It should have been one of the happiest times of my life. It was coming up to my baby daughter’s first Christmas, the house was decorated and all of our gifts for our then eight month old had been wrapped. But, even as I dressed her in an ever widening array of Christmas-themed outfits, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that had taken up residence in my stomach.
You see, come January 2018, I was returning to work after 39 weeks of maternity leave. As I’m self-employed as a Freelance Copywriter, I was only entitled to Maternity Allowance, giving me £140.98 a week for 39 weeks, a fraction of my usual weekly earnings. We’d gone through our savings and stretched my husband’s (admittedly better-than-average) salary as far as it would go and there was just no way we could get by anymore without me working.
But I wasn’t ready. Not in the slightest.
My brain wasn’t in a place where I felt I could start pitching for work and new clients, I certainly didn’t feel emotionally ready to leave my little one with strangers (even if it was just two half days a week at a very nice nursery), and I didn’t really want to be leaving her with my parents one day a week either. I wanted to be a mum and nothing but a mum for another few months until I was ready.
But, like so many self-employed women, I just didn’t have that luxury.
Christmas came and went without me ever shaking that feeling of dread and, before I knew it, I was taking my baby to her settling-in sessions at nursery and going through the motions to get myself prepared to start work again.
I’m not ashamed to say that it was horrendous. I was only working for three days of the week, but I spent most of them crying my eyes out. I got work done, of course, and pitched for new opportunities, but that was all with a mixture of tears and snot constantly streaming down my face. It’s just a good job I work from home most of the time.
As the last couple of weeks have gone by, it has got easier. I’ve had more work and have been proactive in promoting myself as a freelancer. However, there’s still that feeling there. That feeling that I’m not ready, that I’m back because I have to be, not because I want to be. And that hurts because I love my job, I really do, so I don’t want to feel like it’s something negative in my life. But I also know that if I had been able to take longer off with my daughter, I would have been able to go back happily, and not in the whirlwind of emotion that I was forced into.
The worst bit is, I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband has a good salary and we had some savings so I was able to take the full 39 weeks available to me. I’ve heard of self-employed women being forced to return to work only a couple of weeks after their baby has been born in order to pay their bills and keep a roof over their family’s head. That’s an awful situation that impacts dreadfully on the mental health of some new mums. If I felt miserable returning after nine months, imagine how someone must feel after less than one month. In the weeks immediately after my daughter’s birth, I barely knew which way was up, never mind attempting to work.
The legal minimum employed women are entitled to under statutory maternity pay is six weeks at 90% of their average weekly earnings, followed by the remaining 33 weeks at £140.98 or 90% of their average weekly earnings, whichever is less. If I had been entitled to the same, I would have been able to save some money earlier on in my maternity leave to cover the cost of taking a few more weeks at the end. I imagine many other self-employed women would find themselves in the same boat. Or at least it would enable them to take a bit longer than a couple of weeks.
Now, I know as self-employed women we enjoy many benefits that our employed counterparts can’t such as flexibility and the ability to work around childcare. However, the gap between Maternity Allowance and SMP is a huge disparity that needs to be addressed to ensure that all women get an equal opportunity to enjoy the time spent with their new baby.
Because no one should have to return work in tears.