Emma Burstall: New mothers have a job already – they just don't go to the office

Rachida Dati took five days' maternity leave. That's too little for most families

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Going back to work after having a baby is terrible. Whether you love your job or not, for the first few weeks or months before you get used to the separation, you miss your baby like hell.

For a while you feel as if you can hardly hold a conversation that isn't about nappies and feeding, let alone make important decisions and chair high-powered meetings. Even if you've been able to afford an expensive nanny, you're still worried about whether she's doing her job properly. And you can't wait to race home at night to hold your baby in your arms, bury your nose in his or her soft hair and reassure yourself that everything's OK.

If you're still breastfeeding, the separation is even worse. I remember that on my way to work just spotting another mother pushing a pram would make me tearful and my breasts would start to leak. One of the saddest sights I've ever seen is that of a new mother reduced to using a breast pump in the dingy lavatory at work. She wanted to give her baby the best start by feeding him herself, but had been forced to return to the office after only three months, for financial reasons. She couldn't stop crying.

With all this in mind, I can thus feel only pity for French Justice Minister Rachida Dati, who has gone back to work just five days after having a baby – by Caesarean section, what's more. It's irrelevant how important her job is, how much she earns or how strong and in control she appears to be in photographs. I don't care what she or others may say to the contrary – behind the power suit and million-dollar smile I see only pain and heartache. I simply don't believe that in an ideal world she'd choose to do things this way. Her decision screams a lack of confidence, and fear and insecurity about her job – mixed, perhaps, with a touch of swagger, of pathetic macho posturing.

That anyone might regard her decision as "a good thing" speaks volumes about their attitude to women and the workplace, as well as about children's welfare. There's plenty of research to show that those first few months of a baby's life are hugely significant in terms of emotional security and attachment. And, ironically, employers are likely to get far more out of those who take proper maternity leave. Who can possibly imagine that a woman weeping over a breast pump in the lavatory or fretting about her baby from a distance is going to give her best to the job? And there's a real danger that returning to work too soon will give ammunition to unenlightened bosses only too keen to prove that new mothers can't hack it and should get back to the kitchen sink.

I'm not at all surprised that news of Dati's blink-and-you'll-miss-it maternity leave has given rise to so many acres of comment, as it goes to the very heart of the debate about working mothers and "having it all". Many of us may have been sidetracked by juicy gossip such as a) the fact that she's refused to name the father, and b) she's seemingly managed to shed her baby weight almost overnight, her hair is immaculately coiffed and she's even – goddamit – had a manicure.

But while the French, in particular, speculate about the child's paternity – a French millionaire and hotel and casino baron? The former prime minister of another country? – and others marvel at her svelte figure and perfect make-up, the real issue here is that while she may have a turbo-charged career, she's also human. As all mothers know, her hormones will be raging, her scars won't have healed properly and she'll be pining for her newborn – look at Ulrika Jonsson's tears on Big Brother, and her baby Malcolm is seven months old, not just a few days. None of the above makes Dati a bad minister or a weak person, just a woman who's recently given birth and needs time to adjust, recover and care for her child.

Maternity leave of at least six months is much better for mothers and babies, and I know what I'm talking about. I could only take four months off after my daughter, Georgia, now 22, was born, because in those days you had to have been employed at the local newspaper where I worked for two years before you were eligible for maternity leave. Unfortunately, I fell just short of that. Luckily, my boss allowed me to take some unpaid leave. My husband and I were earning a pittance, but we managed to scrape by with me doing a bit of freelance journalism on the side. Leaving even a four-month-old was a terrible wrench and I swore I'd never do it again unless I had to.

By the time my second child, Harry, now 16, was born, I'd given up my job and gone freelance. As I wasn't eligible for maternity pay, I had to go back to work when he was 12 weeks old, but at least for only three days a week. I came to realise that even this, though, was too much too soon. I remember feeling permanently exhausted because I hadn't fully recovered from the birth and Harry wasn't sleeping through the night. A difficult baby in his first year, I'm sure he picked up on my stress.

Third time around, however, was completely different. When I had Freddie, now six – yes, I have had a baby in my twenties, thirties and forties – I was working for an organisation renowned for its excellent maternity benefits and I took the full eight months off that was then allowed – three of them unpaid. By the time I went back to work, Freddie was seven months old, content and sleeping well. By now I was ready to give up breastfeeding and felt excited about returning to my job. A year's maternity leave would have been even better – employees now have the right to 26 weeks of "ordinary" maternity leave" and 26 weeks "additional" maternity leave – but eight months was good enough.

I'm all for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's idea that dads should be allowed a year's paternity leave, too, if the mother returns to work after seven months. Dads need time to bond with their youngsters as well, and it would make childcare easier. Women have fought long and hard for the right to work and a few of us, I'll concede, may find our paid jobs more fulfilling than looking after a newborn at home. Of course such women shouldn't be made to take months off if they don't want to. The last thing they need is to be dictated to.

Maybe Dati really is desperate to leave her baby and get back to her desk. It's a shame, though, given her high-profile position, that she's signalling to employers that this is what job commitment really looks like. Her decision suggests fame, wealth and a high-powered career are more important than spending those early months with a newborn. She may also send out the wrong message to other women about maternity rights and discourage them from taking their full entitlement.

She isn't alone, of course. Sarah Palin famously took three days' maternity leave after the birth of her son Trig, and Karren Brady, managing director of Birmingham City Football club, took off less than a week after giving birth to her first child. Meanwhile, BBC TV newsreader and presenter Fiona Bruce was back on the telly 16 days after giving birth to her baby, Mia. Interestingly, though, City superwoman and mother of six Nicola Horlick took six months' maternity leave. It hasn't done her any harm.

Dati, the second of 12 children born to a Moroccan labourer and Algerian mother, has made it clear that she has no wish to be a role model for single mothers. She has said: "I left school at 16, my family was not privileged and I struggled for many years. My life is not a beautiful story." In the end, her decision to take just five days off is more of a personal than a public tragedy. At 43, she may never have another child. She'll have missed out on so much – and she may still lose her job in the next reshuffle.

Emma Burstall's novel 'Gym and Slimline' is published by Preface at £6.99

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