Going back to work after maternity leave can be much harder than the delivery itself in terms of the emotional and practical hurdles of returning to work.
The reality for many mothers in Cayman is that cost of living increases and across the board pay freezes – may be making the transition necessity – not an option – for increasing numbers of women.
Although there has been no recent research into how the economy has affected women in the workplace locally; UK studies like the one commissioned this year by the National Childbirth Trust found that a third of respondents said going back into the workplace was difficult or very difficult.
Practical hurdles include the spiraling cost of once affordable daycare/helpers, the lack of mandatory paternity leave in the private sector, Cayman’s conservative maternity leave entitlement and the loss of earnings caused by taking unpaid leave to nurse sick children.
Other issues that may make the transition rocky are Cayman’s lack of mothering facilities in most workplaces and the paucity of flexi-time and job share options offered to balance work and home life. In the UK employees caring for children aged 16 and under can ask for flexi-time.
Maternity, paternity leave
Cayman’s maternity leave entitlement is 12 calendar weeks. The entitlement under the Labour Law is available for expectant mothers who have worked a year or more in her current place of employment on 20 days full pay, 20 days half pay and 20 days unpaid leave. In addition, the Government has a slightly more generous maternity leave for its employees of 18 weeks: 90 days leave of which 30 days are on full pay.
The Islands’ have no universal paternity leave. Only public sector workers have that entitlement. Civil servants get one week paid and one week unpaid paternity allowance provided they have at least 12 months continuous service before the birth or adoption. Compared to such countries as Canada – which gives expectant mothers and fathers a year off after six weeks on the job, (with couples splitting the year between them in any way that suits them) – Cayman has some way to go.
How firms can help
Tammy Ebanks Bishop, senior policy adviser (Gender Affairs) for the Cayman Islands National Policy on Gender Equity and Equality and former manager of the Family Resource Centre, suggests that employers “exercise greater social responsibility by supporting the family through various provisions aimed at strengthening the bond between working parents, working mothers and their children.”
The mother of one says: “There are a variety of practical measures that can be used to strengthen the bond between [mother] and child and at the same time ease the transition of going back into the work environment.
“Some [strategies] include returning to work part-time, sharing a position with another person, or working flexi-time. Technology also allows the option for some employees to work from home.”
For Trina Christian, the Executive director of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association and former doula, having a baby meant scaling back.
“I went back part-time and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I found it helped ease the transition for both of us,” she says.
“I did part-time until he was nine months, which also made it easier to keep breastfeeding. I probably wouldn’t have made it so long if I had gone back full-time.”
The problem of maintaining breastfeeding on returning to work, is a reoccurring issue according to Ebanks Bishop.
“I have heard for many years is the lack of employers providing breast pump breaks or clean, private facilities for nursing moms to express milk when they return back to work,” she says.
“If a nursing mom who has returned back to work is afforded a supportive environment in which to express milk, then more than likely she will breast feed her child for longer.
“The employer benefits because breast fed babies tend to be healthier so there is less sick time taken by the employee.”
Other initiatives Ebanks Bishop recommends that employers explore, include providing on-site day care or after-school programmes to create family-friendly workplace environments.
“This is something that we do not see in Cayman. However in other countries that provide these benefits to their employees, the businesses report that they see increased performance and productivity from their employees because the parents know their children are close by and being cared for in a safe environment.”
First-time mother Sandra Farquhar son took the standard 12 weeks maternity leave and found going back to work and being separated from her baby difficult. “I found it very hard to get back into the swing of things. Having three months off in the Cayman Islands was a dream,” she recalls.
Her transition was eased by the childcare decision she and her husband made.
“My husband is a stay-at-home daddy, which made it very easy for me to trust she is getting the best care ever,” Sandra said. Despite that she admits that she had “a couple days of crying.”
However this kind of childcare option is not open to everyone and Ebanks Bishop points out that onsite day care within companies eases the transition for mothers and companies also benefit as it has been found to “increase employee loyalty to the company and boost morale, which in turn helped retention and minimised the amount of sick leave taken.
Know your rights
Samantha Bennett, a mother of three is the founding member and past director and president of the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resource Professionals.
She advises employers ensure that their female employees know what they are entitled to so that they can plan ahead and review the options in advance of their due date.
She mentions a raft of other strategies employers could use to help newly returning mothers back into the workplace.
“Flexible working hours can be offered to returning mothers and possibly part-time hours initially while the baby and mother’s daily separation is eased,” she says.
“The ability to work from home should also be an option. Extending the amount of weeks that are paid full salary or additional financial support (maternity allowance) would also be beneficial as we often see mothers having no choice but to return back to work early because of financial reasons,” she adds.
For Mona-Lisa Tatum Watler the initial months after the birth of her first-born meant returning to college in the US without him.
“I graduated in May 2005 and those four months away from my son Blake were very hard, almost unbearable,” she says.
“I missed his first word, his first crawl and I felt as if I were the worse mother in the world on some days. [But I knew that I had to be focused and graduate in order to give my son a better life and positive future.”
The next time she saw her son was at her graduation. “He slept on my stomach for the next few days as I couldn’t bear to part with him for too long,” she says.
“It was not so bad getting back into the working world on my return to Grand Cayman as I had already endured being away from him for four solid months.”
Things were different with her second child. “I think because of the first experience and the added responsibility of already having a child, going to work was almost a break from three solid months of caring for baby, with my second child,” she says.
For new mother Ilse Koppelaar leaving her three-month-old son in a nursery “was the worst ever” as she had not anticipated the level of separation anxiety she felt leaving her infant in day care.
Her response was to enlist the kind of help that many expats cannot do. “I’m glad I asked family who gladly made their way from overseas to help out for a couple of months,” she says.
Months later with her transition back into the workplace complete, and her son much older and more robust, she revisited the idea of placing him in day care.
Long before her return to work, she reviewed her work hour options. She ranked occasional sleep deprivation and her inability to do overtime, due to nursery hours, among some of the issues she has had to overcome
Practical, emotional issues
Director of the Department of Counseling Services, Judith Seymour, says that modern mothers have a variety of obstacles to surmount when it came to returning to work.
Her department, which is responsible for setting up island-wide parenting programmes, finds mothers often have difficulties ranging from finding competent and affordable care, as well as affordable after school care for older children; to meeting the increased cost of groceries; and turning down overtime/unsociable hours at the risk of being labelled workshy – despite babysitting costs often cancelling out any monetary gain.
According to Seymour and Ebanks Bishop, the emotional issues experienced by some mothers after maternity leave are just as wide ranging. They include the stress of trying to balance work and home life, separation anxiety which some face when spending significant hours away from their child, sleep deprivation caused by adjusting to the child’s sleep pattern, guilt that they cannot afford or simply do not want to be a stay-at-home mother and guilt because some enjoy work or see it as an escape from the drudgery of some aspects of home life.