The Entrepreneur collective of mums Mothers Meeting quoted in The Daily Telegraph.
It was at a church coffee morning, while nursing her three-month-old son Artie, that Helena Curran saw for the first time how the mummy network operates.
An accountant also on maternity leave had discovered that Helena worked as an editor at a major publishing house, and saw her chance to pitch a children’s book.
“She was much more interested in me when she found out where I worked,” Helena, 31, remembers. “I said I didn’t do children’s publishing, but she wasn’t bothered. She said I could pass her notes on to my colleagues. She was clearly thinking about a different career, and was rooting to find a publisher and make her millions.”
Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given the threat to her future earnings. On average, mothers returning to work after having children earn nearly £10,000 a year less than before, according to a survey out this week from the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT).
That frustrated accountant is not the only new mother looking to use her time out of the rat race to improve her lot.
Women today are spending maternity leave in a very different way to 10 years ago. As well as looking after their babies, thousands are exploiting their new-mother social circle and time out of the office to make contacts, switch careers and set up businesses.
In fact, an entire cottage industry has sprung up, with networking sites such as Mumpreneur UK, Business Plus Baby and Mum’s The Boss jostling to capture this market. And while dedicated support groups are flourishing, women say that business opportunities are just as likely to arise at antenatal classes and social gatherings.
“You talk about your stitches down below, then your contacts,” says Jenny Scott, founder of the Mothers Meeting network, which runs events and workshops for creative types at various stages of motherhood.
Having worked as a graphic designer before her baby, Sonny, was born in October 2010, Jenny, 30, set up Mothers Meeting because she found herself hankering for a creative outlet while on leave. It has proved so popular that she now brokers high-profile branding partnerships, counting Nike among her clients.
Increasingly, many women feel they have to use maternity leave productively because they aren’t content with their options in the traditional working world. While the average woman’s salary is £9,419 lower after giving birth, some are taking jobs that pay as much as £20,000 less, according to the AAT survey. Unsurprisingly, the demands of family life appear to drive that shift.
But if you are lucky, there’s a better way to combine work and motherhood.
Arabella Gunn, 35, found herself with a “knot in my stomach all day” back at work in the pharmaceuticals industry following the birth of her first son.
During her second maternity leave, she made a point of talking to all the people she knew who were self-employed and doing different things. “I had this feeling that there are lots of women out there who have managed to find that magical balance of flexible working.”
After some assiduous networking and attending local Mumpreneur meetings, she ended up working as a consultant to a dance-class franchise, Diddi Dance, and has since moved into other consulting work as well. “That more traditional, nine-to-five, office-based set-up is a very old-fashioned way of working,” she says.
The digital age makes it easier to exploit the opportunities, agrees James Murphy of trend forecasters Future Foundation. “People can do things at different times,” he says. “They don’t physically need to be in the office.”
And motherhood can be a great unifier, says Corinne Mills, who started her career coaching business, Personal Career Management, in her sitting room after she spent her maternity leave rethinking her job in the charity sector.
“You’ve got a whole new network and people you can bounce ideas off,” she says. “And there’s something very levelling about you all having baby drool on your shoulder. I remember talking to some really helpful, impressive women, whom I might never have spoken to if I came across them professionally. There is nothing more bonding than talking over a cup of tea about your sleepless nights.”
Claire Young, a former finalist of BBC One’s The Apprentice who now runs a motivational speakers’ business, had what she calls a month of “quiet time” after daughter Eva was born in June.
An entrepreneur and single mother, she didn’t have the option to stop working even if she’d wanted to.
“Your business is a like a baby,” says Claire, 33. “No entrepreneur would walk away and leave it for a year. We powerwalk around the park and our conversation jumps all over the place.
“At baby group, you could be talking about anti-reflux milk one moment, and recommending an accountant or talking about balance sheets the next. I’m seeing a lot of women swapping advice and ideas.”
In this age of austerity, more and more women look poised to take up this model of motherhood. As Liza Mundy writes in the US bestseller The Richer Sex, we are likely to see more couples recognising that the woman is set to be the higher earner and planning accordingly.
And if this version of motherhood sounds fearfully exhausting, well, it is. A yummy mummy gap year, it certainly isn’t.