“Everything is going up”: New mothers try to cope with the cost of living crisis

The UK’s state maternity pay is just half of the living wage and has only been increased by 3% this year, while inflation is three times higher.

Woman holding a baby works on a laptop

 

Darylynn is in the intense first months of parenthood, trying to decipher her four-month-old son’s different cries, deal with broken nights, and navigate each day’s chaos. On top of all this, she and her partner worry about money. Because Darylynn’s maternity pay is so low, they’re living on “what’s basically just one income.”  

“There are a lot of [baby] classes, like the ‘play and sing’ classes, but most of them are private,” says Darylynn, who lives in Milton Keynes and is an associate producer at a video games company. During her maternity leave she has only been going to one free baby group a week, which is isolating for her and her baby, at a time when she is trying to adjust to her new identity as a mother.

“I’m not super-sociable to begin with, but I definitely would have liked to have tried more [groups], especially to make sure that the baby doesn’t get my social anxieties, I don’t want to give those to him,” she says. “To have the ‘This is going to cost money’ aspect added on top, it’s like an extra anxiety that I didn’t need.”

In the UK, working women are entitled to state maternity pay – but the statutory rate they receive for most of this period is just £156.66 per week, equal to 47% of the national living wage. Moreover, mothers receive this benefit for just under nine months. After that they receive nothing at all, even though most babies are still weaning at nine months and breastfeeding is recommended for up to a year.

At a time when the cost of living crisis is pushing up basic household bills, it is even harder for mothers to cope. Just over half of new mums have been relying on credit cards or loans to get by, while a similar proportion had to return to work early because of money worries, according to a survey published in March by the charity Maternity Action. These figures may well have risen even higher in recent weeks, as the cost of living continues to go up.

“We’ve heard from mums who can’t afford milk, they can’t afford to keep their baby warm, they go back to work three weeks after a C-section because they can’t afford to stay home any longer,” Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said in a statement.

Many of the new mums surveyed said they had turned to food banks to survive, even though they had worked before having a baby. And 56% said money worries impacted their health and wellbeing during pregnancy and maternity leave.

The UK has two types of state maternity pay for working women – Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) and Maternity Allowance (MA). Women on SMP usually receive 90% of their salary for six weeks before dropping down to the £156.66 weekly rate. Women who don’t qualify for SMP, such as self-employed women and those on lower incomes, have to claim MA and usually just receive £156.66 per week for the whole period, despite being less likely to have savings in the bank to support themselves.

Everything has gone up” 

Rachel, a support worker poses in the garden

For Rachel (pictured above), a support worker at a small charity in Leamington, the combination of low state maternity pay and rising prices is a major worry as she tries for her second baby.

Everything has gone up,” she says. “It’s meant to be a happy time and you’re meant to be joyful at the thought of having baby number two…But I’d say the majority of the time, it’s not happy thoughts, it’s anxiety and worry about how are you going to afford it and what are you going to do?”

The UK’s cost of living crisis is being driven by big rises in households’ energy bills this year, plus higher food and petrol prices. The crisis is forecast to disproportionately affect women, who are more likely to be in jobs that pay below living wage and to manage daily household costs. And while inflation hit a 40-year high of 9% in April and is forecast to keep climbing, the government has only increased state maternity pay for this financial year by just over 3%.

Rachel and her partner deferred trying for a second baby for as long as possible, because of costs, but now that she’s 41 they can’t keep waiting. They’re already cutting down on driving and central heating to save money, in preparation for her going onto maternity pay. They no longer have puddings with their meals, other than “little custard pots” for their five-year-old son. Their son is autistic and needs regular routines, but when Rachel goes onto maternity pay they will have to cut his before-school club, which is likely to result in “meltdowns” as he adjusts.

Maternity Action’s campaigners are calling on the government to put state maternity pay in line with the national living wage, but action seems unlikely. In this month’s Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s priorities for the coming year, there was no mention of the long-awaited Employment Bill and its family-friendly policies, let alone maternity pay. 

“It’s bonkers,” Rachel says of the lack of state support. “Because I’ve worked all my life. I’ve never had a time where I’ve been unemployed. I’ve worked from the age of 15, I’ve paid my taxes.”

Are employers leading the way as the state falls short?

Office desk with notepad saying "Parental leave"

Working families therefore increasingly hope that another group will support them: their employers. Nearly two-thirds of companies now offer women “enhanced maternity pay” above the state minimum, according to a survey last year by XpertHR. 

But these schemes vary widely. The most common form of “enhanced maternity pay” involves paying out slightly more money just for the first six weeks, the survey found. While a company’s female employees have a legal right to take up to one year off as maternity leave, many return to work earlier as their money runs out.

Darylynn, the new mum in Milton Keynes, is not getting any enhanced pay while on leave and she feels that employers should step up. “The statutory minimum is too little, but also businesses should offer more than the bare minimum,” she says. “It’s like: ‘Do you not want your female employees to come back?’”

Some of the best UK employers in this regard include Aviva, the insurance company, which offers both mums and dads six months’ leave on full pay. Etsy, the online marketplace, similarly offers 26 weeks of fully-paid parental leave. Vodafone has a global policy that offers up to 26 weeks on full pay to mothers and 16 weeks to “non-birthing partners”.

There are limitations on expecting employers to take on this responsibility, says Kate Palmer at Peninsula, an HR services provider and consultancy. Many small and medium-sized companies can’t afford full pay for someone on maternity leave, as well as paying someone else to cover their role, especially at a time when businesses themselves are being stretched by the cost of living crisis. Self-employed women would also be left out of such benefits. 

“I don’t doubt for one minute that most businesses would prefer to have an enhanced scheme, because it attracts, it retains, it engages [their staff],” Palmer says. “But it’s difficult if, as a business, you just can’t afford it.”

The start of a long road

For many women, a year of maternity leave isn’t a financial blip that they can recover from quickly, because when they return to work they face eye-watering private nursery costs that are often higher than a full-time salary. The UK has the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world, according to OECD data. And so, bizarrely, many young families face even deeper financial struggles when the mother returns to paid work.

“During maternity leave you want to be saving, ready for the childcare fees,” Rachel says. “But you can’t [because maternity pay is so low].”

“You have to kind of put off looking at the figures and think, ‘When the day comes we’ll figure it out.’ And that’s what we’ll have to do. We’ll have to sit down with a spreadsheet and a calculator and make a list of where we can cut back…We’ll just take it day by day.”





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