Maternity leave: an employer writes

Childcare. Now that, as Gandhi said of western civilisation, would be a good idea. Indeed, that was what I thought in the early 1970s when my first child was born, and I was probably among the first few thousand men in the country to be allowed a week's paternity leave. So enlightened were my employers, I got a second week off when I told them I'd caught flu during the first. As a union activist, I campaigned for more paternity and maternity leave, workplace creches, flexible hours - you name it, I banged the table for it. I laughed when a child-free female colleague in her fifties demanded to know why, if men could have paternity leave, she should not have horse leave. "A new horse takes a lot of breaking in, you know," she explained.

You wouldn't catch me laughing now. I've joined the boss class. And in small businesses, working on tight budgets and coping with unpredictable events, any kind of family demand (small baby, sick spouse, ailing parent) is a nightmare. In the media industry, some times of the day and week are more important than others, but you don't always know in advance which they will be. So you'd like all your employees more or less constantly on tap: flexible hours, working from home, parental leave, and so on, are just a damn nuisance. Worst of all is maternity leave: you have to find someone else to do the absent mother's job. If she is in a senior position, you probably move up someone else from within the company. Is that someone happy to get the experience, and then willing to slip quietly back into their lowlier role when the proud mother returns? Well, sometimes.

If anything, we've slipped back in the past 30 years. In the early 1970s, it was still quite normal for women to stop work when they had children; but the obstacles to continuing with a career were slowly but surely declining, not least because men were playing a greater role in child-rearing. Everybody expected that the balance between working and non-working mothers would gradually shift. What nobody foresaw was that a whole generation of professional women would routinely delay childbearing into their very late thirties and early forties.

Why? Why is motherhood apparently now more difficult to meld with a career? First, careers have become more competitive. Second, the crucial years for getting ahead in your career are the late twenties to mid-thirties, precisely the years when professional women used to have children. Third, both these points apply as much to men as to women, which explains why men's greater willingness to help with child-rearing (honest, we were!) hasn't been a bit of help. Fourth, as education and the credentials it delivers have become more important to life chances, child-rearing itself has become more taxing. No wonder so many couples leave it until they can afford the best childcare and the best schools.

The government's solution - introduce round-the-clock nurseries and schools that allow parents to work all the hours their employers demand - isn't the best one. It should try to make work more family-friendly, rather than making the family more work-friendly. It should legislate to put employees' family lives on a par with their health and safety. Bosses like me will moan. Ignore us, just as 19th-century governments ignored bosses who moaned about the Factory Acts.