Maternity Leave: 4 Women Talk About The Challenges They Face In Modern Britain

Finances, childcare and self identity.

One of the key considerations of becoming a parent in modern Britain is deciding how to balance your work and home life, or more specifically what you are going to do about maternity leave.

Do you take an entire year off with your newborn and rely on a partner to be the breadwinner? Or do you just take the mandatory minimum of a couple of weeks before returning to work and relying on other forms of childcare?

Maternity law in the United Kingdom means that eligible employees are entitled to take up to 52 weeks maternity leave after they have a child, although companies can offer more than this. The first 26 weeks are known as ‘ordinary’ maternity leave and the subsequent 26 weeks are ‘additional’ leave.

In celebration of women’s month at The Huffington Post UK we have spoken to four mums about what they feel the key challenges of maternity leave are today.

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Samantha Evans is a mother to a two-year-old and is currently pregnant with twins. She works as the director at a financial services company, having first taken maternity leave back in November 2014 for six months.

The 27-year-old believes that the biggest challenge facing women taking maternity leave is a financial one, saying: “Finances were a huge factor. I absolutely feel like finances have a big impact, especially as women start to become more of the main earners in a household, rather than always just a supplementary income.”

In the UK statutory maternity pay (SMP) can be paid for up to 39 weeks, in the first six weeks this is 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax. The remaining 33 weeks you are entitled to £139.58 or 90% of your average weekly earnings, whichever is lower, which will also be taxed.

Evans says: “Individuals who have worked full time prior to taking maternity leave should be provided with the living wage at a minimum. The SMP is not enough to cover your outgoings during the time off.”

Private companies can choose to pay employees more, but they are not legally entitled to do so. And if you choose to go down the route of shared paternal leave you will get ‘Statutory Shared Parental Pay’, which is the same amount as individual, but Evans did not choose to do this.

The mother-of-three also chose not to take a long period of time off work, instead checking in regularly, coming in to give presentations to senior members of staff and have one-on-one meetings with her boss at least once a month.

She explained: “I really enjoy my job so I wanted to maintain those links with my employer. My daughter was born in the middle of December and I first went back in mid-January for a presentation. I probably went in at least once a month. The potential to do a phased return should be an option.

“For example, working two of five days for the first two weeks, increasing to three of five days over the next two weeks and so on.”

Self Identity

Gina Clarke is mum to two children, and was made redundant from her job as a newspaper journalist when her company went through a restructure during her second spell of maternity leave, in December 2015.

The 30-year-old first took maternity leave between March and September 2012, slowly coming back for twenty hours per week, before leaving again three years later in March 2015 to have her second baby.

But she lost her job before she returned to the office.

Clarke, whose husband only took two weeks of maternity leave, says that the biggest challenge for her with taking mat leave, was how it shaped her identity. She said: “Finding a space for yourself in between becoming a mum and returning to work. I’m a big believer that the head needs to be in sync with the heart.

“The BBC show ‘The Replacement’ summed it up perfectly when they suggested that things have changed, moved on and as much as people are trying to take the burden away from you, as a new mum it feels very important to differentiate between ‘at home’ mum and ‘at work’ mum. And with emotions super keen, it can take away your sense of worth.”

In order to address this issue with her first child, Clarke was able to maintain a tight relationship with her office and colleagues, and come in for contact days and working from home, she says: “I had money, free time and a career - I’d hit the jackpot!”

In 2016, after it became clear that she was at risk of losing her job and eventually was phased out, she decided to go back to university to do a MA.

This helped her to find a solution to the problem of her sense of self in the workplace that was lost during maternity leave.

“I wasn’t afraid to use friends, family and the nursery to get the time I needed for myself. I took up other hobbies whilst on maternity leave and kept myself busy,” says Clarke.

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Elizabeth Nnamudi, 31, has a two-year-old daughter and took maternity leave for eight months in 2015, between January and August, although she had originally planned to take off the whole year.

Nnamudi’s decision to return to work was primarily a financial one – for the first ten weeks off she was paid 75% of her salary, but it then dropped to SMP and they were forced to spend their savings.

She said: “I could no longer afford not to work. I think with regards to maternity pay, I think many parents have to run back to work, which many of them aren’t happy about.”

Despite this, it wasn’t the financial problems that Nnamudi saw as the biggest barrier for women, but childcare. Specifically the lack of flexibility, and cost.

Nnamudi explained: “I was very frustrated with the nursery system,” taking her daughter to nursery for the first time at eight-months-old it was difficult: “When she went in she was the baby there. It was hard for me doing that when she was still so young,” she said.

“Children can do part-time, but because of my job I couldn’t commit to the same day every week, so it just didn’t work for me.”

In fact flexibility was such a problem that she has now set up her own business, iNurseries, to help other parents find emergency, flexible childcare at short notice.

But this still doesn’t address the problem of cost, and having to stump up a third of her salary to cover the costs; Nnamudi knows this better than anyone.

The price has actually been prohibitive in family planning for her and her husband, stopping them from having a second child.

“I always thought I’d want my family with children close together so they could grow up together. But I wouldn’t have another child at the moment because of the money. If I had two kids there are no way I could afford to work.”

The couple are now waiting for their daughter to turn three in December 2017, as changes to UK law in September this year mean that three to four-year-olds will be entitled to 30 hours free childcare per week rather than fifteen.

Then they can have their second child.

Temporary Cover

Amber Wilde is mother to four children, two sets of twins, sons Balthazar and Lysander, who were born in 2014 and daughters, Embla and Olympia, who arrived last year.

Wilde, 28, only wanted to take off the compulsory two weeks of maternity leave as her partner, Kirsty is a dedicated stay-at-home mother.

She said: “It was easier to return to work so soon in the knowledge that my babies and their brothers were at home with their mama.”

Her strong desire to return to work quickly was partially driven by being the main breadwinner, but also because she struggled to accept that the temporary cover was filling her role adequately.

“I felt impotent…I missed my colleagues, my job, I didn’t trust the temporary cover we had recruited to look after my boss as well as I could.

“I struggled to split my time between looking after my children and trying to work from home to cover elements of my job that I couldn’t pass to anybody else. My role is not one that is easily transferrable to cover staff and I didn’t want to either leave my boss in the lurch or return to a mess.”

So, just weeks after delivering her twin babies, she returned to work full-time without gradually easing back into it.

“Working a sixty-hour week with two newborn babies at home comes with its own challenges - expressing enough milk without spending too much time away from my desk, the sleep deprivation, the hormones, the terror and sadness of missing so much of their babyhood.

“But I found it preferable to the alternative, which was sliding toward mediocrity in the workplace.”