Reading manager defends support of Emma Mukandi after maternity leave criticism

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Reading manager Kelly Chambers has defended the club’s support of captain Emma Mukandi during her pregnancy and maternity leave, but said the WSL’s work on this front is still in its “infancy”.

On Wednesday Scotland international Mukandi (née Mitchell) detailed various challenges she had faced as a new mother at the club, including breast pumping in a cupboard and being unable to bring her daughter on-site due to “club policy”.

Speaking on Off the Ball’s COYGIG Podcast, Mukandi also said she felt she had to “fake an injury” in the early stages of her pregnancy in 2021, as she was unsure whether the news would be welcomed by the club.

Mukandi gave birth in November 2021, before the FA’s new mandatory minimum maternity cover was introduced for players in the top two women’s football divisions. Reading still decided to honour the 14-week full-pay maternity leave outlined by the FA for Mukandi, and paid her for eight months until she returned to pre-season training last summer.

“She hasn’t done anything wrong,” Chambers said of Mukandi’s comments. “But I’ll also sit here and say I think we supported Emma in the best way that we could.

“When it came to the 14th week, Emma wasn’t ready to return to football – physically, mentally, not ready to let [daughter] Innes go to childminders, she was just a new mum that’s not ready to do that. So we supported her. 

“She should have been returning [last] January or February, but she actually didn’t return until pre-season this season. We supported her and honoured a maternity package for the whole of those eight-and-a-half months. From that side of things it’s hard to sit here and take that criticism when I believe we’ve really supported Emma in those moments.”

Chambers, who is a mother herself, conceded though that women’s football in England is still behind when it comes to maternity support and that Reading was not completely prepared to handle a player pregnancy when Mukandi shared her news.

“When Emma fell pregnant it was a bit of a shock to the whole club in terms of how do we manage this – we’re the first club to go through this,” Chambers said. “We pretty much did everything we felt that was best for Emma… They were the conversations that happened with Emma every day. I think everything we do is a learning curve, and what might we do better.

“The women’s game is in its infancy [for] maternity, it really is. You can look at the US, and they’re great in terms of what they offer, and what they do for female players in that. But we are very, very new. As much as we want it to go forward as quickly as possible, a bit like growing the league, it’s going to take time.”

US national team players receive maternity leave and paid nanny care, including travel and childcare cost stipends, at national team camps and on road trips.