MUSCAT // New mothers often say having a baby is like a full-time job.
Just ask Fatma al Khadhouri, 27, a mother of a two-month-old girl. But being a mother is not Mrs al Khadhouri's only job - she works full-time as a customer service consultant for a retail company in Oman's capital, Muscat - and the stresses of work and motherhood are beginning to take their toll.
After staying awake all night with her newborn, Mrs al Khadhouri had three near misses in a week while driving to work and she fears the fourth could be fatal.
"I wake up countless times every night feeding, changing or checking on the baby. I also have to wake up at six in the morning to prepare to go to work. It is getting me down. The government must pass a law to grant a longer maternal leave to working mothers," she said.
Mrs al Khadhouri is one of many working women who want the government and the private sector to extend maternity leave.
In Oman, paid maternity leave is six and half weeks long, compared to the 15 weeks given in Canada, 17 weeks in Singapore and six months in Denmark. Sweden is the world leader in maternity leave with 480 days, according to the UN statistics.
Saudi Arabia leads the GCC with 10 weeks of maternity leave while Qatar calls for 50 days and the UAE and Bahrain each mandates at least a 45-day leave is given to new mothers.
Shaima al Lawati, a mother of two who works with a bank, said maternity leave in Oman should be increased to at least 12 weeks with the new mother allowed to work from home.
"We should get the normal six-week leave and the extra six weeks a mother can work from home. This way, both the mother and her employers can get the benefit," Mrs al Lawati, 26, said.
"I suggest that women must lobby through their Shura members to get a longer maternity leave legislated," said a civil service official, who did not want to be named.
In order for the law to be changed, the Majlis Council must recommend it to the government. All 82 elected members of the council are men.
Most employers say longer maternity leave is not practical in Oman's small economy.
"Most of the companies could not afford to give that much leave, especially in the medical, teaching and financial sectors," Abdulraheem al Saadi, the human resources manager for Al Zajil Oil and Gas Maintenance company, said.
Out of 1.25 million people employed in the country, more than 35 per cent are women and the gap in numbers is narrowing every year, according to statistics from the civil service and manpower ministries.
There are no statistics, however, for working mothers with infants but job analysts said they could be as high as 25 per cent of the total workforce - or more than 300,000 women eligible for maternity leave. "It is certainly a formidable voice and all of them would want longer maternity leave, including myself," said Nashwa al Raisi, an employment researcher at Sultan Qaboos University.
Mrs al Raisi is a mother of three, including a three-month- old boy. Mrs al Raisi wants to see a six months' paid leave and an additional six months of unpaid absence as a way to keep costs down for employers.
Paediatricians said the bond that developed between a mother and he baby soon after birth is crucial to the child's well-being.
"We should not look at this only on professional terms. Research shows mothers who are always there with their babies in the first one year are closer to them than those who are not," said Cynthia Fernandes, a paediatrician at the Al Maabela Health Centre in Muscat.
Dr Fernandes cited a US study that suggests a woman's employment in the first year after she gives birth is detrimental to the child's cognitive development and can lead to behavioural problems.