IAS officer on COVID-19 duty, Saumya Pandey‘s picture with her infant daughter went viral a few days ago. It went viral because the officer had rejoined her office along with the baby in tow after just 14 days of giving birth. Her return to work without taking maternity leave was hailed as a commendable dedication to duty. While it may be dedication on her part and I salute it, yet I beg to differ, here’s why.

Working women have worked very hard to get this right to maternity leave. Should we be idolising women who give it up? Who share images of them in offices with babies a few days old? While returning to work after pregnancy is a personal choice, are we putting other women under undue pressure? Are we trivialising the hard-fought maternity leave Indian women have finally got?

Setting a wrong example for other women

If an IAS officer doesn’t think Maternity Benefit Act, 1961- which states 26 weeks maternity leave important or that it can be flouted then where does that leave other working women who really need it?

She is an IAS officer, a post in our country that comes many benefits. Getting a bevy of supporting staff, a dedicated vehicle, a private office among many others, contrast this with regular working women who have to commute by public transport, have to depend on their family members to look after their baby while she is away at work and sharing office space with colleagues.

What if tomorrow a woman asks for maternity leave and someone tells her if an IAS officer can do without maternity leave then you can too?

Let’s not forget that maternity leave benefit has been won after a lot of fight, yet it benefits a minuscule of working women. A study states that 70 percent of Indian women do not work at all ( in terms of salaried work). Of those who work, 84 percent work in the unorganised sector or for companies with fewer than 10 employees (the maternity leave law is applicable only to those who work in a company with at least 10 employees). Even among the 16 percent who do work in the organised sector, a large portion of the work is informal, where the maternity law does not apply.

A woman’s body may need that rest

Please let us accept the fact that a woman’s body is physiologically different from a man’s body because it has one big different role to play. Nurturing a baby inside our bodies and then delivering them is one such role. Postpartum rest cannot be emphasised enough for a new mother. A woman’s body is under a lot of stress after carrying a baby for nine months and hormonal changes the body undergoes is tremendous. It is going to take time for the body to come back to normal.

When postpartum women return to “normal” too quickly they might risk a host of complications like heavy bleeding; breast infections and even postpartum depression. Accepted that this officer might not be suffering from any of this, then how about the importance of bonding time with the baby? Doesn’t every mother deserve spending quality time with her infant in the initial days after the delivery?

Also Read: Women Hold Families Together: We Need To Value And Respect Them

And then there is the case of the sleep pattern of an infant, the first thing a new mother is told is to sleep when the baby sleeps to catch up on the sleep she misses out while changing nappies for the umpteenth time or even remaining awake all night because her baby decides to remain awake.

How about bonding with your baby first, setting a comfortable routine for both the mother and the baby and then joining back office?

Endangering the infant

Everybody knows newborn babies are prone to infections. And this IAS officer is a COVID-19 nodal officer, so she must be in the thick of things, handling the pandemic. Being in the frontline, her own health must be a concern for everybody, isn’t she putting her newborn in the frontline as well? As of now we do not know for sure how this virus in contacted, how can she be sure of the hygienic condition of her office. Isn’t it a risk to the baby’s health?

The virus doesn’t know she is an IAS officer, it doesn’t know class or strata. She being an IAS officer doesn’t mean she is infallible, and nor is her infant infallible or immune to the virus.

What women should do instead?

Please avail that maternity leave, take care of your health, your baby’s health, spend some quality time with your baby because once you join back office there is no looking back, don’t show yourself as a workaholic, your body needs your care so does your baby. Some offices and sectors still do not give maternity leave to new mothers, women need to be vocal and fight for this benefit. Working women should also demand crèches so that they are at peace being close to their infants, even at their workplace. I also want to say it’s time to put a full stop to the ‘superwoman’ tag that is thrown at us. We are very much human, we need time for our body to heal.

The views expressed are the author’s own. 

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