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Maternity Leave | A Basic Part of Human Evolution

Maternity leave is a pretty normal feature of 21st century life across the developed world. Most developed countries have maternity leave provision (actually all OECD countries with the exception of the US). Some countries have better provisions than others, with Estonia ranking number one, offering mothers 85 weeks maternity leave at full pay. The UK offers mothers the equivalent of 12 weeks leave at full pay by comparison, ranking 34th according to a 2019 Unicef report.

It hasn’t always been this way, maternity leave was first introduced in the UK in 1975, although only half of women met the strict eligibility criteria. In the 1980s it was fairly usual for women to give up work without compensation when they became pregnant and in the 1880s most women didn’t work at all outside the home.

So maternity leave is the great modern invention of the 20th century, right? Not really, hunter-gatherer societies did and still do the same thing, but with fewer forms to fill in and no eligibility criteria. It’s not maternity leave as such, that seems too formal, it just sort of happens because sharing is a central feature of hunter-gatherer life and so is parenting – humans evolved this way. It’s simply part of life.

“Sharing is a crucial adaptation to hunter-gatherers’ lifestyles, central to their resilience – and central to the evolution of mankind.”

In hunter-gatherer societies, women and men hunt and/or gather food which is shared among the members of the camp. It’s this sharing culture that allows for high-demand child rearing. According to anthropologist Dr Andrea Migliano of UCL “Sharing is a crucial adaptation to hunter-gatherers’ lifestyles, central to their resilience – and central to the evolution of mankind.”

Essentially, humans evolved to share and cooperate and this was a necessary component for survival. The prolonged dependence of children is a distinctly human characteristic – that’s right guys, human children are born more dependant and remain dependant for longer than any other species. A fact that remains obvious to any parent of young children who has tried to sit down for more than three minutes in a row.

Image by Aino Tuominen from Pixabay

Anthropologists reason that humans evolved to be cooperative beyond the immediate family due to the high reproductive burden human children place on their parents. Having and raising human children requires help from the community. Anyone who has had children, knows someone with children or has ever met a child, knows just how unbelievably demanding they are – their care requirement is huge. If humans hadn’t evolved to share food and help each other out, they’d have died out.

Food sharing is one of the core features of hunter-gatherer societies, it’s fundamental.

Hunter-gatherer communities recognise the cooperative nature of human existence and organise society around it. If a member of a hunter-gatherer community secured food and kept it to themselves it would be frowned upon presumably, not the done thing. In fact, it’s not the done thing to such an extent that they don’t do it. Food sharing is one of the core features of hunter-gatherer societies, it’s fundamental.

Maternity and paternity pay is the more complicated equivalent of food sharing among hunter-gatherers.

Maternity leave is the modern day version of hunter-gatherer food sharing, except with more forms, more restrictions, and penalties to pay later. Whilst a parent is looking after a young child they are unable very often or certainly less able to gather resources, or earn money with which to pop to Tesco. Providing statutory maternity and paternity pay is the more complicated equivalent of food sharing among hunter-gatherers. For that matter, pensions are the same thing, a variant on food sharing practises that have been a key part of human evolution.

So then maternity and paternity leave is a natural and necessary part of being human, it shouldn’t be a special privilege or a difficult financial choice, or something that causes ongoing financial detriment or reduces future career prospects. It’s just a normal part of our society a normal part of raising children and a human requirement.

When women take maternity leave they usually face a financial hit, mothers in the UK are entitled to the equivalent of 12 weeks full pay and fathers 0.4 weeks. Mothers take an average of 39 weeks of maternity leave in the UK, which means the equivalent of 27 weeks on zero pay.

Joeli Brearley founder of Pregnant then Screwed, recently appeared on Woman’s Hour to discuss the way the government have penalised self-employed women who took maternity leave during the three years prior to the pandemic in calculating Covid-19 financial support. These women are effectively taking a double hit, the first during maternity leave itself and the second now, due to the governments failure to exempt periods of maternity leave in their Covid-19 financial support payments. It’s a pretty basic thing to account for maternity leave, given that it is such a normal feature of 21st century life.

When women take maternity leave in the UK they also face negative or discriminatory treatment. According to a 2015 Equality and Human Rights Commission report, 77% of women received negative or discriminatory treatment during pregnancy, maternity leave or when returning to work. In worse news, women returning to work after having a child were more likely to face discrimination than they were in 2005. So we’re going in the wrong direction as well.

All of a sudden maternity leave doesn’t feel so much like some modern masterpiece in thought and policy but rather some badly hashed scheme put together to patch up the cracks resulting from a centuries-long mission to over-ride the core principal of humanity, the most fundamental aspect of being human – cooperation. We need to demand more from our government in how they treat women who have taken maternity leave, more from our employers in how they respond to women taking leave and returning to work and more from each other. It’s the essence of being human after all.

Pregnant Then Screwed is the leading charity working to end the motherhood penalty. Go to their website to get advice, support their campaigns and buy Joeli Brearley’s new book *Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty and How to Fix It.


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