I was hoping to be able to talk about maternity leave guilt on local radio recently but the irony was that I had to work. I had a client meeting I couldn’t miss to duck off to furtively call a live natter about one of my favourite subjects (being a working mum). It got me thinking about how I feel about my own maternity leave choices second time round. I am currently 25 weeks pregnant at a job I only started a couple of months ago and it’s means a lot to me to try and do the best job that I can right now. It’s been an interesting experience to come into a new role (and look MASSIVE) where everybody knows straight away that I’ll be gone again in a few months. I have set myself some very clear goals about what I want to achieve professionally before I go on maternity leave so that i can feel I’ve done a good job in my first months and have a plan for how long I’ll be gone and when I’ll be back (all financially motivated this time around) so that it doesn’t impact my career (or bottom line).
During this planning process I started to note a pattern in the type of comments that I was getting from friends, family and acquaintances about how much maternity leave I plan to take and assuming that I’ll take a year of maternity leave even after having started a new job. I struggle to know many mothers who have been able to take that full year if they were already in work. Paid maternity leave varies from employer to employer yet would not last longer than 4-6 months and the mandatory Statutory Maternity Leave only lasts 39 weeks (and is around £500 per month) so in essence if you can afford to take the cut in income, you can take the “year off”. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that we get this in the UK is amazing when compared to how much paid leave those in the US receive (clue: 0) but it’s not an easy ride.
Ah – the old days…
In the old days, as a working mum, you could rely on a few government handouts, a lower cost of living and your partner’s salary to help you muddle through for that first year and then slowly decide to go back to work on a part time basis (if available) or leave your job and make do for a while, finding part time work to supplement your income. It’s worked well for a vast majority of women but it also meant that we lost a lot of great minds and skilled professionals from the workplace. Then when they decide to go back to the workforce, they struggle to find a job at the same level they were at before or a job that can allow for the nursery pick-ups or schools runs.
Many mothers, myself included, have had to change almost everything about my life in order to plan for children but still keep a career (to pay the bills!). I am the breadwinner of our house and I also have career that I love and have spent many years working hard to work my way up in. First time round, I had to go back to work sooner than I wanted as we were struggling towards the end of that time to cope with the reduction in wages. This time around, despite planning a bit more, the same thing will occur again and I won’t be able to take a full year away from work to look after the new baby but just a few months. It’s not for want to of trying but the stars didn’t seem to align and enable us to be financially secure enough for me to take any more time. This is where the guilt starts to creep in. (Cut to me in bed at night with wide eyes open staring into the dark: Work or baby? Work or baby? WORK OR BABY?)
You can’t accuse me of putting my career above the needs of first child. I moved away from London to be closer to family so we could have better support network; had to change jobs to avoid the commute and crazy working hours and took a lower paid job at a company that I thought I would be able to let me work flexibly (and they did) so that i could do drop-off and pick-up from nursery. I then systematically got rid of anything that was deemed a luxury (bye Sky TV, bye big holidays!) so as to afford said nursery fees. Italk more about how I handled going back to work and having a baby here. It hasn’t been easy. Both me and husband have had to use all waking hours to ensure we cover childcare.
So why do I feel guilty?
I can’t quite place it. If I want to go back to work I will (dammit!) but to accommodate that I think I’ve done everything right, but I can’t afford to spend a year away from work to look after my new baby. It’s not an option to ask my husband to financially look after the family for a year as he has a small business that is growing but can’t cover a two income household. It means that baby #2 will need childcare much sooner than baby #1 did if I go back to work early too. The guilt of that fact sticks in my side. Someone else will be spending more time with baby #2 on some days than I will be. Changing jobs recently a way to secure a better career path for myself moving forward. Maybe if I didn’t I could afford to have more time away from work but then my calculated risk in changing jobs mid-pregnancy was insurance to make sure I didn’t miss out on progressing my career as I had kids and ultimately be able to support (i.e. feed and clothe) them in future years.
I have seen time and time again great women leave the workplace to have children and never quite return on the same terms as before because they had to make a choice (often financial) between spending time with their children in those early years and adhering to the rules of their employer. I also saw a lot of men busting their guts to try and work that extra mile to support a family at home that had a reduced income too (the guilt is not restricted to just mums). By the time my kids are about to start school I won’t be looking to start work again and hope the workforce wants a woman like me in her 40s back in the tech business.
Making the right decision
Despite wrangling with the guilt I know that I am doing the right thing in the long run. I would prefer to build a future and be a role model to my kids. My work ethic is strong and want to impart that to my children. We’ll have to continue to work hard as a family but we’ll make ends meet and have fun along the way. Opting out of the workforce just isn’t for me financially or spiritually right now. Will I be tired going back to work after a few months? Oh my god yes. Will I feel guilty? I won’t ever stop being that but knowing I’m doing my best is good enough for me and I found a supportive employer that supports flexible working so I can do the nursery runs.
When I reached out to some of my mum friends on Facebook about whether they also felt guilt about taking maternity leave, the answers were mixed. Some had great support from their workplace and could enjoy the benefits available to them (especially if you live in Luxembourg apparently!) and return to work happy bunnies. Some were able to take a longer amount of time off work and were concerned about how they may be treated on their return or whether they’d even have the same job offered back. Despite it being law that you must have the same level of job and salary when you go back to work, employers are able to sidestep this and offer a step down or lower pay if mothers want to return on a part time basis to gradually work their way back up to full time. It’s not really very fair as that choice often comes at a price for the mother: go back to work full time, get the same role and pay as before and then pay for childcare costs or take a hit in the salary, responsibility and pay less childcare costs. This is a common option as full time fees are crazy and often it’s hard to put your kids in with a nursery or child minder and it not cross over with working hours. Employees have the right to ask for flexible working hours (within reason) but employers are often misinformed about this.
Some were like me: wrangling about how much time we can afford to actually take and how to balance that with ensuring that you don’t miss your place on the career ladder. Some were feeling guilty about leaving work colleagues with extra work as wouldn’t be covered while away. It’s this guilt that often leads to colleagues assuming you’re having “year off” or “a bit of a holiday”. Any sleep deprived mum covered in a poo explosion will tell you otherwise…
What have I learned about maternity leave guilt?
I must say that reading How Not to F*** Them Up by Oliver James is a really good way of ascertaining what type of parent I wanted to be after I had a baby. The key is being yourself and not trying to be something that others expect. This way you’ll be happy and your kids will see that in you. I’d rather be a happy working mum than a sad, stay-at-home one. Others may feel the other way round and that’s OK too. What we all need to be is vocal about what we want and how we want to get it. It’s OK to want to go back to work sooner (despite the scaremongering from the Opinion Brigade) and you should go back to work with all the knowledge about your rights as possible. Support from the likes of maternityaction.org.uk is a good start.
Likewise it’s also OK to take as long as you need away from the workforce or opt out altogether. If you can find the budget to cover you then do it! The guilt shouldn’t be with us as mothers. The guilt should be with a every employer who let a great women down by not offering her what she deserved when she returned to work; who refused flexible working hours because it didn’t suit them or they didn’t consider it correctly (if you need advice on this then start with the gov.uk site) or think that maternity leave affects the bottom line of the business in the long run. It should be with those who judge a women when they don’t know the circumstances that have led her to make the choice that you see in front of you rather than supporting her for taking that choice on (see more on Senator Larissa Walters here)
It should be with those who think they are “carrying” those who work flexibly or on maternity leave. (Excuse me: we are working at raising a tiny human and when we come back to work we’re still doing that job. We work long and hard long after we’ve gone home!!) We all have a responsibility to support women who want to work hard and have children as parents, employers and human beings. We can’t force one or the other anymore and should recognise that as a society and support it in any way we can.
…and you: pregnant mum, maybe first time or a seasoned pro, who is reading this and wondering about your own choices about maternity leave – don’t forget that it’s you and you alone that holds the guilt. Networks and advice services below can give you the info you need to make your decisions and support from your partner/family/friends will enable you to go and ask your employers openly and honestly for what you want.