Charlotte Caleb was texting a client when she realised she might have to put her phone down for a few hours.
‘I’d been invoicing and drafting contracts but I thought it might be a good idea to step back,’ says Charlotte, 32, a music artist manager from Hertford. Self-employed, she would only have benefited from around £151 per week maternity allowance from the State.
‘I’m always so nervous telling clients I need time off, but this particular client understood. In fact, she told me not to respond to her. She was very surprised I was messaging her at all.’
That client’s compassion is understandable once you realise that Charlotte was in active labour. Induced at 6pm one evening in February, she worked into the night. It wasn’t until moments before the actual delivery of her son Cassius at three minutes past midnight that she took her foot off the pedal.
Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson (pictured) is among the growing number of women returning to their desks weeks, days or even hours after giving birth
‘I took my laptop into hospital and remember wandering around the ward saying: “Is there somewhere I can plug this in?” ’ says Charlotte, who is married to Philip, 34, a quantity surveyor. ‘But when I got to 10cm dilated I said to this lovely client: “If I don’t reply, this is why” and she couldn’t have been more understanding. She said: “OK, yes go away and have your baby!”
‘It had been a 72-hour labour and I needed an episiotomy, so I was exhausted. Once I’d had Cassius, I allowed myself to rest. I wasn’t back at work properly until three days later.’
Many mothers who have been through a bruising labour will be agog at Charlotte’s work ethic. But she is among a growing number of women eschewing the traditional six-month-or-more maternity leave and returning to their desks weeks, days or even hours after giving birth.
Among them is the Prime Minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson. She will take no maternity leave after the birth of her second child, due around Christmas, it was revealed this week.
The 33-year-old is head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation, which runs wildlife parks and releases zoo animals back into the wild. Carrie is said to be keen to work on a release of elephants in Kenya next year.
Countdown’s Rachel Riley has also hinted she will be breastfeeding her new baby — a girl called Noa — on the TV show’s set very soon. And comedian Katherine Ryan, 38, returned to work ten days after giving birth to her second child, Fred, in the summer.
‘I was in a privileged position where I could do that,’ she said. ‘Yes, I was still physically recovering, but I think it was easier to take him places when he was ten days old than it is now. If you want to take a year off or ten years or ten days, then that’s totally up to you.’
Charlotte says it was the pandemic that prompted her to start a family — and insists she never had any plans to take a lengthy maternity leave.
Charlotte Caleb, 32, (pictured), from Hertford, who returned to work three days after giving birth, didn’t want her identity to be swallowed up by being a parent
‘Although I’m not a massive “baby person”, I’ve always wanted children,’ she says. ‘When lockdown happened, everything slowed down. Philip and I are both very career and travel-oriented, but getting off the hamster wheel made us reassess and we decided the time was right.
‘When I fell pregnant last year, I was terrified of telling clients because I never want anyone to think I’m not going to be as sharp as I’ve always been. I have a friend in the same line of work who had to stop when she became a parent. I built it up in my head that I was letting everyone down — but of course my clients couldn’t have been nicer about it.’
As she earns slightly more than her husband, the couple realised it made financial sense for Charlotte to return to work at some stage.
‘We could survive on my salary alone but not my husband’s — and in any case, it would just be surviving, not living,’ she explains. But money was by no means the only factor.
‘I am one of those women who has to be doing something. I can’t sit around. I love my job and drive my husband mad with all my money-making schemes and hare-brained business ideas. When lockdown happened and my usual work slowed down, we set up a Caribbean food delivery business.
‘I am not judging anyone else’s choices, but I simply couldn’t be one of those mothers who takes a long maternity leave. They always seem to have to plan things like coffee mornings and playdates but that’s not for the children’s benefit, it’s so the mothers don’t get bored. The child would be happy playing with a cardboard box!
‘I’ve had run-ins with mothers who can’t understand why I’d want to go back to work so soon, but it’s no one’s business but my family’s.’
Charlotte didn’t want her identity to be swallowed up by being a parent. ‘I didn’t want to be the person who only talked about her baby all the time,’ she admits.
‘I suffered with mild postnatal depression and for the first three weeks of his life I kept bursting into tears and had some quite dark moments. But as soon as I was back at work, it was like having an anchor. The person I was before Cassius was still in there.’
Emma Cusden, 33, (pictured) from West Sussex, who returned to work within hours after giving birth, was already three months pregnant when she started her own healthcare marketing company
Charlotte was back to work full-time within days of giving birth, setting up meetings and looking after clients. And she hasn’t regretted it for a second. ‘The pandemic made life easier for me because in the early days I could breastfeed Cassius and have a Zoom meeting at the same time, positioning the camera so no one could tell,’ she says.
‘At first I thought I was superwoman, that I could take Cassius to actual meetings, tours and shoots. I was really optimistic but a bit naive. I didn’t factor in things like him being sick, and that has been the biggest challenge — juggling a sick child when you have meetings to attend.
‘But we manage somehow. I may miss a call occasionally if he’s ill, and my mum will help out if I have a vital meeting. He’s now in daycare for two half-days a week and that will slowly increase over time. For now, we muddle through.
‘I actually feel he benefits from me being at work because he’s mixing with other children — and it’s good for boys to see their mums working and see that my role is just as important as Daddy’s.’
While Charlotte insists she was happiest working from day one, campaigners warn that not everyone taking a ‘mini maternity leave’ finds the decision so easy.
‘We are increasingly hearing from women who feel forced back to work earlier than they would like,’ says Ros Bragg, director of the charity Maternity Action.
‘We know from pre-pandemic research that financial issues above all else determine how long a woman takes in maternity leave. We also know that women are returning early because they fear they may be selected for redundancy.
‘Pregnant women and new mothers are often among the first to be unfairly targeted for redundancy.’
A survey in July last year found that 11 per cent of pregnant women had been, or expected to be, made redundant. Of those who lost jobs, 61 per cent believed their maternity leave plans played a role, according to the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. The cost of living is another huge factor when it comes to women returning to work. According to the Child Poverty Action Group charity, raising a child to the age of 18 costs a typical couple £151,000 — that’s around £700 a month — and few families can afford that with only one parent working.
Angie Willingham, 38, (pictured), from Hertfordshire, who returned to work after four weeks, was the first woman in her company to have a baby
Emma Cusden, 33, knew it was a financial risk to start her own healthcare marketing company in January 2020, when she was already three months pregnant with her second child. The pandemic threw her plans into chaos.
‘I already knew I’d have to return to work relatively quickly because I’d taken on new clients and I couldn’t suddenly take three months off,’ says Emma, who lives in West Sussex with her husband Johnny, 35, a firefighter, and their children Freddy, five, and Sailor, one.
‘But lockdown hit my business hard. I managed to diversify into other healthcare sectors, but it was worrying for a while. I felt in a permanent state of fight-or-flight, which isn’t healthy when you’re five months pregnant.
‘One of the reasons I booked an elective C-section was so I could feel a little more in control.
‘The NHS was brilliant about it. I booked the operation for July 21, 2020 and was able to send emails right up until I was wheeled into hospital. Then I hoped to relax for two weeks with my baby.’
In fact, Emma did no such thing. ‘I had Sailor at 11am, and at 2pm I was responding to emails,’ she says.
‘One nurse said: “Aren’t you supposed to be on maternity leave?” but when you have your own business, it’s not a luxury you can take. I wasn’t about to back off and lose clients.
‘I had a ten-week battle with mastitis and ended up in hospital on an IV drip. But even then, I was working from my bed when Johnny took Sailor out with him to give me a break.
‘I remember the midwife saying I needed to slow down and use the two hours for myself to heal. I look back now and think that maybe if we hadn’t been in a pandemic, I’d have been more relaxed.’
Emma regrets missing out on the ‘baby bubble’ she enjoyed for the first couple of weeks with her elder child, Freddy — but, like Charlotte, she feels work is a strong part of her identity.
‘I feel very rewarded being a working mum,’ she says.
‘My mother was the breadwinner and I look back and realise it must have been really hard for her to miss out on moments in my childhood, such as piano recitals.
‘But I can do both because I work for myself and can juggle appointments. What’s more, we can afford nice holidays and treats for the children. It’s good for them to see that I earn as much as, if not more than, my husband.
‘I’ve had comments from other mums such as: “Don’t you feel like you’re not spending as much time with your family?” I have one friend who gave up her career for her baby, but that meant she also had to give up her car and go everywhere by public transport. I’d really miss my independence.
‘Freddy will sometimes say to me: “You’re always working!” and we’ve explained that one of us can stop working but that would mean no £100 trips to the zoo or sports such as rugby and horse-riding.’
The couple have now hired a full-time nanny. ‘Our nanny Sarah has a degree in childhood psychology and being a ‘mother’ comes naturally to her. She gives Sailor that one-on-one time and takes her to the library or petting zoo. Am I jealous? Only in the sense that I’m jealous of anyone’s natural ability to mother a young child.
‘I’m not like that. I love my children but I couldn’t do it full-time like some women. I was breastfeeding up until six weeks ago, but I’m happy being back at work.’
While some might understand the need to return to work quickly if you have your own business, what about those mothers who could have paid maternity leave?
Angie Willingham, 38, works for an anti-money laundering company. She could have taken many months of leave (although not on full pay) but decided to return just four weeks after giving birth to her son, Carter, in May. Meanwhile, her husband Kris, 38, has taken 50 weeks off from his job with the council to be a full-time father.
‘I couldn’t wait to get back to work,’ says Angie. ‘I love my son but when I wasn’t working, I felt a part of me was missing. When I got pregnant, Kris and I had a big discussion about money and how and where we would live. I’ve reached senior leadership level and I have always wanted to be at director level by the time I’m 40. I still have that goal.’
Angie, who lives in Hertfordshire, worked right up to two days before her C-section in May.
‘I was the first woman in our company to have a baby,’ she says. ‘I was still on probation so in theory I wasn’t able to benefit from the 90 per cent salary [to qualify for this statutory maternity pay for six weeks, you must have worked for an employer for at least 26 weeks]. But I asked for it and they paid me for four weeks.
‘I told myself I’d take four weeks off and organised everything from food to a masseuse in that time,’ she says. ‘But even then, I missed work and was only 95 per cent switched off because I’d check in regularly with a senior member of the team and look at emails.
‘I have no regrets. Carter deserves so much attention but mentally I know I can’t do it.
‘Thankfully, his dad is a wonderful, natural father who is happy to take him to things such as baby sensory classes. But I can’t be a full-time mother — I’d go crazy.’