Learning you’re pregnant is happiness-inducing. But, it’s a time that might also be coupled with guilt, uncertainty and other confronting emotions when considering the realities of maternity leave. Parents, more often career-minded mothers, might feel this way when out of the workforce for lengthy periods, concerned that the work break could impact their careers in the long term.
These feelings stem from valid concerns. If you’re about to have a baby, it’s normal to feel bad about leaving your coworkers with heavier workloads or concerned that the business will fall apart without you. Additionally, you could feel anxious about pausing your career and juggling full-time work duties with additional home responsibilities.
As a working parent with a male partner, you might also be curious about how paternity leave works and if it’s possible to equally share the parental load to benefit your career and mental well-being.
This article discusses maternity leave and how much working moms earn over this time. We’ll also examine the enduring stigma surrounding maternity leave and its lingering effect on parents. Finally, what are the benefits of longer paternity leave on infants and family dynamics? Let’s find out.
What Is Maternity Leave?
UK maternity leave is leave women take in order to care for a new-born and also extends to newly adopted children.
How does maternity leave work? Crucially, there are a few things to note about UK-based maternity leave.
Maternity or childcare leave lasts up to one year, depending on one’s needs and preferences, and is broken into three parts. There’s a compulsory two-week period one must take after birth, followed by ordinary maternity leave lasting 26 weeks. After that, new mothers can choose to reenter the workplace.
Another option is to extend their leave for 16 to 26 weeks of optional, additional maternity leave. It’s up to their employees to pay them during this time. Once 52 weeks have elapsed, moms at work should return to their pre-maternity roles or something similar unless their place of employment provides a valid reason for their dismissal or redundancy.
The length of maternity leave is based entirely on the nature of your job, recovery, and readiness level. Those who decide to return after the first 26 weeks must inform their boss within eight weeks before their return.
Is maternity leave paid? Women eligible for statutory maternity pay or SMP receive a maternity allowance for 39 weeks. They’ll receive 90% of their total earnings before tax for the first six weeks and a flat rate of £156.66 or 90% of the average weekly earnings – whichever is lower – after that. People who don’t qualify for SMP can apply to receive a stipend or maternity allowance.
Is There a Stigma Surrounding Maternity Leave and Being a Working Parent?
Maternity leave in the UK that protects the employment status of working moms hasn’t been around long. Before the 1970s, women who fell pregnant were often discriminated against, and many lost their jobs.
The first maternity leave legislation enabling female employees to have a child while remaining employed, the Employment Protection Act of 1975, was a step forward but only covered half of working women. It wasn’t until 1993 that everyone earned the right to take paid childcare leave, with the law shielding them from being unjustly fired.
Undeniably, although employees are legally permitted to take parental leave and return to their same job, an ongoing stigma remains, stipulating that women focus less on their professional life once they start a family.
This warped and distorted perception can block women from furthering their careers and achieving their goals after becoming mothers, to this day. A 2015 Equality and Human Rights Commission report describes a high degree of discrimination in the workplace levelled against pregnant people, which includes negativity, harassment, unfair treatment and significant pay cuts.
Although many want to return or must for financial reasons, some working mothers are obligated to go back to work out of concern of being side-lined, edged out, or feel the pressure to prove their worth after having a kid.
Maternity Leave Challenges of Working Moms
Child care leave should be a magical time when new mothers, birthing parents, and their spouses or partners foster a bond with newborns.
Despite feeling excited about your growing family, you might be stressed or anxious about the potential fallout of being away.
From concerns about parental leave slowing their career progression to worries about how being out of the workplace might dull their abilities, these are some of the challenges for working mothers.
Impact of Maternity Leave on Career
It’s not an exaggeration that childcare leave can stall a career; some even call these breaks a “career killer”.
Thanks to laws protecting employees from maternity discrimination, most working parents have jobs to which they can return.
However, they might still be victims of several maternity leave biases, like being passed up for a promotion or overlooked for projects deemed unsuitable for parents.
In addition, according to a study by Women in The Workplace 2021, women are reportedly severely underrepresented in senior positions. We’re not seeing enough women in top roles, especially after they have children.
This issue isn’t necessarily because women with kids don’t want to move their careers along. Rather, preconceived ideas shaping society continue to limit working moms and dictate where their priorities should lie once they become parents.
For this reason, mothers at the height of their careers might want to return to work shortly after having children, perhaps trying to prevent their jobs from taking a backseat.
Fear of Losing Their Edge
Undoubtedly, caring for a newborn includes a laundry list of new challenges.
That said, the day-to-day can be a monotonous, repetitive process of changing nappies, decoding your baby’s cries and breastfeeding, so it’s normal to feel that you’re losing touch with your former work self.
Being away from work for months and sleep deprivation might make you feel incapable of performing your job on your return.
These anxieties might motivate you to return to work faster, exercise your mental muscles for work, and regain a sense of your former professional self for part of the day.
Work Duties Impacting Your Leave
Nothing should distract you from being with your newborn. However, work worries might stop you from making the most of your parental leave.
Besides your baby, job stress could also keep you awake at night. You might wonder if your handover was clear, concise and easy to follow or whether your coworkers still view you as an indispensable part of the team.
While the onus falls on you to plan your departure from the office to ensure nothing goes wrong, there might still be hitches when you’re away.
Instead of imagining the worst happening, make yourself available for questions, clarity and updates during your leave period.
Longer or Shorter: The Leave Debate
There’s a lot of discussion among new mums about how much childcare leave they should take.
It’s not necessarily a question about what you’re entitled to but more of a personal decision. A delicate balance exists between being a dedicated parent and an employee. There’s much to be said about the short vs extended maternity leave debate, with many convinced that longer leave can leave an indelible mark on your career. At the same time, a longer stay benefits both the mother and baby and strengthens their bond.
Mothers face an impossible dilemma: to be on parental leave for longer, a decision that could bruise their careers, or reenter the workforce sooner to improve their career opportunities.
How to Best Manage Your Maternity Leave
Maternity leave can be stressful, especially if you don’t plan for it properly.
To avoid work being done poorly by someone else or projects left half-finished when you’re out of the office, devise a detailed action plan with the following in mind.
Reassign Your Tasks, Duties and Responsibilities
You’ll need to divide easily doable tasks between team members and consider the best person for the job for your more specialised roles and responsibilities.
Ask capable and reliable coworkers to fill in for you and perform your duties. Request a fill-in employee if no one can perform your role or specific tasks.
Ask For Your Colleague’s Input
You’ll need to discuss your plan with coworkers instead of dumping work on people without their knowledge or feedback. Keep it flexible and accommodating – while you need others to manage your workload, not everyone wants more responsibility.
Communicate Regularly to Reduce Career Impact
If you’re off looking after a baby, it’s perfectly acceptable for work to be the furthest thing from your mind.
However, having an allotted time for a weekly phone call or email might benefit you and your colleagues. You’ll know that your job is being done correctly while others are comforted by the fact you’re available, to an extent, for questions and assistance.
Avoid getting hounded by work by establishing boundaries and ensuring that people only contact you when necessary. Better yet, have a proxy who can relay the most important work matters to you.
Also, note that while you might like to keep to a schedule and be consistently available at agreed-upon times, babies don’t follow timetables. Prepare to be more flexible because you can’t hold yourself to a rigid timeline. Your most important job is caring for a newborn.
Arm Yourself With Information
Knowledge is power when planning your leave, which means knowing your rights and what you’re entitled to.
We’ve outlined how much leave you can take, but knowing your standard employee rights can be job-saving.
For example, are you aware that redundancy rights protect you and that you can still receive salary increases or promotions while not actively working?
What Is Paternity Leave?
Paternity leave is the paid time off expectant fathers receive. This relatively brief time spans one to two consecutive weeks after the child is born. Dads-to-be can’t take paternity leave before birth and must use it within 52 days of the baby’s arrival.
With more dads wanting extra time for their new offspring and families needing to share the parental load, the UK government introduced Shared Parental Leave in 2015.
This working policy allows eligible parents to split their time off by repurposing the weeks of parental leave the mother chooses not to take. In other words, the mother shares a portion of her leave (and pay) with her spouse or co-parent – which might include the father, civil partner or same-sex partner. Those who qualify receive 50 weeks of statutory leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay.
The parents might stagger this leave throughout the year, ensuring the one is always home with the child or be off together as a family for six months.
What Are the Potential Benefits of Shared Parental Leave?
Shared parental leave gives choice and flexibility to working parents. The below not only improves the lives of working parents, but employers could also benefit from happier, more productive employees.
Sharing the Childcare
Shared parental leave allows fathers and non-birthing spouses to be around for the first baby milestones, create a deeper bond with their baby and build confidence in their parental care.
Raising children is incredible but taxing – having both parents involved in the heavy lifting can only be good for a relationship and offspring.
Supports Gender Equality
Gendered stereotypes present women as the primary caregiver. At the same time, men might subscribe to the traditional role of providing for their children, which usually equates to working longer hours and being around less.
Shared parental leave can break these stereotypical roles and supports gender equality, with both parents providing hands-on care.
Additionally, the effect of both spouses or partners taking long stretches off work lets the other working parent return to the grindstone and pursue career growth.
Addresses the Gender Pay Gap
Although the gender pay gap is pretty marginal, women earn substantially less once they’ve had children because they might be forced to reduce their working hours and sacrifice demanding, long-hours jobs to be available to be with their children. Meanwhile, becoming a parent affects a father’s salary substantially less.
Shared parental leave might have a far-reaching impact on a household. Sure, women can return to work sooner. But in the long term, it might also demonstrate to families that men can work more flexibly or take on part-time positions, with fathers becoming further involved in home responsibilities.
Benefits the Employer
After spending pivotal moments with their children, employees may return with a positive mindset and demonstrate increased productivity and better quality of work.
Has Shared Parental Leave Successfully Taken Effect?
Theoretically, improving paternity leave can enhance lives and lighten the load for working mothers, but it has yet to be transformative or successful.
Disappointingly, the uptake has been low. Research from 2018 shows that only 1% or 9200 of the 920 000 eligible parents applied for shared parental leave.
Despite their options improving, men taking more than a few days or weeks off for their babies are small. And here’s why.
Fear of Discrimination or Career Impact
Men cite fears of being discriminated against in the workplace, marginalised or even mocked for taking anything beyond the average paternity leave.
This might have to do with entrenched stereotypes around the gender and parenting roles we mentioned earlier. Until we address these embedded cultural beliefs and unspoken workplace norms, men might end up taking minimal paternity leave and missing out on the formative stages of their child’s development.
Lack of Mentors and Role Models
It’s simple: if men don’t start setting an example for other men, paternity leave uptake will remain depressingly low.
In other words, men need to be inspired by others, especially higher-ranking professionals and leaders, to take leave that’s rightfully theirs. Men must demonstrate that taking care of their offspring won’t result in consequences, penalisation or punishments.
Men Don’t Know What They’re Entitled To
Fear of losing their jobs or missing career opportunities is one reason men don’t take much paternity leave; another might be a lack of knowledge. They simply don’t know how much leave they’re permitted to take, perhaps assuming the minimum.
Returning to Work After Having a Baby
Returning to work after having a baby is a landmark event that should come with a warning label, as you’re bound to experience a tidal wave of emotions.
You’re not alone if you’re feeling immensely guilty. Whether you’re looking forward to rejoining the workforce or are reluctant, leaving your baby in the care of someone else and not being there for them can be a bitter pill to swallow.
After months of being around your new child, adjusting to your old work self can be difficult, considering the life-changing nature of parenthood.
Here are some tips to make this transition easier.
Enquire About Keep-In-Touch Hours
For a more gradual return, enquire about keep-in-touch hours. This optional program is designed around the needs of mothers soon returning to the office. With it, you take a few days (up to ten) out of your parental leave to be updated by colleagues on work projects, show your face around the office with the baby in tow, and generally ease into your work schedule, knowing what’s up ahead. That way, when you fully return to work, it won’t be a massive shock to the system.
Arranging Childcare While Pregnant
Although it might seem ridiculous, looking into childcare before giving birth can help you get back into work feeling less guilt-ridden, knowing your child is in the best possible hands when you can’t be with them.
Setting Boundaries With Your Boss
Arrange an early meeting with your boss about their and your expectations. Highlight the hours you can work and your availability as a working parent. You should also take this opportunity to establish firm boundaries and speak out if you need help or support.
Look Into Flexible Working
The pandemic has changed how we work, with many companies seeing the benefits of flexible working. With the rapidly changing landscape, mothers who return to work in a supportive business environment might elect to work flexible hours or remote-in some days to balance work and personal life.
Having children is nothing if not unpredictable, so having a flexible schedule ensures you’re ready for emergencies.
Reducing Hours After Maternity Leave
For one or both parents, having a full-time job or greedy work that demands a huge chunk of time and attention is incompatible with this life stage. Many might step away from their old jobs and into part-time employment where they can prioritise their responsibilities and protect their family time.
However, one of the most significant issues for mothers working part-time is that this detour might damage or delay their career goals.
Cut Yourself Slack
Returning to work for some mothers might be like riding a bike: picking up they left off and having little to no trouble adjusting. Others might struggle to be away from home or complete tasks they could previously do blindfolded.
You’re different despite work being the same environment you left before having a baby. Your life has changed dramatically in a short burst of time, and you might also be dealing with post-partum symptoms and mom fog that make it harder to dive back into your old life in the beginning.
Expecting a baby is exciting, but many parents worry about the effects of maternity leave.
So what are women’s concerns about this time, and how can these feelings and experiences be resolved or managed? Is shared parental leave the answer? We’ve answered all these questions and included tips on preparing for maternity leave and helpful advice that should make going back to work easier after having a baby.
Embrace this new and joyful time in your life!