose out when poor parental leave policies mean that men too are excluded from supporting their families and nurturing their babies.

The demands of the mummies, daddies and citizens who are marching today are not by any means extreme, they are seen in some of the most progressive, healthy and well-functioning societies. It is only logical that a country that wishes to flourish should look after the mothers, particularly during the key period of child development. Supporting parents as they nurture their children in the early years makes economic sense. The provision of a working environment with flexible arrangements for parents should be a source of pride for employers who wish to attract the best staff. In the meantime they should at least be expected to provide us with the figures who request, and are granted, flexible working. Statutory maternity pay for the self-employed would encourage entrepreneurs who happen to be parents, who also need some level of financial stability. Finally, the provision of subsidised childcare from six months, which is the time when it is actually needed, rather than three years, would mean that parents could return to the workplace. This would reduce the gender pay gap, and of course improve the position of women generally.

We as a society need to send a clear message to employers and those in positions of power. By protecting women from discrimination and unfair treatment during their pregnancy and after the birth, we are safeguarding the interests and wellbeing of the next generation. This is particularly important in Northern Ireland, where we know that our children may already suffer as a consequence of the transgenerational impact of the Troubles. It is time that we as a society demonstrated our respect for the vital work that parents do, by giving them adequate time and space to care for their babies. As well as being ethically sound, the five demands of the “March of the Mummies” will pay dividends in the form of a more satisfied, productive and committed workforce.

Our 5 demands: 

  1. Increase the time limit to raise a tribunal claim from 3 months to (at least) 6 months.
  2. Require companies to report on how many flexible working requests are made and how many are granted.
  3. Give both parents access to 6 weeks parental leave paid at 90% of salary.
  4. Give the self-employed access to statutory shared parental pay.
  5. Subsidise childcare from 6 months old, rather than 3 years.

Siobhan O’Neill is Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University

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