'I began maternity leave the day my babies were born'
Is it best to put your feet up for the last weeks of pregnancy or should you continue working?
While her husband was busy going about his royal duties and kicking his heels up at a society wedding last weekend, mum-to-be Kate Middleton was taking it easy ahead of the impending arrival of the royal baby.
While the duchess's exact due date is a closely guarded secret, it is thought to be around July 13. But a full month before that date, Kate made her final public appearance and retired firmly into maternity leave mode.
Not all of us have that luxury of course. But is it best to put your feet up for those last weeks of pregnancy? Or should you just carry on as normal, keeping busy to take your mind off the upcoming birth?
"There's no one-size-fits-all answer to that question," says Dr Sarah Jarvis, clinical consultant at www.patient.co.uk.
"Preparing for maternity leave is like writing a birth plan – it's good to know what you hope for, but setting that in stone is almost guaranteed to ensure that it won't go according to plan!
"If your birth plan doesn't unfold perfectly you become anxious which causes adrenaline to skyrocket, and that stops labour in its tracks. Better to keep an open mind and respond to your body when the time comes."
Author and mother of four Nessa Robins (35) began her maternity leave six weeks before the birth of each of her children, and sees sense in Kate's decision to take a period of time off before her due date.
Like Kate, who was hospitalised with hyperemesis gravidarum early in her pregnancy, Nessa suffered from debilitating nausea and such extreme tiredness during each of her pregnancies that maternity leave couldn't come soon enough.
"With each of my pregnancies my iron levels were in my boots from the very beginning so even coping with the routine demands of daily life was very hard-going," Nessa admits. "Some women fly through pregnancy without it disrupting their life, but I wasn't one of them."
During three of her four pregnancies Nessa was a nurse in the emergency department of a general hospital, but she didn't put her feet up for six weeks prior to the births of her babies.
"I've never been the type of person who can do nothing and I certainly didn't take leave early so that I could sit at home nesting. I was continuously sick, and pregnancy took so much out of me that I couldn't fulfill the demands of my job. I'd have been useless to my colleagues."
Taking early maternity leave must present a precious opportunity to prepare for a new arrival – a luxury not granted to mums who work until their waters break.
Nessa agrees, but adds that taking early maternity leave doesn't necessarily guarantee you a relaxing period of self-indulgence either.
"By my fourth maternity leave I had three other children to look after too," she explains. "What was really beneficial was having some extra time to help the children prepare for having a new baby. They loved helping me get everything ready – washing baby clothes, setting up the cot and baby bedding. I enjoyed having time to prepare for those practicalities of becoming a mum. Particularly with my first pregnancy that was a lovely, relaxing time in my life that I look back on with very fond memories."
Perhaps the Duchess of Cambridge will feel similarly in years to come, but for some women taking maternity leave before you give birth seems as nonsensical as using up your honeymoon leave on wedding preparation.
Mother-of-two Olivia Kett (37), began both her periods of maternity leave on the day her babies were born.
She agrees that some pregnant women are driven to keep working until the eleventh hour by a fear that leaving work early will amount to 'squandering' an already too brief period of precious time.
"I had six months off from my job working for a Toyota main dealer and I wanted to spend every possible moment of that time with my babies," Olivia explains. "I didn't want to waste a single minute sitting at home doing nothing."
Factor in the financial pressure sometimes created by maternity leave – Maternity Benefit is currently a maximum weekly payment of €262 – and it's little wonder that many mums opt to begin their leave as late as possible. Not that the mother of the heir to the throne has to worry about such things.
Olivia's babies were both induced at 38 weeks gestation due to a health condition, so she finished work on the Friday before their scheduled arrivals the following Monday.
"I was blessed with two fantastic, very easy pregnancies so I couldn't see any reason to stop work any earlier," she explains. "Being pregnant didn't impact on my ability to do my job, and I felt 100pc capable throughout."
Olivia also freelances as an event and promotions specialist on a part-time basis, and when her maternity leave started that part of her working life didn't stop.
"After giving birth to my daughter I walked down the corridor with her in my arms and took a work call straightaway," she recalls.
"I didn't mention the fact that I'd just had a baby. It wasn't relevant. As a freelancer you can't ever really take time off – you've got to be available and at the end of the phone when clients need you."
After returning home from hospital on a Thursday Olivia attended a client's event the following evening.
"We'd met about four weeks earlier so she knew I was pregnant but not my due date. She nearly died when she asked me when it had all happened and I confessed that I'd had the baby two days earlier."
For Olivia, a self-confessed workaholic, maintaining the momentum of a busy working life helped her to take new motherhood in her stride, although not everyone around her understood that perspective.
"Other family members thought I was a bit crazy, and my mother still talks about that. She felt I should have taken more time for me, but working energises me in a way that resting energises other women!"
Sarah Ockwell-Smith mother of four and author of Babycalm: A guide for calmer babies and happier babies observed an interesting pattern among working mums when she taught antenatal classes:
"The women who had very little time off work – two days or less – before giving birth generally always had very easy labours and straightforward births. I can only assume that there's something beneficial about keeping active and not having lots of time to feel anxious."
Olivia shares that sentiment. "If I had spent weeks sitting at home before giving birth I would have been a lot more anxious about having a baby," she adds.
Furthermore, Olivia believes that keeping busy can help keep the baby blues at bay. "I wasn't home alone suffering from baby brain – I was seeing clients and organising events on the phone so I didn't go through that sadness that some women experience where it hits you like a stone that new motherhood is a bit of an anticlimax."
Nessa also recovered very quickly after giving birth despite suffering difficult pregnancies, and whereas Olivia attributes her postnatal health to maintaining her working life, Nessa wonders if taking a break before giving birth actually helped her to bounce back so quickly post-pregnancy. Evidently both hypotheses are true.
Olivia and Nessa agree that there's too much pressure on modern mums to live up to the impossible.
"There's this prevalent idea that mums should be able to do it all, starting with carrying on as normal throughout pregnancy until the last possible moment," Nessa says.
"But none of us can do it all. If you feel extremely tired then your body and your baby needs you to rest. I gave in to that and I'm very glad I did. It's good to see someone like Kate doing the same."
As is the case with so many elements of motherhood, it seems the key to taking maternity leave at the 'right' time is having the courage to trust your instincts.
Doing so before you even become a mum might just be the best thing you can do for your baby.
5 tips for getting through the final countdown
Sarah Ockwell-Smith has these suggestions to keep Kate occupied until the big day . . .
1 Sleep. As much as you possibly can, while you still can.
2 Do everything you'll never be able to do easily again! Go to the cinema, out for a meal, off to the pub or potter around the shops at your leisure.
3 Cook plenty of nutritious food, and stock up the freezer for the days ahead when you'll barely have time to eat, never mind cook.
4 Don't stress about getting everything 'just so' before your due date. Babies need very little and won't notice if the nursery isn't finished, plus the shops will still be there after you've given birth.
5 Relax – and make some time to prepare yourself mentally for giving birth.