The UK maternity policy seems particularly sympathetic to women. However, there are constraints at play which limit their freedoms once they become mothers.

“I had an opportunity to change jobs about 4 years ago, it was quite a big job, and I stalled it because marriage and children were on the agenda. I didn’t feel right taking maternity if I had only worked a short time with somebody, even within the parameters that you were qualified to maternity.”

There is a persisting reality that a woman’s career progression is restricted by motherhood. But how exactly does this layer of the well-known glass-ceiling hold them back in practice? The reality is: The burden of motherhood takes effect at many different stages. Women have to navigate hurdles in the workplace to combine working and motherhood; being pregnant at work; taking maternity leave; and returning to work with a child at home. Each of these phases bring about a certain level of guilt and emotional stress which negatively impact career progression for women.

The current maternity leave policy in the UK

Woman at work
Woman working in a café: The burden of motherhood takes effect at many different stages.

In the UK, the legal situation is as specific one: firstly, maternity leave can be taken for up to 52 weeks. Women are therefore out of work for a long period of time after the birth of a child, which can disassociate them from the workplace. Secondly, the amount of pay the woman receives does not remain constant throughout maternity leave. The standard maternity pay is reduced after 6 weeks of leave and finishes at 39 weeks, with some companies providing occupational maternity pay, as an added incentive to employees. This means that women must decide how long they can afford to take leave.

The effect on women

But how does the current maternity leave policy affect mothers in practice? The author of this article carried out research on this specific question; four “average” women were interviewed who were all above the average age of first-time mothers in the UK, being aged between 31 and 41 when they gave birth to their first child. Their professions all remain within the broader group of women’s work; one is a nurse, one a research fellow and two have careers in the voluntary sector. Half of the respondents were married and the other half were co-habiting with their long-term partner.

The issues discussed were the implications of motherhood on career progression and the decisions they made regarding the length of maternity leave and returning to work.

Postponing motherhood

It has been well documented that there is a trend in industrialised countries for women to postpone motherhood, particularly for those who are well-educated and pursuing a career. Many factors have led to the postponement of first birth, such as women’s increased education, labour force participation, economic stability and avoiding the ‘wage penalty’ of early motherhood. The postponement of birth is particularly evident in the UK, where parity within all levels of education is emerging and the number of women who are employed has been increasing, reaching 67%. The UK has a particularly high age of first time mothers; in 2013 the average age of first time mothers was 28.3 years.

Most of the interviewees were happy that they had postponed childbirth and felt that they were more equipped to bring up a child later in life. Only one of the interviewees, Helen who gave birth at 36, felt that it may have been better to have a child when she was younger, so that there had been more time to overcome any difficulties, without running out of time. She stated that:

“It just took me that long to find the right partner for me, a secure relationship. It’s just the way it turned out. I think nowadays people do tend to wait because of their careers and things, there’s nothing wrong with that but it can have its downsides I feel, just purely because of the age thing.”

The issue of postponing motherhood has sparked a debate for many years, and many young women find it hard to remove the idea of the ‘ticking clock’ from their minds. There are plenty of articles myth-busting the supposed heightened risks of having children later in life.

Earning the right to maternity leave

Work-life balance: The burden still lies mainly on women.
Work-life balance: The burden still lies mainly on women. Business vector designed by Freepik

Almost all of the interviewees felt that in order to have a child, they had to forego the next step of progression in their career. When three of the interviewees felt that they were nearing the time to have a child, they all passed up on a new job opportunity. For all three women this would have been a step-up from their actual position. Charlotte said:

“I had an opportunity to change jobs about 4 years ago, it was quite a big job, and I stalled it… There must have been something in the back of my mind feeling a bit guilty about the idea of taking quite a bit of time off. I feel less guilty with my current employer, because I feel like at least I’ve earned it and proven myself first. It was more about how woman are made to feel about taking maternity leave, I wanted to be able to prove I was worthy of it.”

It is clear in this case that she felt she had to prove herself in a workplace to feel deserving of maternity leave. Veronica also had a similar situation when she was offered a new job:

“I was not in a place where I wanted to delay having a child even longer. There was also the thought in my mind that they would judge me for joining the company and getting pregnant so soon. It might not have gone down too well, if you know what I mean.”

In both of these cases it is clear that the women did not feel comfortable moving to another employer and would feel guilty taking maternity leave soon after taking a position. There was also the sense from Veronica that new colleagues or employers would judge a woman for doing this and could generate bad relationships in a workplace. Neither of these women wanted to risk joining a new, uncertain environment where they felt they would have to delay childbirth until they felt comfortable taking maternity leave. This is a significant stumbling block in a woman’s career, feeling prevented from taking up a new opportunity.

If a woman compares herself to a male worker who does not need to take any time off for maternity, then she will always come off worse. Employers make this distinction and women feel they have to prove themselves in their job before taking maternity leave, so they can be viewed and trusted as a productive worker, reducing the impact of the comparison between themselves and the male worker. This is what generates a feeling of guilt for a woman within the workplace, and creates the environment that women blame themselves rather than the workplace.

Returning to work

It is not only the decision to take maternity leave that is challenging, but also the idea of returning to work afterwards which is often difficult to face, especially for first-time mothers. Mothers who leave their children at a young age to return to work often have feelings of guilt. However, these feeling stem from even before a child is born, because a prospective mother will plan ahead.

Woman working on a laptop: Starting to work part-time can bring its own challenges and emotions.
Woman working on a laptop: Starting to work part-time can bring its own challenges and emotions. Image by Freepik

All of the women in the study declared that their new-born become their main priority over their career. They wanted to reduce the stress and pressure of work and to have more time with their new-born baby. However, starting to work part-time can bring its own challenges and emotions. The worry about emergency care for a child was particularly strong for the women who did not have family in the area. Veronica said:

“I always worry about having to take time off to care for my child when something goes wrong. I have no family here; this has been a concern for me. I feel bad not going to work on these days because I already work fewer days than I used. I feel that sometimes I have the same workload, but less time to do it.”

In certain cases the allure of part-time work options can quickly disappear if the actual workload does not reduce accordingly. Veronica seems to feel especially guilty now that she only works part-time and still has to take some of these days off to care for her child.

Motherhood – a stumbling block for women’s careers

The average age of first-time mothers in the UK is increasing – some reasons for this development have been presented in this article. Although higher educated women are focused on their careers before having children, motherhood brings a large stumbling block to their progression. The examples have shown how these stumbling blocks develop into feelings of guilt. Even though a woman is legally entitled to the benefits of maternity policies, there is a continual self-reflection of a woman as an employee. Women easily become tied to an employer or a specific role as they feel that they have to earn the privilege of taking maternity leave and cannot take claim it soon after having taken a new job (or after a promotion).

Centralised maternity payment and shared leave: measures to reduce young mother’s feelings of guilt

Even if a maternity policy seems particularly sympathetic to women, in terms of the length of time a woman can have out of work after giving birth, there are other constraints at play which limit a woman’s freedoms. It was a particularly interesting discovery that most of the women found themselves turning down a job opportunity. It seems that many components of the transition to motherhood limit a woman’s confidence as a worker. This suggests that effective policies should be devised to reduce the feelings of guilt among women about their performance, during these critical years. A more centralised system of maternity payment, to reduce the onus from employers, would in turn reduce the feelings of guilt a woman has to her employer. Additionally, strengthening the parental leave policies would provide women with the opportunity of sharing the leave with their partners, allowing them more flexibility. This would have the added benefit of reducing the discrimination of women on the basis

Oonagh Eastmond
Oonagh Eastmond is a regular contributor who lives and works in the United Kingdom. She has recently completed the Erasmus Mundus Master's in Gender Studies during which she completed an internship with the UNDP in Bangkok, working on a conference focused on women's economic empowerment. She has also worked in Cambodia for an agency protecting female victims of trafficking and wrote her thesis on human trafficking, which is due to be published soon in the academic journal, Femina Politica. Oonagh is passionate about improving women's rights and ensuring gender equality across all aspects of life.

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