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When It Comes to Meghan Markle's Maternity Leave, There Are No Royal Rules to Break

Phil Boucher
When It Comes to Meghan Markle's Maternity Leave, There Are No Royal Rules to Break

In the year since marrying Prince Harry and officially joining the royal family, Meghan Markle has emerged as a sort of royal rebel. She’s frequently ripped up protocol to hug members of the public or to hold hands with Prince Harry. But ahead of the birth of the couple’s first child on Monday—their official Instagram page announced the royal baby is a boy—she has contended with two rather ordinary elements of pregnancy for which there are no royal rules to break: working while expecting and maternity leave.

And that is as it should be; for every woman, of royal standing or otherwise, should get to approach motherhood as she sees fit. But for a family so steeped in tradition, the lack of protocol is notable, if not a bit disorienting.

That’s not to say there is no precedent. Royal mothers before Meghan set examples of how to contend with pregnancy and new motherhood alongside the demands of their very public—and privileged—positions.

Just like Kate?

Both Meghan and sister-in-law Kate fulfilled their royal responsibilities late into their pregnancies. Meghan’s last engagement was on March 19, when she visited the New Zealand High Embassy in London with Prince Harry to pay respect to victims of the New Zealand mosque attacks.

At other times in her pregnancy, Meghan toured Australia, Fiji and New Zealand. She travelled to Morocco with Prince Harry for an audience with the king and became the patron of organizations including the National Theatre and Association of Commonwealth Universities. She also crammed in a couple of gala theatre performances, a panel discussion for International Women’s Day and numerous charity visits across the U.K. She put in a show-stopping appearance at the London Fashion Awards in December, and, earlier in the fall, launched a charity cookbook called ‘Together’ with women from the Hubb Community Kitchen to aid victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Put bluntly: This was one busy mom-to-be.

The Meghan, Duchess of Sussex with Prince Charles at the Westminster Abbey Commonwealth day service in March 2019. (Photo by Richard Pohle—WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In a way, Meghan followed Kate’s lead. The Duchess of Cambridge worked throughout her three pregnancies, undertaking more public engagements than both William or Harry in the final stages of her pregnancy with Prince Louis. But there is one major difference between the sisters-in-law: Unlike Kate, Meghan didn’t contended with the severe morning sickness of hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), for which Kate was hospitalized during early in her pregnancy with Prince George. While it generally strikes in the first few months of pregnancy, HG takes a lengthy toll on sufferers.

For this reason, Kate adopted a flexible approach to her maternity leaves, taking a single month off after giving birth to Prince George in 2013, and four months after the arrival of Princess Charlotte in 2015. She then took a five-month break after Prince Louis’s birth last year—officially to spend more time with her children and Prince William over the summer months.

Elizabeth’s example

Meghan and Kate’s approach to work and pregnancy reflects a rather radical evolution of social attitudes. Among the British upper classes, “pregnancy was just very discreet” until the 1960s, says Ingrid Seward, author of My Husband and I: The Inside Story of 70 Years of the Royal Marriage. “Basically, royal ladies were not even seen.”

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex attend a Christmas Day Church service on December 25, 2018 in King's Lynn, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

That was true for the Queen, who was hardly seen during her four pregnancies—even when she carried Charles and Anne in her pre-monarch days. This public reticence continued once she assumed the throne in June 1953 and became pregnant with Andrew and Edward. During those pregnancies, she diligently worked on the matters of state out of public view.

“Andrew was born in February 1960 and I don’t think we saw her at all over the previous Christmas,” says Seward. The Queen didn’t even deliver her trademark live Christmas broadcast that year, opting for a recording instead.

The Diana effect

The major change came—as with many things concerning the royal family—with the arrival of Princess Diana, who broke with centuries of royal tradition by giving birth to Prince William in a hospital; he was the first royal heir to be born away from home.

Following a very public photocall on the hospital steps the following day, Diana took around a month off royal duties, returning to attend a Falklands War memorial service on July 26, 1982, at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Diana continued with a lighter work schedule for much of the following year, appearing at events such as the Braemar Games in Scotland and the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff. Then, in March 1983, Diana and Charles became the first royals to take their baby with them on an official overseas visit, when William joined his parents on a six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand—with the little prince staying with his nanny on a New South Wales sheep farm, so his parents could visit him during breaks in their schedule.

With Prince Harry, Di took a slightly longer break from royal duties—about two months.

Meghan makes it her own

So, what to expect for Meghan’s post-baby maternity leave? U.K. law dictates that women can begin their maternity leave up to 11 weeks before their due date. They’re entitled to 52 weeks off—the first 26 weeks are paid at 90% of their average weekly salary before tax. As a new father, Prince Harry is eligible for two weeks paid paternity leave.

(This is a far cry from Meghan’s native United States, of course; it’s the only major industrialized nation to not offer any form of government-mandated paid maternity leave.)

Given their royal status though, it’s highly unlikely that Harry and Meghan will follow any of the U.K. rules when it comes to the newborn “Baby Sussex.” When and where Meghan goes back to work is up to the couple’s own choosing—although given her previously healthy, holistic approach to life, it could be a relatively speedy return.

“Then again,” says Seward, “you just don’t know what will happen once someone has a baby. Plus, they’ve just moved into their new house, so it must be absolute chaos!”