Global Survey – Including SA – Finds New Mothers Suffer Nerves and Guilt as Maternity Leave Ends

Many new mothers worldwide – including Capetonian mom Ferzanah Essack – express anxiety and guilt about leaving their babies to return to work, and some worry their nations’ maternity policies reflect societies that value productivity over raising children.

Ferzanah Essack, 36, a software developer and her husband Hassan Essack, 37, a software developer, pose for a portrait with their 4.5-month-old baby Salma on the morning of Ferzanah’s first day back to work, in Cape Town, South Africa, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Ferzanah was one of the mothers interviewed by Reuters for today’s International Women’s Day (8 March). Moms from the United States to Uruguay and Singapore told of their concerns about stopping work to give birth and look after their newborns.

An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report in 2016 found that among OECD countries, mothers are on average entitled to 18 weeks of paid maternity leave around childbirth.

But the range is vast. While some countries – such as Britain and Russia, offer many months or even several years of maternity leave, the United States is the only country to offer no statutory entitlement to paid leave on a national basis.

Ferzanah, a 36-year-old mother and software developer in South Africa, told Reuters the law in SA allows for four months maternity leave – although employers are not obliged to pay employees during this time – and 10 days paternity leave.

She said she is “very nervous” about going back to work, but her baby, Salma, will be looked after by her mother and mother-in-law for free.

We pay (for childcare) in love and kisses

“We pay (for childcare) in love and kisses,” she said. “With lots of love, because it’s the grannies.”

So how does South Africa compare to the rest of the world?

Blanca Eschbach, a new mother in the United States returned to work this week after taking 10 weeks off to have her baby. “I think as a society we value productivity above family life,” she said. “You almost feel rushed to get back to work.”

Eschbach said she’d like longer to be at home with her child – ideally 16 weeks – but her family can’t afford it.

Tatiana Barcellos, 37, a civil servant for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Brazil, also told Reuters she was “anxious and worried” about going back to work, and concerned that “my absence causes stress to my baby”.

In the Netherlands, Lucie Sol, a 32-year-old social worker and mother to baby Lena Amelie, said returning to work “comes with a lot of guilt”.

Lucie Sol, 32, a social worker, her boyfriend, Rudie Jonkmans, 34, a cook, and their 22-week-old baby Lena Amelie pose for a photograph inside their house on the first day Lucie went back to work, in Purmerend, the Netherlands, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

“I feel bad leaving her behind,” she told Reuters. “She’s only five and a half months old, so I want to keep her close.”

Sol took an extra three months off, extending her leave to 27 weeks in total. Her boyfriend Rudie Jonkmans, got two days of official paternity leave and added three extra weeks of holiday time to be with his family. Paternity leave in the Netherlands has since been extended to a maximum of five days.

Belarus is best…

In Belarus, however, things are a little different for 28-year-old Alesia Rutsevich, who is returning to work as an ophthalmologist after having her son three years ago.

Under statutory maternity leave in Belarus, mothers are paid their average monthly income for 70 days before birth and 56 days afterwards. Childcare leave can be taken for up to three years after the birth by any working relative or child’s guardian. Recipients are paid a fixed sum according to the number of children in the family.

Rutsevich says she feels happy to have had significant time with her baby and says her country’s policy is good.

“The duration of the childcare leave is quite optimal,” she said. “I believe that by three years the child is growing up, and his health is improving, and his behaviour.”

(Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in San Antonio, Pilar Olivares in Rio de Janeiro, Eva Plevier in Purmerend,; Vasily Fedosenko in Minsk and Sumaya Hisham in Cape Town. Writing by Kate Kelland in London, editing by Alexandra Hudson)