A working mother’s hardest goodbye

Maternity leave ends while a mother is still healing and the baby needs her

In Summary

• Three months with a newborn not enough, say mums. Medics, WHO recommend six

• Employers fear extra liability if leave is extended and warn it could cost women jobs

Mothers experience a lot of physical, emotional and psychological changes after childbirth, explains nurse Jolly Mukangu. https://bit.ly/2PpixJF

As the clock counts down to the day she must return to work, a new mother in Ngong is anxious about the looming separation from her baby girl.

Valentine Bosibori* (not her real name) looks at the chubby-faced, silky-haired infant, eyes agape and soft lips suckling.

“I feel unprepared to leave her,” the mother of four says. “She still seems so delicate.”

Mothers in Kenya are entitled to three months of maternity leave, while fathers get two weeks of paternity leave. Employers are obliged to pay their salaries in full during this absence.

Bosibori has exhausted her break, but her mind, body and spirit are not ready for a return to her civil service job in Embakasi.

Her baby has also not yet adapted to bottle feeding. She needs more time to train her.

So Bosibori has taken her annual leave to get an extra month home.

She feels privileged compared to women who return to work even a week after giving birth due to financial hardship. Many women in small businesses don’t get any maternity leave and if they do, it’s mostly unpaid.

Bosibori’s days home are dwindling, however. She is preparing herself and her baby for their eventual separation.

“I am literally forcing myself to detach from the baby so she can learn to stay that way until I'm back from work and get used to the caregiver.”

As she contends with the impending delegation of responsibility, Bosibori is worried about the rising cases of child abuse by house helps.

“I have to go to work hoping and praying she can love, care and look after my children with true concern.”

Most house helps are not trained in childcare. They get hired through word-of-mouth recommendations and include dropouts and single mums from informal settlements.

Some helps are efficient, but many give their employers grief. If not fired for misconduct or incompetence, they may abscond duty, leading to a cycle of recruitment.

Hush, baby! I’ll be back
Hush, baby! I’ll be back
Image: OZONE


Janet Chao*, a second-time mother, delivered both her girls through Caesarean section. The first surgery was due to an emergency. The second one suited Chao as a petite woman.

Her new baby is now eight months old and came several years after the first one. She was born after Chao quit her NGO job and moved from Mombasa to live with her partner in Nairobi.

Three months after delivering the second-born, Chao could move around, go shopping and do some personal errands, but she was “not back to factory settings” yet. “Maybe with normal delivery, but with a CS, far from it,” she says.

Chao is glad she left her job when she moved to Nairobi. “I don’t know how it would have been if I had transferred then after three months, I’m going back to work,” she says, dreading the traffic in the city. “In the morning, you leave home at 5.30am. When you come back, it’s 9pm.”

Lack of sleep due to the baby’s cries at night, the painstaking search for a reliable house help and the stress of expressing milk for the baby before leaving for work or at work because her breasts are too full, would all compound the situation.

“Then you tell me to go scrambling with people to get on a matatu on the way to work at that point? I would not have been able. My belly hurt when the baby would kick, what about getting hit when I’m boarding a matatu?”

Moreover, Chao is averse to leaving her house help with a three-month-old baby. “You only see the baby at night and over the weekend? Eish! No. I’m happy taking care of her myself. Whatever milestones she’s achieving, I can see them. I know what she likes and doesn’t like, I know her health, her diet and everything.”

Reproductive Health Services programmes manager nurse Jolly Mukangu
Reproductive Health Services programmes manager nurse Jolly Mukangu
Three months is usually very short. It sounds long, but it’s very short when you are in that situation
Nurse Jolly Mukangu


Reproductive Health Services programmes manager Jolly Mukangu looks at the motherhood journey both as a professional and as a mother.

“Three months is usually very short,” says the Nairobi-based nurse. “It sounds long, but it is very short when you are in that situation.”

Mukangu says mothers experience a lot of physical, emotional and psychological changes after childbirth.

Delivery itself takes a toll. Whether one has a C-section or normal vaginal birth, three months is not enough time to heal, she says.

Hormonal changes lead to mood swings. Some mothers suffer postpartum depression. They wallow in sadness and may become suicidal or want to kill the baby.

Cracked nipples is another common problem. Mukangu blames it on improper positioning of the baby during breastfeeding. It makes suckling painful and requires a medical ointment to cure.

The three-month leave is also supposed to cater for nursing the baby. At the end of it, the baby is still really small and mothers are reluctant to leave it with a house help.

“You don’t know if they are going to give the baby the right formula, if they will use the right equipment or clean it nicely.” Babies who don’t normally get sick start having problems with digestion, she says.

Longer maternity leave would help solve these problems. “Six months is best,” Mukangu says, echoing what the World Health Organisation recommends.

This is enough time for the mother to fully recover. With exclusive breastfeeding, the baby will also have toughened up at that age.

“Even if the house girl or caregiver gives them something which is not recommended, they can handle it because they have enough immunity.”

FKE executive director Jacqueline Mugo addresses the press at Waajiri House, Nairobi, on July 29, 2020
FKE executive director Jacqueline Mugo addresses the press at Waajiri House, Nairobi, on July 29, 2020
Employers have never opposed prolonged maternity leave. Their concern is how the prolonged leave is to be funded
FKE executive director Jacqueline Mugo


Jacqueline Mugo, executive director of the Federation of Kenya Employers, says employers need to be furnished with evidence-based data on the inadequacy of the prevailing maternity leave.

Three months is the minimum required by the International Labour Organisation. Mugo says lengthening it could lead to bias against women in hiring.

Sectors dominated by women would suffer. She cites export-processing zones, where women make up 95 per cent of the workforce in garment processing.

“Replacing some talents while a substantial number of women are on maternity leave compromises production and quality.”

Similar concerns were raised in 2017, when then Buuri MP Boniface Gatobu tried unsuccessfully to increase maternity leave to six months for better mother and child health.

These reservations, however, do not amount to a rejection of the idea. “Employers have never opposed prolonged maternity leave. Their concern is how the prolonged leave is to be funded,” Mugo says.

Until 2007, Kenya used to provide for two months of maternity leave and no paternity leave. This was increased to three months for mothers, while fathers were given two weeks.

While social partners were reviewing the Employment Act at the time, there was an understanding that the government, through the National Social Security Fund, would fund the third month of maternity leave, while the employer paid for two months.

The government is yet to honour its end of the bargain, however, leaving employers to shoulder the burden. The maternity and paternity leaves raised the cost of doing business by 15 per cent.

Mugo says a further extension should not be billed on employers. “The government should take responsibility by introducing a fund to take care of the extra maternity leave above the current three months.”

Meanwhile, she calls for breastfeeding rooms in workplaces, flexible working hours after maternity leave and non-discrimination against female employees proceeding on maternity leave.

Kenyan mothers have half the maternity leave recommended by WHO, but how do they compare with other countries? https://bit.ly/2PpixJF


Working mothers got an unexpected reprieve last year when the Covid-19 pandemic led to a work-from-home trend. However, most companies have since recalled their staff to the office.

Daycare centres have proliferated to bridge the gap in childcare. They charge between Sh300 and Sh1,000 a day on average. In comparison, most house helps are paid Sh6,000 a month on average, less than half the minimum wage of Sh13,000.

While house helps only babysit infants and toddlers, daycares offer age-appropriate child development courses.

“We focus on building the foundation before they start schooling,” says Peter Muraya, managing director of Victoria Kids Care in Garden Estate, Thome. In operation since 2014, it is listed by AfroMum among 10 ideal daycares in Nairobi.

Its colourful classes and playground have a capacity of 100. Children learn how to behave and communicate, giving them an edge over babies who stay at home.

“My girl is doing so well, with great improvements in language, socialisation and confidence,” writes Mama Daphine in a testimonial on their website.

The teachers are trained in first aid, and the daycare is close to three hospitals in case of a medical emergency.

Mothers get daily reports on their children’s feeding and activities through an app. Security is also assured, Muraya says.

“Many mothers have trust issues with house helps: ‘Is my child well taken care of? What happens when I’m at work?’ We have CCTVs, so we give them peace of mind that their child is safe.”

Tom Jalio is the features editor of the Star and a part-time writer with awards in poetry and journalism. He is currently studying #ProductImmersion courtesy of the Google News Initiative

Special thanks to the Kenya Private Sector Alliance for help in researching this article

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