Can we please stop calling maternity leave ‘time off’?

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  • In her first Friday column, Marie Claire's entertainment editor Lucy Pavia tackles the language of maternity leave, Nepal's period banishment and why Cameron Diaz should demand a 'Reese' rider

    A friend of mine has quit his job to travel the world for a year. I feel little pangs of jealousy every time one of his Argentinian waterfall shots pops up on my Instagram feed – usually timed to the second I’ve folded myself into the remaining air pocket left on the train to work – but I also know he’s worked his socks off for the last ten years and deserves some time off.

    I recently heard the same words – ‘time off’ – used to describe a friend who is on maternity leave right now. Her baby is going through the 4-month sleep regression. I think she would quite like to be standing by a peaceful Argentinian waterfall right now, if only for the baby-free opportunity to lie down on the cold hard rock and sleep.

    Is it time to call bullshit on using ‘time off’,  ‘a break’ or – as my colleague had it put to her once, ‘your holiday’ – when we’re talking about maternity leave? Not only do the words denote relaxation and me-time, things maternity leave definitely doesn’t involve, there’s the underlying suggestion that we’re not all part of the same cycle.

    Were the people I’ve listened to moan about the ‘disruption’ caused by their colleague ‘going off to have a baby again’ raised by a stork? Or did they simply materialise, age 25, in a suit with adult social skills and a law degree, ready to take their place in the workforce?

    Perhaps they believe the business of continuing the human race has nothing to do with them, even if many of those humans will one day be adults who work in an office and pay taxes like they do, or care for them when they’re old and infirm?

    A man once told me quietly that he wasn’t entirely sure he was a feminist after seeing his brother run a small business that was ‘disrupted’ (that word again) by a woman having a baby. I argued that his problem wasn’t with women but with a system that still sees child rearing as a ‘women problem’ in isolation.

    I know it’s a cliché to bang the Scandi drum when it comes to parental leave policy, but case in point is a work meeting my husband had recently with a group of Swedish men. They told him a man in their office had been nicknamed ‘the caveman’ because he only took three months of parental leave. They’d all taken six.

    With uptake of shared leave in the UK still pretty low by comparison (according to research by law firm EMW just 1% took it up between April 2016 and March 2017) we’ll need seismic cultural shifts to get to this point. But adjusting our language is a good place to start.

    ‘Getting to know a baby looks like doing an awful lot of nothing, and that’s what it feels like too. It’s 24-hour, frequently lonely, often dull’, my friend Jules tells me on email. ‘It’s also life-changing, rewarding and magical. But what it is not, is a holiday.’

    Or, as another friend Rachel puts it, ‘you know what is time off? Getting to go back to work!’

    Why Cameron Diaz should ask for a ‘Reese’ rider

    Selma Blair has been forced to do some damage control after talking about her friend Cameron Diaz’s ‘retirement’ from acting. At the Vanity Fair Oscars pre-party, Blair said the pair would not be making a sequel of The Sweetest Thing because ‘Cameron’s retired from acting. She’s like “I’m done.” She doesn’t need to make any more films. She has a pretty great life, I don’t know what it would take to bring her back.’

    Blair has now insisted the statement was a joke and her friend is still very much in the game. But if Diaz – whose last film Annie was released in 2014 – is privately a bit fed up with Hollywood, perhaps she could introduce a new clause.

    Frances McDormand asked actors to insist on an ‘inclusion rider’ in her Oscars speech. Since some of the best and most inclusive TV and film is now being made by Reese Witherspoon under her production company Hello Sunshine (Big Little Lies with Meryl, A White Lie with Zendaya, Jennifer Aniston’s as-yet-untitled return to TV as a morning show anchor, Little Fires Everywhere with Kerry Washington) perhaps Diaz could take it one step further by demanding a Reese Rider. No Witherspoon? No deal.

    The cups saving women in Nepal

    Those imposing it now face jail time if caught, but the old practice of Chhaupadi – banishing women and girls to huts when they’re on their period – is still widespread in Nepal.

    Chhaupadi can leave women exposed to the elements and malnourished, as they’re often also forbidden to consume fruit, vegetables and milk products. There was international outrage last year when an 18-year-old called Tulsa Shahi died after being bitten by a snake during her time in a menstruation hut.

    But a wider use of menstrual cups are helping reduce the number of women isolated by their communities. ‘Because menstruation cups don’t produce any trash, they provide us with privacy’ Executive director of Nepal Communitere, Bahar Kumar, told ABC news, ‘I’ve bought all my nieces menstrual cups and implemented a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for myself in my family, slowly encouraging them to do the same.’

    The solution isn’t perfect – Deputy Director of Women LEAD Nepal, Shreya Thapa, says a change in mentality is also badly needed – but the cups provide a level of privacy for women and girls in Nepal that could save their lives.

    Reason we still need feminism #100000008.

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