‘FLEXIBLE WORKING ISN’T AN OPTION.’ THAT’S WHAT MY EMPLOYER CONFIRMED DURING MY MATERNITY. I HAD TO CHOOSE, MY CAREER OR MY DAUGHTER? I CHOSE MY DAUGHTER, AND PAID THE PRICE.
When I say I paid the price I want to be clear from the off, I do not and never have regretted choosing my daughter. Every cuddle, every tear, every moment. The priceless gift of looking after another life… but why do you have to pay the price financially when it would be so easy to turn 37.5 hours, into 30.
I was very happy at work. I began working age 14 part-time, 16 full-time, and I barely took a day off in 20 years. I loved work. I bought a house, married, and my husband and I knew that it would be likely that I would be the one working whilst he was a stay-at-home dad. But life doesn’t always work as you planned.
Within a couple of years of my first (failed) pregnancy with my husband, I was single and pregnant with a donor. I loved my job, was satisfied that I would look after us both and as (what I felt like) a middle aged woman I was happy with my decisions, I worked for a small, very family friendly company, where the two mothers worked around school plays and childcare. But during my maternity leave my employer informed me that she had sold the company, but I was protected under TUPE.
As soon as I knew I would be a single mum I embarked on a law-degree. I wanted to improve my long-term salary prospects to enable me to ensure that my child did not feel the pinch of being bought up in a single parent family, but this was a long-term plan. A ten-year plan. Something I would have shied away from in my 20s but when you are working on a new life timescale instead of your own, ten years does not seem that long.
Then came the birth of my child, an unbreakable bond that I could never have imagined, and I was very lucky, the breastfeeding worked really well from the off. I had a very happy and content baby, and being single really helped me to be nocturnal with her and it did not matter if we slept at 5pm. Six months in this was still working well, I had attempted to use a pump and a bottle but this messed up the natural production on demand and I produced too much milk that was painful. Natural was best and so I just fed her and produced the right amount of milk required. Too much detail for some I appreciate, but it is relevant, as you will see.
I was happy to return to work, but the new location of my work, with the hours, parking etc would mean that I would need to drop my daughter at childcare at 7:30 and I would have collected her at 7pm, 5 days a week, and a shorter day on a Saturday. I would have seen this child on Sundays only. I asked my employer if I could work in a different branch (parking outside) or work reduced hours. The cold, firm response was ‘flexible working is not an option, the hours and location are fixed and that is what is required under your contract to meet the needs of the business’. How could I leave this baby? She needed me, to feed her, nurture her, care for her, instinctively know if she was okay and cuddle her if she cried. I knew her nappy cry, her hungry cry, her cuddle me cry, and her I don’t feel so good cry.
I chose my child, I had to choose, I had a strong work ethic, long-term professional development plans and I wasn’t shy of looking for work, so I handed in my notice and started looking for part-time work… oh how naïve I was – I did not know that society constructively dismisses you when you are a mother or penalises you for needing to work in school / childcare hours by paying you peanuts. When I say I chose I didn’t really have a choice, as childcare closed at 5:30 so I would have HAD to leave by 4:30, I didn’t have the grandparent or nanny option.
Within 12 months I had lost my property, repossessed, I was googling what support was available, I had to learn about benefits and make phone calls whereby I was immediately treated as one of life’s scroungers, I was worrying about the cost of being on hold, I was worrying about everything. I studied and hugged my child and promised her that I would sort this out, but I did not know how hard that would be…
I found a part-time job. I had taken a 50% pay cut for the privilege of working in childcare hours. I kept looking for better work, but all of them were really low pay, minimum wage or not much over. I did do them but this leaves you trapped in relative poverty with the additional stress of school holidays. I was being forced into a life of still needing benefits; tax credits, housing benefit, debt, loans, payday loans.. all because I could not work for my skillset or salary band for 20 or 30 hours instead of 37.5. I am pretty peed about this.
I was now a single mum on benefits with poor credit, unable to get further loans, unable to get a secure property, unable to get a decent job, I was paying for expensive properties (the only landlords that would have me!) or mouldy properties, or short-term properties, and so on. The long-term, average rent, decent properties were let out to those not like me. I even applied for a property via my old employer, the one who bought the company and would not permit flexible working. The girl that took my job, that I trained, showed me around the property and then told me that they would not accept me, as a single mum on benefits without a guarantor. For 20 years I never complained about a chunk of my wages going missing into a pot. I was happy that we worked that way. I knew what it was like not to have an NHS (I had to wire £500 abroad so that my sister could get hospital treatment in my 20’s). I was happy to chip into a society that looked after each other. I was happy to chip in to state school as all my friends all had children, but gosh when you need it people really tear you to pieces and make you feel like the lowest of the low, and it is a hard cycle to get out of, not for lack of trying! I turned to pay-day loans for rent deficit and this damage is permanent.
If I accept working part-time for low pay as a permanent solution – because I am a mum, I will need tax credits and housing benefit for the duration of being a mum, I will need pension credits when I am older and I will never have disposable income to save a deposit to buy a property, and so will forever pay into somebody else’s estate, or the estate of the Crown. When my friends enjoy cruises in retirement I will be paying rent until the day I die with no disposable income. All because I could not continue my career, and my salary, part-time. I don’t want to claim tax credits, I want to pay tax!
I am fortunate that with my entrepreneurial mindset I have freelances, created a company and set up the SMBN to help other women in similar situations, but this is because I have been forced out of the sanctuary of employment, pensions, decent salary, great skillset. Whilst the SRA allows a 20hr per week training contract this is not realistic in the profession, and so my expectations of entering the legal profession were also naive.
I see so many posts by hundreds of women asking what work they can do in school hours. I see women sob because they drag their babies out of bed as their employer will not allow flexibility. I see women stressed on forums because they are breastfeeding and under pressure to move to the bottle so that they can get back to work in a few months. Women are targeted to work from home for free. Millions of families in the UK are forced into relative poverty becuase the parent can’t continue his/her career AND be a parent. It’s all for the sake of a few hours, we don’t all have grandparent childcare, and crucially many don’t want it. Families are locked into rental properties. We have wealthy employers and wealthy landlords because the combination of being able to charge high private rent and pay employees a low wage, because the Gov say it’s okay, but the Gov do not live on this wage or pay this rent. We have sheep instead of leaders. I worked as an Estate Agent and what we priced properties at, sale or rental was completely ungoverned. What I have now some will say is karma! I agree.
It is a very sad state of affairs where a woman is punished for doing the most important job in the world. Taking care of you.
I’m all for shared parental leave if it works for both parents, but if a woman is nurturing and feeding well then this must be the priority in the first 12 months. Thereafter we should all be able to work and be parents. And 15 weeks holiday? Schools all need summer school.
So now I help women who are forced into self-employment gain exposure to their business, because they are TRYING to make it work. When you are a single parent you can get some support but there is a lot of pressure to generate enough income from that business to cover the cost of living and draw a full time wage, and have enough left over for ongoing business expenses.
The Single Mums Business Network celebrates single mums who are hard working professional women. It stands to raise awareness that not all single parents, in fact very few, choose single parenting as a lifestyle choice. It raises awareness that single mums do not ‘want’ to need benefits, it raises awareness of the fact that without grandparent support or a spare room for a nanny you cannot go for that well paid role that does not let you get back to childcare for 5:15. There are many ‘obstacles’ or ‘barriers’ but these are not recognised at the top. Single Parents are offered parenting courses or child therapy, in assumption that we are the issue or that our children are not happy. Our children are happy, and clean, well-cared for.
The only issue is that years ago a man’s salary would cover the relative cost of living, and the woman would always be free for childcare, cleaning, cooking etc, but that is not how we live anymore, and we need to find a new way for work to work for single income households.
One income needs to cover a high cost of living, and childcare, and if you can’t do that then you need to work from home, so that you can take care of your children and do what you can to earn money during school and sleeping hours. Women really do want to be financially independent, and we want be mums, we need to be mums, but we also need society not to kick us to the ground because of that. The SMBN does what it can, but times need to change.
All for the sake of 7.5 hours. The SMBN calls for Policy Change. As founder of the SMBN I would like to see all employers have a legal obligation to offer at least 30% of roles, in all professions and all pay scales for a maximum of 0.8 FTE. At the moment primary carers are only offered support staff roles for low pay. This leads to a need for benefits. There are some employers offering professional roles part-time but these needs to be mandatory for all employers of a certain size so that people can maintain their pay scale and professional development.