Following BBC drama The Replacement’s chilling exploration of maternity leave, Stylist’s acting deputy editor explores the positives of taking time out:
A successful woman pausing work at the peak of her career to go on maternity leave. A sinister replacement who seems intent on undermining her at every opportunity. BBC One’s The Replacement, which finished last night, has been the talk of the Stylist office for the past three weeks.
The premise is brilliant, of course, because it plays right to the heart of so many of our fears. Having given everything to your career for the best part of a decade – the average age for first-time mothers in the UK is 30.3 – you’re about to leave the party. Will you get invited back? What will life mean when you’re no longer in the role that has defined you for so long? And will your replacement do a better job than you? I still can’t quite believe that it was written and directed by men as the subtle nuances of this tricky terrain are all there: the innuendo from colleagues – “She doesn’t think you’ll come back”; her boss trying and failing to hide her shock; and the apologetic nature of Ellen when she announces her pregnancy to the team: “It’s not great timing but...”. Is it any wonder that the show has hit a nerve?
But it also made me pretty depressed on behalf of the thousands of women in the UK who are contemplating motherhood and its impact on their career. 54,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs for getting pregnant or taking maternity leave, and 77% of working mums report having endured negative or discriminatory treatment on their return to work. These statistics are shocking and depressing and likely just the tip of the iceberg. They’re bound up in an archaic attitude towards motherhood and work that’s misogyonistic, misguided and also illegal. It might make good TV but it also further feeds women’s fear. Fear that having a child somehow renders you a less desirable employee. Fear that it makes you less capable, less ambitious. Motherhood is messy enough without that soundtrack playing merrily in the background.
I’ve been at Stylist since we launched seven years ago. Back then, the magazine was our baby – it stole almost as much precious sleep as a newborn and took up the same amount of headspace. I gave it everything and still take the utmost pride in what I do. But in four weeks’ time, I’m about to go on my third maternity leave (yes, I’ve had a busy few years). And while each has come with its own unique cocktail of anxiety and uncertainty, overall they’ve been positive experiences that have not only made me better at my job, but also more secure in my ability.
I found my first maternity cover in a warm and enthusiastic Australian who had edited magazines on the other side of the world. I handed over every bit of information I could without being prescriptive and took my swollen ankles home. I genuinely wanted this person to succeed and knew that employing someone who wasn’t up to scratch would jeopardise the thing I’d spent years building. Did I worry that she might be better than me? I did. Did I worry that people would like her more than me? Most definitely. She’s charming and fun and wears much better shoes. But the sound of a crying baby soon muted those fears. I gave her space – for the time I was away, it was her job and I respected that. I resisted asking about work too much when I saw colleagues – that’s when the niggles start. And I used my Keeping In Touch days [you’re allowed to work up to ten days during maternity leave without bringing your pay to an end] to talk about the magazine’s future, rather than fixating on what I was missing out on. And soon, I began to find the positives in taking a break from my career...
Maternity leave does afford you a bit of headspace. When you’re on the treadmill of commute/work/commute, it’s easy to keep going in the same direction. I’m not suggesting those sleep-deprived months are when you’ll come up with your billion-pound business idea (although there are currently around 300,000 ‘mumpreneurs’ in the UK contributing £7.4bn to the economy each year) or that suddenly, buoyed by a new perspective on the important things in life, you’ll discover your passion to be a yoga teacher. For me, those months gave me the opportunity to consume my product as a reader, assess the competition, and take away some valuable learnings on how I could improve.
There is no doubt that I’m a different employee to the one I used to be. While I once sat at my desk until 9pm, I now, for the most part, leave on time. (Indeed, studies show that longer hours do not make you more productive, nor do they make you more respected by colleagues.) I’m realistic about what I can achieve in the time frame I have and am very discerning about how I spend my 9-5. I make decisions quickly and efficiently – I have to. I hope that by showing my team a decent work/life balance, they feel that they can leave in time for dinner, too. And perhaps, most importantly, I’m more appreciative of my job as I know how important it is for me to be able to do both.
While I’m fully aware that I’m lucky enough to work in a progressive and female-friendly industry, it’s time that every industry woke up to the value of mothers in the workplace. Statistics repeatedly show that companies with women on their management team perform better; bosses overwhelmingly agree that parents become better bosses, multi-taskers and decision-makers; and with mothers controlling the household spending power, it doesn’t hurt to know their habits and how to talk to them.
It’s time we stopped apologising for wanting to be mums and have careers because I don’t hear men apologising for being dads who work. Don’t fear maternity leave; own it. Believe in your right to be a mother and be ambitious. Enjoy your right to paid maternity leave and take as long or as little as you want. But most of all, believe that you will still be as good at your job as you were before, because I can guarantee that you’ll learn the kind of multi-tasking skills on mat leave that no training course could ever teach you. And as for what once seemed overwhelmingly busy? Ha! You’ll have it done by 10am.
As for that evil maternity cover stealing your job? There’s no doubt it happens. But not often. That Ausssie was so great, we made her our associate editor. Just maybe don’t hire anyone called Paula...
Know your rights
1. How long?
Eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave. The first 26 weeks is known as ‘Ordinary Maternity Leave’, the last 26 weeks as ‘Additional Maternity Leave’. You don’t have to take 52 weeks, but you must take two weeks’ leave after your baby is born (or four weeks if you work in a factory).
2. Money matters
Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) is paid for up to 39 weeks. For the first six weeks, you get 90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax). For the next 33 weeks, it becomes £139.58 a week or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).
3. Terms & conditions
Employees are entitled to any pay rises given during the leave. They also continue to build up holiday entitlement and can take any holiday they’ve accrued before or after the leave.
4. Extra leave
You could get 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave for each child up to their 18th birthday.
5. Flexible working
On returning, you are entitled to request flexible working hours. Your employer must consider your request and respond to you in writing.
For more information on your maternity leave rights, visit: maternityaction.org.uk