A new report on the impact of the cost of living crisis on women on maternity leave presents a worrying picture of financial struggles and calls for urgent action.
Women on maternity leave are being forced back to work early, are using all their savings and living on credit, are having to choose between heating and eating and are subject to intense stress as a result of low rates of maternity pay and the cost of living crisis, according to a new report.
The report by Maternity Action is based on a survey of 983 women in February and March so the situation as we approach winter and more rises in bills may well be worse. The survey found nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) said that they worried a lot about money while they were pregnant or on maternity leave and a further third said that they sometimes worried. Less than 5% said that they did not worry at all. Many had to dip into savings to cover basic living costs or were forced into debt. The sharp rise in the cost of living – particularly the cost of rising heating and food bills were of real concern. While daily household expenses increased the dramatic drop in income experienced by households meant that many were struggling to pay for the basic necessities. Combined with the increased costs that a new baby brings this was leading to real financial hardship.
One mum said: “I have two children and both maternity leaves have been SMP only. In order to cope with the drop in take home money I have been required to eat into all our household savings, borrow from family and still increase credit card debt in order to get by. It was a horrible worrying time and I will be recovering financially for many years.”
Another stated: “I went from a decent wage which enabled me to pay my bills to not even enough to cover my mortgage. I had saved beforehand but the cost of living has increased hugely and I was living hand to mouth at times, making sure my children were fed but only able to afford toast for myself.”
There were also concerns from some women about the impact on their retirement due to gaps in pension contributions during their maternity leave and how this would affect how long they would need to carry on working later in life.
Respondents reported a negative impact on their partner’s mental health as well as their own and the detrimental effect on their relationship with their partner due to the constant concerns about finances. Many found that for the first time they felt unable to pay their way in terms of contributing to household expenses and became more and more reliant on their partner to pay for everything which they found difficult to cope with having been financially independent prior to having a baby.
One mum said: “It has drawn a wedge in mine and my partner’s relationship. We struggle to make ends meet and then fight constantly and worry about how we’re going to get the money to pay our bills. My mental health has seriously deteriorated and if it wasn’t for me having a baby I probably would’ve harmed myself by now.”
Some mothers were concerned about the impact on older children now that they were no longer able to afford treats such as occasional days out or to pay for toys or leisure clubs and activities or holidays. There was also a longer term impact on plans to extend their family with women saying that they would like another baby but just did not think they could afford it or cope with the financial stress that it would incur.
Just over half (51%) said that they had to rely on their credit card or had to borrow money (for example from friends or family) while pregnant or on maternity leave. Many reported having saved up for a long while – often for years – before having a baby in order to cushion the loss in income. But even so, women reported that after having used up their savings they still found that this did not cover their drop in income forcing them to resort to other means, such as borrowing, to pay their bills. Longer term this also affected some families’ ability to take out a mortgage or move house because of the debt they had accrued and low credit ratings they were now facing because they had been unable to pay off credit cards.
One woman said: “I had saved some money (not easy during a pandemic) to cover as many of my expenses as possible while I took time off. It wasn’t enough. I ended up in my overdraft and going back to work when my son was three weeks old – way too soon, especially considering I had an emergency C-section.”
Many had faced challenges in being able to buy the things that they needed while they were pregnant or on maternity leave. Nearly one in six (17%) said they had struggled a lot to do this and over half (53%) said that they had sometimes struggled. Respondents reported having to choose between heating their home and eating, with many parents unable to afford to eat healthy meals or some days not even eating at all themselves.
Two per cent had had to use a food bank during this time. However several respondents said that, although they had not had to do this so far, they could see a time coming when they would have to. Many others said that without the help and support of family and friends they would have had to use a foodbank.
Many respondents were forced to return to work after maternity leave earlier than they had wanted to because of money worries. Over half (52%) of respondents who were returning to work said that they had returned earlier than planned for this reason. Many women spoke about having to return to work after nine months of maternity leave when they would have preferred to have taken 12 months but were unable to do so because they would have no income for the final three months once their maternity pay came to an end. A large number had to return even earlier because they could not afford to continue living on only statutory maternity payments. One of the impacts of this was on women’s ability to continue breastfeeding for as long as they wanted to as combining work with breastfeeding was just not possible for some.
A recent Pregnant Then Screwed poll of 4,000 mothers who are more than 20 weeks pregnant, or have given birth in the last three months found two-thirds said they would be forced to return to work from maternity leave earlier than they wanted because of the cost of living crisis. For 30% that means returning before their baby is six months old.
Maternity Action also looked at the impact of financial concerns on mental health. More than half (56%) of respondents said that money worries affected their health or wellbeing while they were pregnant or on maternity leave, with a further one in five (19%) saying that they were unsure.
One mum stated: “The worry almost takes over everything and I have to work really hard to try and put it out of my mind and not let it ruin the most precious time in my life with my new born baby.”
Maternity Action points out that stress has been linked to poorer pregnancy health and possible developmental problems in babies. These health impacts have prompted some maternity services to embed legal help with employment and benefits in their services.
Many mothers reported being unable to afford healthy food and some reported that this had affected their ability to breastfeed.
Stress and depression were sometimes exacerbated because of the isolation that women experienced when they were not able to afford to go to baby and toddler groups where they could have found some support or meet friends or family as they used to.
The report also showed the importance of enhanced maternity pay schemes. Those respondents who were in receipt of enhanced occupational maternity pay, although still negatively impacted financially, were somewhat less likely to report financial concerns and stresses. They were less likely to worry a lot about money while pregnant or on maternity leave (56% compared to 64% of all respondents) and less likely to have had to use a credit card or borrow money (45% compared to 51% of all respondents). They were also less likely to report having struggled a lot to buy the things they needed (11% compared to 17% of all respondents and were less likely to have had to return to work earlier than planned because of money worries (39% compared to 52% of all respondents).
However, most women who received enhanced maternity pay only received this for a limited number of weeks and at varying rates of support after which they had to manage on Statutory Maternity Pay – if they qualify for this – or Maternity Allowance for the remainder of their maternity leave.
A small proportion of respondents (10%) were in receipt of Maternity Allowance rather than Statutory Maternity Pay and are up to £5,000 worse off than women in similar circumstances in receipt of Statutory Maternity Pay. Less than 1% of respondents reported receiving each of Sure Start Maternity Grant, Healthy Start or the Scottish Best Start grant and food vouchers.
Limited access to these benefits may be the result of restrictive eligibility criteria or lack of awareness of benefit entitlements, says Maternity Action. Sure Start Maternity Grant is restricted to first children or first multiple births, unlike the Scottish Best Start grant. Healthy Start food vouchers are available to women on Universal Credit whose income from employment, including maternity pay, is less than £408 per month. Even with the current low rates of maternity pay, this leaves women in receipt of Universal Credit and Statutory Maternity Pay ineligible for this form of support.
Many respondents raised concerns about the high costs of childcare that they would face on their return to work. When combined with the loss of income they had experienced in the months when they had been on maternity leave, the prospect of coping with childcare expenses as well as debts already incurred caused a great deal of stress and worry.
The report calls for an increase in the flat rate of statutory rate for maternity, paternity and shared parental pay to the level of the national minimum wage for a 35-hour week – currently £332.50 – and the expansion of eligibility for Sure Start Maternity Grant and Healthy Start payments. They also want to see Maternity Allowance under Universal Credit regulations brought into line with Statutory Maternity Pay, ensuring that women receive the same benefits payments irrespective of the type of maternity pay they receive and the extension of eligibility for the Sure Start Maternity Grant to second and subsequent children, mirroring entitlement to the Scottish Best Start Grant.
Other recommendations include raising the income threshold for Healthy Start payments to enable women in receipt of Statutory Maternity Pay to access the scheme, better access to legal rights and the integration of advice on maternity rights and benefits into maternity services in order to support women to retain their jobs when they have their baby and to ensure that women can access their full maternity pay and benefits entitlements.