Over the last couple of weeks, maternity leave has been on my mind and in the papers: with the drop of the MA1 form to complete onto my doorstep to headlines raging about influencer Molly Mae returning to her role 3 months after the birth of her daughter, and a renewed call by a well-known podcaster and campaigner for maternity leave allowance to be extended. I’m at the point now where I need to fill out the official request for my own supported time post-birth with my new baby… and it’s not turned out the way I’d ever have planned.
This blog is reflective of my own experience so far with my second pregnancy and not anyone else’s. Maternity Allowance in the UK is currently calculated on a case-by-case basis, running through your previous earnings and filed accounts – but with a million different variables in people’s lives, everyone’s situation is likely to work out differently. I can’t give advice on this (clearly, as I’ve not managed my own brilliantly) but would recommend planning ahead and seeking professional guidance on this if you’re likely to be in a similar situation… but I know shit doesn’t always go to plan!
I’m self-employed, and so not entitled to standard maternity pay (usually 90% of your weekly pay for approx. 6 months but sometimes 9). Instead, I can apply for Maternity Allowance, which is set (under a whole lot of qualifying criteria) at the rate those in typical employment get after 26 or 39 weeks of leave, depending on their employer. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be looking a gift horse in the mouth and I will take whatever I can get; I am well aware that this position is still hugely favourable compared to many elsewhere in the world, as my friends living in the US would surely attest. Yet here in the UK maternity leave is perceived as a right, to the point where mothers are routinely shamed for taking anything less than 9 months off their career to devote to their child (despite the double standard existing of them still needing to achieve sky-high career goals and be a superhuman in the office and the nursery) – and in many areas, the facilitation of professional childcare for kids any younger than this is effectively null. Rallying calls exist on social media for all-important post-partum self-care, spinning with ‘happy mum, happy baby’ rhetoric and a cry to enjoy the ‘bubble’ in which you’re able to exist under a majority of your salary without the pressing need of the 9-5. And don’t get me wrong, the prospect of a long maternity or paternity leave is lovely. It’s the hugely nourishing period that every child and parent deserves.
Only, this doesn’t exist for the self-employed. To add to its lack of sheer existence anyway, we’re now in a cost-of-living crisis. And so no matter how I calculate it, I’m likely to be able to take 6 weeks off work; maybe 8 at a real push. And with everything I’m reading about the mental and physical health benefits of extended maternity leave, the guilt I feel at not being able to devote longer to my incoming child and the hyperbole I’m seeing online about positive healing, honestly, it feels shit.
This isn’t to say that fiscal responsibility for my extending family isn’t something I’d considered and attempted ahead of actually getting pregnant. But within weeks of doing so, our landlady put our rent up by £250 a month. Our energy tariffs skyrocketed (even with minimal heating on through the winter), council tax fees rose and just about every other bill we’re liable for as independent adults went up. We had a leak that resulted in 7 months (and counting) of no functioning kitchen and resulted in heavy-duty drying equipment being installed – which I had to foot the electricity costs for and still haven’t received back from insurers. My biggest freelance client was hacked and so couldn’t pay any of my invoices on-time. The insurance company I use for my protection professionally went bust. All the money I’d set aside and planned to accumulate was now covering other bases. You know, life. Shit doesn’t often work out the way you meticulously plan.
Now, having filled out some 20+ pages of forms and patiently waiting for my local midwife team to supply written confirmation of my impending due date, I’m about to apply for the maternity allowance to which I’m entitled (because I’ve worked sufficient hours and paid my taxes and NI for the last few years like a good girl). For me, this will equate to around £650 a month. That figure would, previously, have covered a month’s rent if nothing else – but now it won’t cover even that, let alone a single bill or meal or nappy purchase on top of it. With some hasty saving and careful planning this means I’m realistically able to take about 6 weeks off before the financial need for us to keep a roof over our heads really kicks in… and as a freelancer, that’s only providing I don’t lose any clients and my earning power is able to immediately return to the position I leave it in. I’d fucking love to take maternity leave. But I have no choice but to return to work.
Do I sound bitter? Well, to say I feel begrudging of those able to take months on end of maternity leave to spend every waking minute wrapped up in the sickly-sweet-scent of baby sick wouldn’t be inaccurate. I kinda do. Fate hasn’t quite worked out the way I’d hoped and so the assumptions I’d blindly made about getting a few months of critical bonding time aren’t realistic anymore. For this pregnancy, I’m surrounded by friends who are also expecting – and so I’ll see them, up close and personal, having their babies and spending extended periods of time enjoying their new family lives for months either side of my short break to have the same life experience. It’ll definitely feel tough and I’ll definitely struggle not to compare our circumstances because, duh, I’m human (and a hormonal one at that).
I completely understand that the first few months of parenthood are achingly difficult mentally and physically and feel like more of a full-time job than the one you’re actually paid to do: I’ve been there. What I would like though, is perhaps some understanding that such nurturing periods just aren’t a reality for lots of families. While I’m not forced (or able) to hand over my baby to a professional nanny or willing grandparent to head back to overseas photoshoots in order to cover the payments on my supercar in the ilk of big-name influencers, I’m not ditching my kid to be a ruthless career woman or to follow my life dreams either. Not all self-employed people are upper class, or even middle: despite the popular misconception that we’re all either Love Island wannabes swanning around the United Arab Emirates on press trips or tradespeople with vats hidden stores of wealth from cash-in-hand work. I’m going back to work so that the child I spawn (and the one I already have) can live in a bricks-and-mortar home with the lights on, a freezer semi-stocked with chicken nuggets and a few second-hand books and games for them to enjoy while they’re here.
Do I feel guilty that my baby will have less time with their mum compared to their older sibling? Absolutely. Do I understand the developmental benefits of a newborn getting bonding time with their parents, distraction-free? Of course. Do I realise the risk to mine and my partner’s mental health as we both suddenly juggle full-time work and two kids requiring full-time attention? Duh. But I’m able to do fuck all about it. Shit is expensive right now and it’s not going to get any cheaper. What I can control is the love I show my children, the relationship I nurture with my partner and the example I set for those I’m raising. And at all of that? I might feel guilty at what I achieve, but I’ll be doing my damn best. It’s all I can.