Babies, backpacking and blogs: Adventures on maternity leave and beyond

By Emma Midgley
BBC News

Travel Mad MumImage source, Travel Mad Mum
Image caption,
London mum Karen Edwards travelled the world with her baby during maternity leave

From backpacking around the world to writing a bestseller, more and more women are choosing to spend their maternity leave in a variety of unusual ways. BBC News speaks to the new mums who swapped sleepless nights for long-haul flights.

For every mother who travels in the months following the birth of their child, there are many more who will rub their sleep-deprived eyes in disbelief that anyone could even contemplate navigating a new country alongside nappy changes.

But there is a growing number of women enjoying the so-called "baby gap year" and who see no reason to stay at home when children arrive on the scene.

The travel blogger

Image source, Karen Edwards
Image caption,
Karen Edwards said her ambition has always been to visit as many countries as she can

Nurse Karen Edwards saw maternity leave as a golden opportunity to see the world and had no qualms about doing so with her husband and 10-week-old daughter in tow.

The family first headed for the other side of the world to live in father Shaun's native country, New Zealand, before backpacking through six countries.

By the time Esmé was 10 months old, she had taken in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and inspired her mum to set up her blog, Travel Mad Mum.

Mrs Edwards happily admits most of her friends with kids thought she was a "bit nuts" to attempt her travels. She said before flying to New Zealand she had "lots of doubts".

"I was psychologically nesting and didn't want to leave home," she said. "There were some tears but once I got on the plane I was fine."

Image source, Karen Edwards
Image caption,
Mrs Edwards spent her maternity leave travelling around Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong

It wasn't all plain sailing once they were on the road, however.

Alongside the blog's idyllic snaps of the family playing on beaches or visiting south-east Asian temples are pictures of the pair hiding from a cranky baby by curling up on the floor of their hotel room.

She wrote: "Despite all the great photos and everything, we are not trying to pull the wool over your eyes and trick you. Babies will be babies."

But her tales of long-haul tantrums and boiling up sweet potatoes in a kettle to keep a fussy eater happy have turned her into an authority on backpacking with a baby.

Her work has gone on to feature in Cosmopolitan, the New York Post, the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times.

The 31-year-old added: "I guess you could say Esmé has not had a typical first year of life. She's been around the world twice and visited 12 counties."

The 'mumtrepreneur'

Media caption,

Mumsnet founder on personal rejection

Justine Roberts swapped careers in investment banking and journalism to set up advice forum Mumsnet after a "disastrous" family holiday when her twins were a year old.

She came up with the idea for the website after the children caught a tummy bug and struggled with jetlag at a holiday resort which was "completely unsuitable".

Mumsnet now boasts 96 employees, a third of whom have the option of working flexible hours.

The 48-year-old said the success of the site, which has 9.4 million unique visitors per month, took her by surprise.

"I remember telling people for years that our offices were being refurbished," she joked, recalling the website's humble beginnings at her home in London.

"Once I was trying to do an interview with BBC Radio 5 live, holding the door shut with my three-year-old twins saying "Mummy! Mummy!" outside the door."

Image source, Mumsnet

Ms Roberts credits the "natural break" motherhood gave her as the inspiration to take a new path in life.

"I think it's a period where you are thinking about your life a bit," she said.

However, she said any would-be "mumtrepreneurs" needed to have childcare in place before embarking on their business plans.

She said she found the world of internet start-ups to be "very young and very male", and not always an easy place for a woman to navigate.

The novelist

Image source, Louise Ross
Image caption,
Louise Ross penned a bestseller when her son Ethan was six months old

Louise Ross gave up a career in law before having her first child and began writing her first murder-mystery bestseller when her son was six months old.

She said having a child helped her become a writer as it "put things in perspective".

The 31-year-old said: "I was already a creative person before, but having a child honed it.

"I might have procrastinated longer, or taken more time before finishing the book, had I not been aware that I had limited time and more responsibility outside of myself."

Ms Ross had already decided to retrain and had spent her pregnancy doing a fast-track psychology course, but put everything on hold following the birth of her son.

She said: "For the first few months, it was hard to find the time to do anything except care for him and become accustomed to the sleep deprivation.

"But I would say by the time he was five or six months old, I was taking things in my stride a lot better and he was in a very nice daytime routine which meant that I could pick up my laptop again [and write] for an hour here and there."

Once Ethan started childcare, the author completed her debut novel, Holy Island, within four months.

My story

Image source, Emma Midgley
Image caption,
Sunny days out in Boston's North End were a maternity leave highlight for Emma Midgley

I opted to spend my maternity leave abroad in the US after my husband was offered a job in Massachusetts.

When my second child was two months old, we packed our belongings into four very large suitcases and hopped across the Atlantic for a year of adventures.

I discovered my kids loved skyscrapers, travelling on the Boston T, visiting Dunkin' Donuts, and even started talking with the trademark Boston accent.

It was a year of contrasts, from guilt about leaving my toddler's favourite toys and loving grandparents behind, to excitement about visiting Boston's world-class museums and taking trips to LA and New York.

Homesickness hit hard at times, particularly in January and February when illness struck, temperatures plummeted to -20C (-4F) and 7ft (2.1m) of snow fell in one month.

Compared to my first maternity leave - an endless merry-go-round of library rhyme-times and baby swimming groups - it was a stimulating, but occasionally a lonely and exhausting time.

Life after maternity leave

Image source, Marietta Finn
Image caption,
Marietta d'Erlanger's children got to play with a cheetah when they lived in Kenya

The adventures need not stop once maternity leave ends according to mother-of-three Marietta d'Erlanger.

She swapped life in Devon and took her children aged seven, five and 18 months to Kenya, where her partner was researching a book about running.

The family lived like the residents of their adopted hometown of Iten, shopping for food at the market and befriending neighbourhood children.

Her blog, Not Running with the Kenyans, documented their life in the village - complete with encounters with pet cheetahs.

Image source, Marietta Finn
Image caption,
Marietta d'Erlanger and her children found people living in Iten friendly and welcoming

They also visited Nairobi and the coast and experienced camping out in the bush, listening to the roars of nearby lions as they slept in their tent.

But being blonde and English, Mrs d'Erlanger said they often found themselves "mobbed" wherever they went.

Two of her children tried attending a local school, but refused to go back after finding themselves the centre of attention.

A further trip to Japan saw the children take in a different culture but a recently proposed move to Colombia was vetoed by the youngsters.

"It's got harder now they are older," the 42-year-old mum said. "They didn't want to go. They don't like being the centre of attention."

'OK to be ordinary'

Image caption,
Maternity leave should be whatever makes you feel fulfilled, says psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley

Some may find tales of "power maternity" inspiring. But blogger Katie Kirby, who runs Hurrah for Gin, said it is not the typical experience for a mum with a newborn.

"Each to their own but I wouldn't say that power maternity leave was the norm," she said.

"Looking after small babies and children can be physically and emotionally exhausting. When I was on maternity leave I chalked the day down as a success if I managed to put some clothes on and pop to Tesco for some milk."

Fellow writer Emma Conway, who runs Brummy Mummy of 2, agreed.

"I think women who manage to use their maternity leave to achieve something like a career change or a fantastic adventure are amazing. But sometimes it's OK to be ordinary.

"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as mothers and I think that the last thing we need to do is worry about how we are going to spend our 'year off'."

Psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley said women should treat maternity leave however they see fit - whether that be by staying at home or going on the road.

"Maternity leave is whatever you want it to be," she said. "For somebody who wants to be a natural mother, to be all-embracing and very spiritual about it, that's fantastic.

"If they don't feel that way, and they are inspired to travel or set up an online business, that's good too.

"It is about what makes you feel fulfilled."

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