WHY I HAVE TO RETURN TO WORK TWO WEEKS AFTER HAVING A BABY
Robyn Wilder is back to work already, because her maternity allowance is not enough to live on
Freelancing has always been my dream. As a child, I wanted to be Enid Blyton when I grew up - writing children’s adventures from the solitude of some ivy-strewn garrett (preferably a haunted one). In adulthood I spent 15 years working uncomfortably in open-plan newsrooms and offices; all the while struggling with social anxiety; lovingly browsing minimalist Scandi home offices on Pinterest, and sighing.
So when I had my first son in 2015, and realised that I could supplement the meagre crumbs of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) by freelancing from my kitchen table, I jumped at the chance.
My son was 10 weeks old when I filed my first freelance piece. After that I was lucky enough to get regular work - regular enough for me to go full-time freelance instead of returning to my old job - and I loved it. No more meetings about meetings. Pyjamas as day-wear. My only company an adorable baby and the gentle burble of Radio 4.
As soon as I could afford it, I found a part-time nanny to keep my son occupied during my working hours - five a day, rather than the 10 hours I’d have spent away from him at my old job. Parenting, I found, went hand-in-hand with freelancing. And my flexible schedule freed me up for new admin responsibilities such as doctor’s appointments and nursery pick-ups.
Today I am an established freelancer, my son is two-and-a-half years old and, one month ago, I gave birth to my second son. But I’m discovering that freelancing is a much harder pill to swallow the second time around.
For a start, I have no money. When I embarked on my freelance adventures way back when, I was bouncing happily on my security net of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) - which was 90% of my weekly salary for six weeks before dropping to a belt-tightening weekly sum of £140.98, which I bumped up with my freelance earnings.
As a freelancer, however, I no longer qualify for SMP. Instead, I’m eligible for Maternity Allowance which, if you’ve paid enough National Insurance contributions, is also paid at £140.98 a week. However, the main difference between Statutory Maternity Pay and Maternity Allowance, for me, is that I’m not permitted to supplement this income with work. And the modest nest egg I built for this scenario has been chipped away to nothing, by debt and unexpected circumstance.
‘No matter,’ Pregnant-me thought. ‘It’ll be fine. I’ll pop out Number 2 Son, tighten my belt and survive on lentils for a couple of months, then return to work.’
So I had Baby Number 2, went out and bought a job-lot of lentils - and came home to a nasty surprise. I received a letter informing me that my Maternity Allowance had been calculated at a total of £27 a week. Which, in case you’re wondering, is not enough to sustain half a family of four.
Bang went my dreams of two months’ maternity leave. No hours spent staring at my new baby. No dozing in front of Scandi crime box sets with a double breast pump shoved down my bra.
I did the only thing I could. I went back to work. At two weeks postpartum.
A reduced income means reduced nanny hours, so often I have to work from my phone while trying to parent, too; pitching while the baby’s breastfeeding; writing when I should be sleeping, and invoicing from the toilet, while my toddler dismantles the living room.
At the time of writing, I’m still investigating why I qualify for such a small amount of maternity allowance. I suspect it has something to do with National Insurance contributions and proof of earnings - but the information out there is barely clear-cut, and digging is required.
Even though there’s very little downtime, no holidays are on the cards until at least 2020, and I’m not winning any awards for self-care or parenting (my house is blanketed in piles of laundry, and constantly reverberates to the tune of Paw Patrol), I am lucky that I can work so soon after my son was born. Last time around, thanks to a colicky baby; hallucinations from lack of sleep; and both postnatal depression and PTSD from a traumatic birth, I was unable to put together a coherent thought, never mind write articles (although you may argue that this is barely coherent or, in fact, an article).
This second time, I have regular work and understanding editors; my younger son’s a sleeper and - although his birth was also traumatic - I’ve returned to a ‘normal’, work-friendly state of mind relatively quickly.
But I’m angry that there isn’t more help out there for self-employed parents. Not only is freelancing a rough financial ride for mothers, but there is no equivalent of paternity pay for self-employed fathers. My husband, also self-employed, just had to go for two weeks without income each time we had a baby.
So, consider me a cautionary tale. If you’re planning to be a freelancer and a parent, here is my advice on how to prepare for maternity leave finances:
1. Do your research - find out what you’re eligible for and, almost more importantly, how to appeal against any decisions you’re not happy with.
2. Win the lottery. Or at least build a nest egg and protect it with your LIFE.
3. Pay your National Insurance contributions early on - this doesn’t happen automatically when you register as self-employed with HMRC.
4. Put together proof of recent earnings. You don’t technically have to do this to qualify for Maternity Allowance, but if - like me - you find yourself suddenly at the low end of Maternity Pay, you can appeal by pointing out you earn more than £30 a week as a freelancer.
There’s more information on the Working Families and Maternity Action websites. Pregnant Then Screwed is also organising March of the Mummies, a protest against maternity discrimination, on Halloween.