'There's No Way I Could Survive': Mums Forced Back To Work Weeks After Birth Due To 'Poor' Maternity Pay

The majority of mothers are having to cut their maternity leave short because of financial hardship, according to new figures released by Pregnant Then Screwed.

The charity found just one in four new mums can afford to take their full maternity leave.

Its survey of 5,000 mothers and parents-to-be also found one in 10 need to return to work four months postpartum because they simply can’t afford to stay off any longer.

Statutory maternity leave in the UK is paid for up to 39 weeks – mothers receive 90% of average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first six weeks, followed by £172.48 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.

For many mothers, this simply isn’t enough to live on – let alone pay the additional costs needed (think: nappies, wipes, formula milk) to care for a baby.

Sarah*, who preferred not to share her real name, is self-employed and had to return to work two weeks after giving birth as Maternity Allowance for the self employed is “so poor”.

People who are self-employed can get Maternity Allowance for up to 39 weeks which, again, is either at £172.48 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).

“I took my four-week-old baby to a new pitch meeting with all men, they asked me if she’d stop crying,” Sarah recalled.

“I had another meeting where they told me not to tell the client I’d just had a baby and I had to pump my milk in the loo.”

Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Sarah Louise Lane, a support worker based in Hertfordshire, revealed she had no choice but to go back to work when her baby was just six weeks old.

The mum-of-four was self-employed, so she was entitled to Maternity Allowance – however, she discovered that because she and her partner were also in receipt of Universal Credit, any money she received from her Maternity Allowance was deducted from their Universal Credit payment.

The 36-year-old said: “Then the cost of living crisis suddenly appeared overnight and we used our savings to get by, but realised we wouldn’t be able to afford one wage.

“I ended up returning to work as a support worker bringing my baby with me, if clients were able to, while he was young and slept lots.”

Similarly, Hannah, who preferred not to share her surname, said she went back to work at three months postpartum because she couldn’t afford to stay off.

“I was forced out of work by my previous employer whilst pregnant,” she said. “There was absolutely no way I could manage to survive on Statutory Maternity Pay, and with no family close by to move in with, there was no other alternative.

“Then come the childcare fees – it’s a joke.”

In the UK, the average cost of putting a child under two in nursery full-time is just shy of £15,000. It’s perhaps no wonder then that one in 10 mums are more than £20,000 in debt. 

“My little one is now six, and I’m still paying off the debt I got into for simply trying to survive back then,” Hannah added.

Amy, 30, from Wiltshire, gave birth to her second child in July and said she will have to return to work – in a new role for a new company – in the new year.

She said the Statutory Maternity Pay she currently receives doesn’t cover an eighth of her household’s outgoings. “Maternity pay is just over half what my normal pay in a month would be,” she said.

The family’s mortgage and nursery fees are doubling to £1,600 and £1,400 a month, respectively – and Amy admitted they are “barely staying afloat”.

“Due to the Statutory Maternity Pay being so awful, we’ve had to borrow money from our families, cut our expenditures to the bare minimum and it’s forced me to have to go back to work earlier than I’d have liked just to keep our heads above water,” she added.

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said the UK has some of the lowest rates of parental leave pay in the world.

“National minimum wage is the legal minimum a person should be paid, yet new mothers are meant to survive on less than half of this amount for 33 weeks, whilst their outgoings remain the same. And, of course, the cost of living crisis is exacerbating this issue,” she said.

Brearley warned the perinatal period is “critically important to the health and well-being of a mother and her child”, and added we should all be “deeply concerned” that, due to severe hardship, we are seeing a “degeneration and a degradation of this vital period.”

“Ultimately, It is a false economy to not pay parental leave at a rate at which families can survive and thrive,” she added.

In response to the latest findings, a government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We want every child to have the best start in life, which is why we have increased Statutory Maternity Pay and Maternity Allowance by over 10% this year.”

In April 2023, the Department for Work and Pensions raised the rates for Statutory Maternity Pay meaning weekly payments went from £156.66 to £172.48.

They added: “Parents who are ready to return to work will benefit from the single biggest investment in childcare in England ever and we’re supporting those who are struggling with record financial support worth around £3,300 per household as we drive down inflation to make everyone’s money go further.”