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Sinead Ryan: We should pity rather than admire women like Karren Brady

ALAN Sugar's new Apprentice sidekick Karren Brady might find herself at odds with the boss after admitting she made a "shameful" mistake by returning to work just three days after giving birth to her first child, now 14.

The high-profile career woman claims now that not taking proper maternity leave was disastrous.

"I was trying to do it all, up all night with the baby and at work all day. That doesn't work," she said. She was so desperate to remain top of the career ladder, she sacrificed the precious early months with her new baby.

French former minister Rachida Dati made headlines for the same reason -- returning to her high- profile job a week after giving birth -- only to be shafted anyway.

Extreme examples, perhaps, but they only serve to increase pressure on ordinary women to become superwomen unnecessarily. Brady's views come with a sigh of relief to women who have felt under pressure to emulate her and try to juggle new motherhood, with all the emotions, upheaval and physical consequences, and a job.

So maybe we can now begin to get over the notion that being a successful woman requires you to pop out kids and immediately return to a top-level career. We have maternity laws for a reason -- and we also have children for a reason. The exceptions to the rule are just that. As a mum, I actually pity Brady and women like her that so much pressure was put on them to return to work, self-imposed or otherwise. In Scandinavian countries it's not unusual to take a year off work after having a baby -- supported by employer and state. Here, it's a big rush to return, lest you be seen as anything other than fully committed.

I remember requesting part-time work after my second baby was born only to have it refused and very clearly let know that part-time equated to partly committed.

I ended up leaving that company and moving to a more progressive one where my skills -- albeit for five hours a day -- were very much welcomed. Employers who make workplace childcare facilities available cut down on commuting time; breast-feeding rooms encourage later weaning, and earlier work return; making a mother feel proud and welcome for having a family -- whom she will be more committed to earn money for, is what employers should be doing. The recession means having to reassess things, and women are putting off doing anything that would jeopardise their jobs. Are they also putting off getting pregnant, or taking full maternity leave too? If so, who are we really helping here -- companies or society?

Many small firms bemoan our favourable maternity laws as too expensive. And of course, from their point of view, they're quite right. But society has to have a wider view. It might seem impressive for a women to pop a baby out and be behind her desk shortly afterwards, but who is benefiting? Certainly not the child. What mother would really prefer to see a work project completed than her baby's first smile, word or step?

A long-term, joined-up approach means everyone's a winner -- not least of all, baby.