Five years ago when I gave birth to identical twins, 11 weeks early, I had no idea I would be publicising a campaign to bring about fairer pay for parents in similar circumstances.
Fast forward to 2018 and I am in Broadcasting House, with the Deputy Leader of the council I work for as a press officer in Waltham Forest. He’s Councillor Clyde Loakes and he is about to announce a trailblazing change on BBC Woman’s Hour.
Our council is, we believe, the first employer in the country to offer extended maternity and paternity leave to parents of premature babies for the duration of time they spend in hospital up until their original due date.
“It’s a small thing we can do that will make a huge difference for families. I don’t understand why more employers don’t do this,” Cllr Loakes has told me. And he explains to Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey: “We can wait till the cows come home for Parliament to legislate. But this is something we can do now.”
We are joined by campaigner Sarah Miles, a trustee of The Smallest Things Charity, which wants the law to be changed so employers are required to offer extended paid maternity and paternity leave to all parents of premature babies. A petition by The Smallest Things calling for this has secured over 150,000 signatures so far.
Sarah’s story moved me to tears. Six years ago she gave birth to twin girls 12 weeks prematurely. But she had no idea that her maternity leave from work would start the very next day.
One of Sarah’s twins, Charlotte, spent three months in hospital. Her other twin, Eva, was in hospital for six months and sadly passed away.
Sarah’s maternity leave was so different from what most new mums expect – months spent visiting a neonatal unit, listening to the constant beeping monitors, willing her girls to pull through and come home. She went through so many ups and downs, meeting parents along the way whose babies eventually thrived and others whose babies tragically died.
Soon after baby Eva’s death, Sarah was asked by her employers at the time if she would be returning to work. Because of her recent bereavement, and still having a very tiny baby at home, Sarah requested unpaid leave.
“I was not ready to go back to work. 40% of mothers of premature babies experience postnatal depression, and a report by The Smallest Things last year revealed 63% of mums of premature babies experience anxiety and 44% have flashbacks. I was suffering from all of these,” explained Sarah, who is now a Tamba volunteer with the Bereavement Support Group.
Her employer was not sympathetic. In the end, Sarah felt she had no choice but to resign from her job. She joined forces with other mums who had had premature babies, including Catriona Ogilvy, whose first son Samuel was born 10 weeks early.
Catriona’s local MP Steve Reed introduced a Prematurity Bill to Parliament, which called on employers to extend paid maternity and paternity pay to parents of premature babies. Unfortunately, it was dropped at the second reading. However, following a meeting with The Smallest Things, Bliss and Steve Reed, Business Minister Margot James MP requested guidelines be drawn up on how employers can best support parents of premature babies. The guidelines were published in March 2017 and were the first time the unique needs of families of premature babies have been acknowledged in employer guidance.
However, changes need to be made not just by employers, but in terms of statutory maternity allowance given that one in seven people in Britain is self-employed.
When my twin babies were born 11 weeks early I was self-employed and so was my husband. So I was only entitled to nine months statutory maternity allowance. At that time it was only £135 a week. And because I had been very unwell, with a diagnosis of acute and severe twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS) at 24 weeks of pregnancy, my payments ran out by the time my twins were six-months-old. With an older son also, and the lack of subsidised childcare, it was not viable for me to work until my twins were three. So as well as the sheer exhaustion, it was tough financially.
All I can hope is this small change that my employer has made will be the start of something much bigger for other parents in my situation in future. Cllr Loakes is now talking to the council’s contractors and partners. He wants them to make a voluntary change to support new parents of babies born prematurely.
Our story has had a lot of coverage, including an article in the Evening Standard, an item on BBC Radio London and TV coverage on BBC London and ITV London News. Hopefully, it will be the first of many victories for The Smallest Things. For more information about The Smallest Things visit: thesmallestthings.org/