'I know of cases where a mother on maternity missed out on a chance of promotion' - Is one year of maternity leave too long?
New research shows many mothers continue to juggle work activities while on maternity leave, out of fear of falling behind
A former advisor to Hillary Clinton has caused a stir by claiming that a year is too long a time for women to spend on maternity leave.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as the director of Policy Planning for the US State Department until 2011, says shared care leave between women and men should replace traditional maternity leave.
"My ideal would be the woman takes six months and the man takes six, and they divide that however they want," she said in an interview on Monday.
"Both parents need to bond with the child and both parents need to understand what it takes to be parents and to be workers. You can really fall behind in a year. It's too long out of the workplace."
So how long is too long after a mother gives birth? Will she fall down the managerial pecking order when it comes to pay and opportunities for promotion? And should men be able to share the parental leave burden?
A survey of Irish maternity leave, published this week by SMA Nutrition, appears to show that the majority of Irish mothers (52pc) are not waiting until their official return to work before getting involved in work-related activities.
This typically includes checking work email (24pc), going into the office for meetings (11pc) and taking calls from colleagues (31pc).
The survey also found that before telling their employer about their pregnancy, almost half (46pc) of mothers felt nervous, anxious or concerned.
Kate O'Connell, a Fine Gael TD and mother to three children, supports the idea that maternity leave could be shared between parents, and says the amount of time should be flexible.
"Say if you get six months paid maternity leave, the man should be able to take five months and the mother one month if that's what the parents want."
O'Connell, who runs a pharmacy business, certainly did not delay her return to work after her children were born.
"I called into my pharmacy on my way home from the Coombe Hospital every time," says the TD, who took part in an election campaign only a month after giving birth.
"I remember doing timetables and rosters for shops with a laptop in the bed when I was in the Coombe. That was my choice."
The politician says: "Being out of the workplace for a year is a long time, but you cannot punish people for taking time out to have babies."
Andrea Mara, who runs the blog Officemum.ie, worked in financial services when she had her children, and searched for that elusive balance between work and home. She has since taken redundancy and is publishing a novel.
"I don't think that being out of the workforce for a year is too long. In some jobs, it might mean catching up afterwards is difficult, and an individual parent may decide that he or she would rather go back sooner. That's the point - it should be an individual decision.
"Being out for a long time can make the return more challenging but it should be up to the parent to make that work-life decision themselves."
Tracy Gunn, a mother of two boys, helps to run the agency Mumager advising working parents and companies about the transition back to work.
She says mothers should think carefully about what kind of contact they want to have with their employer when they are on maternity leave.
A blanket ban on any kind of contact may seem desirable but it can leave a woman out of the loop, particularly if there is a re-organisation at work.
"I know of cases where a mother on maternity missed out on a chance of promotion, because she had said she did not want to be contacted." For many women, the early return to work is simply a matter of finances. With the pressure of mortgages or rents, they can't afford to stay out more than six months.
"Many women are now the main earners in families and have to go to back sooner for financial reasons," says Gunn.
The time given to Irish women for maternity leave is relatively generous - 26 weeks statutory paid leave, plus the option of 16 weeks unpaid leave.
However, Ireland has among the lowest maternity benefits in Europe with a statutory entitlement of only €230 per week. It has been estimated that only 50pc of employers top up this benefit, leaving many families struggling to get by. Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance says parents should be given greater support to take longer maternity leave.
"All the international evidence shows that children do better when at home for the first year of their lives with their main caregivers," she says.
Businesswoman and former journalist Orlaith Carmody took her full maternity leave after her first three children were born.
"I added on various holidays and leave entitlements. I wanted to spend as much time with the babies as I possibly could. After my fourth child was born I took time out of the workforce for a number of years and was a full-time mum.
"I was lucky in that we had a couple of businesses going by then, so I was a director of those and kept my hand in with that."
She says any newborn deserves the full attention a mother can give for the first few months, particularly when breastfeeding is working out.
"But for the mother away from her career for a long period, in some instances up to a year, this can result in a sense of isolation from the professional self, a drop in confidence, and a real difficulty in returning to work and catching up with everything."
Although we live in an age of political correctness, there is still an insidious bias in some workplaces against women who go on long periods of maternity leave, according to Carmody.
Colleagues can still be heard muttering: "How long is she going to be away for this time?" or "Here we go again." Carmody approves of Anne-Marie Slaughter's idea that maternity leave could be assigned to the father as well as the mother.
"Maybe the option to legally share parental leave, in any way a couple chooses, will finally be the great leveller in the workplace."