Should you take maternity leave if you work for yourself?

Taking maternity leave as a freelance mum is tricky. Government maternity pay is low, and you’ll be stepping away from the freelance career you’ve been building… will it still be there when you return? Here are Annie Ridout’s thoughts on it all…

Helen Martin, founder and editor of Lionheart Magazine, is due to give birth to her third child soon. In a great blog post for Doing it for the Kids, Helen discusses how hard it is to switch off and ‘start maternity leave’ when you work for yourself.

I empathise with Helen’s predicament, having given birth to my second baby while working as a freelancer. In preparation, I compiled three months’ worth of articles for The Early Hour – and all associated social media. At the time, I was publishing daily so this was a lot of work.

In fact, I spent a large proportion of my pregnancy fretting about how I’d keep everything going while recovering from childbirth, and looking after a newborn baby as well as a two-year-old. The forward-planning helped, but didn’t alleviate all anxiety.

And then I gave birth to my son. Initially, he slept all the time and except for breastfeeding being very painful, there were no major issues. This meant that when my daughter was at nursery two days a week, I was able to work quite easily – even write a feature for Red Magazine when he was a few weeks old.

But once he became less sleepy and more demanding, working became harder. And this coincided with all that pre-scheduled content running out. Suddenly, I had a very-much-awake newborn, daily articles to write, a potty training two-year-old and a huge amount of anxiety.

After the best part of a year spent having meltdowns, breakdowns, anxiety attacks and shedding a fair few tears – I decided to reduce the content I was putting out on The Early Hour. I reasoned that less content and better use of social media should yield the same results as daily content. (It does).

Also, I wanted to free up time for writing freelance articles for other publications, like Stylist and the Guardian, and to secure a book deal. All these things began to happen when I shifted my focus from creating as much content as possible, to putting out meaningful articles less often.

When I read that piece by Helen, on Doing it for the Kids, it reminded me of my own situation, and how reluctant I was to switch off from work and put all my energy into family life. Partly, that’s because I love work as well as my kids. But there was an element of fear that I’d be sacrificing the career I’d worked so hard to build.

Also, maternity pay for freelance mums is pitiful; there’s no ’90 per cent of your salary for the first six weeks’, to mirror the maternity pay for employed mothers. So it’s just the government allowance of approximately £140 a week that we’re entitled to.

Therefore, many self-employed mothers return to work much sooner than they’d like to. And then, like me, experience anxiety and other mental health issues because of it. What we need is better financial support, and some flexibility in terms of continuing to keep things running while on maternity leave.

As it is, freelance mums are entitled to 10 ‘keeping in touch’ (KIT) days during maternity leave. This means you can only work for 10 days during the period you’re receiving maternity allowance. It doesn’t seem fair that we receive less maternity pay and yet we’re not allowed to top it up by working more than those 10 allotted days.

Journalist Robyn Wilder decided to forgo maternity leave altogether, so that she could continue earning a decent living. The maternity allowance simply didn’t amount to enough to make it worth her giving up her column for The Pool and other freelance journalism.

If I could go back now, I’d have reduced my workload (The Early Hour articles) much sooner; before the birth of my second baby. Though I would have still written that article for Red, and later accepted a job as copywriter for Clementine App. Both were a welcome focus outside of motherhood, and kept my portfolio updated.

But a bit of extra maternity allowance would have massively reduced my anxiety. If I hadn’t had to worry about not having enough to contribute to the household income, I might have put less pressure on myself during pregnancy and in the early months with my son.

What are your thoughts on it all: should you take maternity leave if you work for yourself?