“More of less straight after my daughter was born, I was struggling financially,” mum Rebecca Smith* tells HuffPost UK. “I began relying on credit to cover the essentials and it escalated over the course of last year. I am now in a debt relief order (DRO) as a direct result of maternity leave.”
Rebecca shared her story with HuffPost UK after a study has found a quarter of parents need to use credit to fund their maternity or paternity leave. The research by credit report service Noddle found one in four (25%) rack up debts of over £2,700, despite making efforts to prepare their finances in advance. Over half of parents (53%) put aside savings of around £3,000, while others made a conscious effort to clear down existing debts before having kids.
Rebecca, 39, from Worcestershire, was made redundant when she was 12 weeks pregnant and tragically, in August 2015, her daughter was stillborn. Rebecca was entitled to Maternity Allowance (MA) and started working again in January 2016, however when she fell pregnant again her company had no obligation to pay maternity as she was a contractor.
Her partner was made redundant during her second pregnancy. He didn’t find work for three months but while his income covered the essentials, she needed to work too. “We didn’t want to just be existing,” she says. Since her daughter has arrived, she says the opportunities for securing permanent, flexible work with a salary that does little more than cover childcare costs has been difficult.
“I had to turn to StepChange for debt help,” she says. “I’m now in a DRO, I’ve been declared insolvent and it’s not a choice I made easily as it will have a huge knock on effect for me and my family for years to come.”
As a consequence of maternity leave, many new parents are facing money worries on top of the challenges of caring for a newborn, with over half (53%) saying they were anxious about this during their leave. Over a third of parents (35%) returned to work earlier than planned in an effort to mitigate money worries, and half (48%) stuck to a very strict budget throughout their leave. Others relied on support from family and friends, used their overdrafts or even took on a second job.
Money struggles were apparent for mum Sarah Henderson, too, although her experience was slightly different. The 33-year-old mum from Liverpool had to return to work when he daughter was just nine months old. She’s self-employed, so is only entitled to Maternity Allowance (MA). “It was a struggle,” she says. “We ate through our savings and stretched my husband’s salary to the limit. Both of us had to use our overdrafts regularly - something we’d always sought to avoid. While I’d always envisaged taking a full year off and returning to work when my baby was one, we just couldn’t make it work any longer.”
Sarah was entitled to £140.98 per week for 39 weeks. At first, the family managed by using this to pay half towards the mortgage and for household bills, but things were difficult. “The problem is once you’ve used your overdraft, it’s very hard not to use it the next month so it became a bit of a vicious cycle,” she adds.
Before returning back to work, Sarah looked into whether she could take additional months off after her MA ended. “I saw the state of our finances on our online banking and realised we were pushing it as it was,” she says. “When it came down to it I just didn’t have a choice, I had to return to work when my MA was finished and that was that. I wasn’t remotely ready to leave my daughter with other people and I wasn’t in a good state emotionally to be working, let alone running my own business.”
For Krishma Patel, 32, from Ealing, London, she knew as soon as she fell pregnant that she would struggle financially. “It was an unplanned pregnancy, we had just bought our first house and we have a child in full-time nursery,” she says. “Maternity leave was very stressful, worrying about making ends meet is an added concern. We had to watch outgoings, purchase secondhand baby items and sell maternity/newborn gear privately to raise funds. I even looked into working from home opportunities such as Avon and data entry work.” Since giving birth in August 2017, she has been unable to make ends meet and will be returning to work early due to finances.
Going back to work earlier than planned is a reality for many new mothers, including Helena Stevens, 30, from Sussex. She has two children, born in August 2014 and February 2016. “Going from two, full-time salaries to one, while I was at home still trying to have a life and get out and do things with the girls, and keep my eldest in nursery so she was interacting with other children was hard,” she explains. “Nursery fees were a killer and got us into debt.”
Helena says it was a struggle with both of her daughters, but more so with her second child, when she hadn’t been at her job long enough to claim maternity pay from her employer. “We’d been able to save lots for the first while we had two full time salaries coming in, but second time round there was no savings or back up money pots,” she says. After giving birth the second time, she had to go back to work early to get some money coming in to start paying off their debt before it got out of control, “It was more of a shock than we’d imagined,” she adds.
“Better maternity packages in companies could also help new mums - statutory really isn’t enough to feed and clothe a family."”
The women believe there is a lot that could change to help relieve the stress of money struggles on maternity leave for women. Rebecca says firstly what needs to change is the fact maternity discrimination is rife among employers, as being made redundant was a spark that initiated her money issues. She also believes the changes in tax credits means working families are already squeezing income in those precious early days, “Aside from the emotional cost, the financial one has been huge,” she adds. “Our daughter is totally worth it but it’s a cause of massive embarrassment for me that it came to this.
For Sarah, she says there should be some parity between MA and Statutory Maternity Pay so that self-employed women get the first six weeks at 90% of their average weekly pay too. “Ideally, both types of maternity pay would be improved to better reflect actual salaries because maternity leave is exactly the time you don’t want money to be tight,” she adds.
Helena adds that making it easier for woman to go back to work after having their babies is probably the most important. “I was lucky enough to have a full year off with my first but if I’d been able to go back part-time with a bit more flexibility then we could have avoided a lot of the initial debt,” she adds. “Better maternity packages in companies could also help - statutory really isn’t enough to feed and clothe a family.”
Did you struggle while on maternity leave? Do you want to share your story? Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.