February 19, 2020 (Updated )
It feels like it should be a problem consigned to history, but with recent campaigns such as Flex For All and a host of other UK organisations dedicated to the rights and support of working mothers, trying to balance a career after giving birth is still a growing challenge.
For a start, childcare costs are sky high, with studies showing the UK has some of the dearest expenses within the EU, forcing some mothers to drop out of the workforce altogether. But how do mothers fare in an industry that never seems to switch off?
While there are no hard statistics on the number of female journalists who do not return to work at the end of maternity leave, a recent release from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that more than half of mothers make changes to their job due to childcare responsibilities.
Giving birth to my first child in early 2018, I’d fit into this category. A combination of childcare expenses, the cost of travelling to work, and my annual salary not quite stretching to fit led me to an extended maternity break.
Now, I have to stress that my living situation and a cushy stash in my ISA made my decision a little easier, but there are tens of thousands of mothers across the UK who have faced difficulty in trying to make a living while looking after their little ones.
‘It Made Sense To Design A Family-Friendly Career’
Annie Ridout, a journalist, author, and editor, had her copywriting contract terminated while she was on maternity leave following the birth of her first child. Determined to never experience maternity discrimination again, she took the opportunity to forge a successful career as a freelancer. But why freelance instead of seeking work with a company with child-friendly values?
“I wanted to be around for my daughter and wanted to have more children,” the now mother-of-three explains to Journo Resources. “So it made sense to design a family-friendly career.” Emphasising the “full control” she has over her time, freelancing has brought a raft of benefits some mothers can only dream of.
“I can do the nursery and school run whenever I like, and I can take a day off to hang out with my kids without having to check in with anyone,” she explains. “It’s still hard – it can be stressful not knowing how much money will be coming in each month, but not, in my opinion, as hard as going into work if there’s a busy commute, no time to see the kids before or after work, and having a boss to answer to.”
While I suspect that my extended maternity break will have a negative impact on my future career prospects, Annie finds it hard to fathom what might have been had she not made a permanent move into freelancing. “I just can’t imagine it, as I would have lost all control and put myself in that position again.
“Sadly, you’re not completely protected as a freelancer, as clients can choose to drop you when you’re pregnant. But I’m now running an online course business, helping women go freelance or start a business – or grow an existing one – and I’m the boss. So no one can fire me or drop me.”
The Realities Of Juggling Family And Work
Not every mother will have a particularly nasty experience with their employer, with many companies implementing polices to protect staff who are parents. But the physical and mental aspect of caring for a little one after getting through a nine-hour work day, combined with a lack of me-time and the expenses of childcare, can take its toll.
One mother I spoke to decided to take a career break to look after her two children, citing childcare costs as one of the reasons. Taking a full-year of maternity leave from her role in broadcasting with each pregnancy, she found her employers to be very accommodating to her needs both times, allowing her to return on a part-time basis.
“First time round it worked well. I juggled some big stories and had some fun overseas trips; I loved being back.” However, even with the assistance of government funding, the cost of childcare became too much with two children – something many parents identify with – particularly as childcare is more costly for children under the age of two.
“An earlier start to the so-called ‘free’ hours would help me and other parents more because the financial burden on childcare would have put me off completely, were it not for the fact that I enjoy my work,” she adds.
‘We Can Return To Work And Be Just As Productive’
There is no doubt that the position of mothers as major players in the workforce needs greater recognition and stronger support. And, it’s good for newsrooms as well – the more people from varying backgrounds and experiences the better, as we’ll be able to tell stories that reach more people.
But how do we do this? Annie believe that the “anti-pregnancy and motherhood” attitude enforces a culture of fear among women when it comes to announcing their pregnancy in the workplace, when there should be no need. “We can be pregnant, have a baby, return to work and be just as productive,” she notes.
“It made sense to design a family-friendly career. It’s still hard, but not as hard as going to work if there’s a busy commute and a boss to answer too.”
Our broadcaster mum believes job shares are also an important part of the mix too. “I’d happily share the full-time responsibilities of a role with another person also willing to commit in the same way. Employers don’t realise what the improvement in attitudes to flexible working will bring to employees – if an employee can take their child to school in the morning their sense of fulfilment will be increased.”
The call for more flexible working conditions grows louder every year, with a 2019 Timewise study showing that 87 per cent of all full-time employees are in favour. A spokesperson for the NUJ also added that media companies in the UK and Ireland have been “slow to embrace flexible working”. As a result, they say many women were “forced to quit their staff jobs and seek work in other areas of the media – as freelance journalists or working in PR”.
“Some have left journalism altogether,” they add. “The NUJ continues to press employers to improve equality and diversity policies and practices in all media workplaces.” But aside from making a side step or joining a union, what can new or expecting mothers do to make sure work continues to work for them?
Arm Yourself With Information
One of the biggest things to do before you make any decisions is to arm yourself with information. Working out what you’re going to after maternity leave is tricky – so many factors need to be taken into consideration and your final decision may not always work out as planned. But, if you know where the lay of the land both legally and within your company, you’re in a much better position already.
While you’re entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, you will only be paid during the first 39 weeks. If this results in financial implications and you wish to return to work earlier than planned, you must give your employer at least eight weeks’ notice. Similarly, if you would like a more flexible working pattern, you have a right to make a formal request, but bear in mind it’s not guaranteed.
Also, these are only the policies laid down in law – all companies will have their own policies, so look them up early on. You could find they’re more generous than you think and there are lots of extra resources from outlets like Pregnant Then Screwed, Maternity Action, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission
Talking to your line manager early on is also key. Be open and honest about what you want and make sure to come with proactive solutions about how you could make it work. As with any other business negotiation, managers favour people who come with solutions and are honest about how they’ll work.
Equally, don’t be afraid of thinking a bit more creatively. Depending on your job you may be able to condense or shift your hours slightly, or if shorter weeks aren’t an option, using your holiday allowance to make a phased return could work for you.
If you’re considering freelancing, the main thing is not to wait until the end of your leave to get things in motion. “If you’re in a PAYE job or on maternity leave, try to build up a freelance career while you still have the stability of a regular pay cheque,” says Frankie Tortora of Doing It For The Kids, a networking group she founded for freelance parents.
“What I really craved was honest, upfront chat about the realities of freelance life with people who truly got it,” she tells Journo Resources. “Unable to find what I was looking for, I ended up creating it myself.” As well as putting out feelers early, she also suggest saving as much money as you can to support your first few months.
“What I really craved was honest, upfront chat about the realities of freelance life with people who truly got it.”
“Talk to as many people as possible who are already freelancing with kids about how they make it work,” she continues, “don’t be afraid to get into the nitty gritty practical stuff. Be prepared to be flexible in how, where, and when you work – and be patient and kind to yourself. There’s only so much you can achieve in the child-free time you have available to you.”
Regardless of whether you’re looking to go freelance or back into the newsroom, start researching childcare options a few months before your return. It might sound like we’re telling you to do a lot of planning here, and we are, but this potentially gives you time to work around waiting lists and a chance for you and your child to adjust to the changes. You should also note that providers usually require a month’s payment in advance.
Finally, don’t forget you’re not doing this alone. Facebook Groups like Nibs & Bibs, Doing It For The Kids, and No 1 Freelance Media Women can be a helpful online office. While every individual experience will differ, you will find common ground with most parents who will understand exactly what you’re going through.
Juggling childcare and a career can be demanding, and it can feel like there are a million different options. But however you chose to play it, remember that there are no wrong decisions, and your place is the newsroom is just as valued as anyone else’s.