Why is it so hard to admit I’m scared about giving up work to have a baby?

I’ve always wanted to be a mum, ever since I was a kid (Picture: Rose Stokes)

As any person who has ever grown and birthed a human can attest, from the moment you find out you’re pregnant, your whole concept of time shifts. 

Once seemingly open, vast and unending, the way you view the future suddenly becomes governed by a clock that is counting down to a specific day in 9-10 months’ time. 

Suddenly, vague concepts of future plans are replaced with a more concrete knowledge that, after one day, everything will be different.

And if it’s your first child, the monumental shift of becoming a parent and the diverse ways it will change your life can be hard to visualise before the fact, making it hard to think about anything beyond your due date.

This makes planning beyond your pregnancy pretty difficult. With so many unknowns, it’s hard to commit to anything. And yet (well-intentioned) questions from others come thick and fast.

Will you give birth this way or that? Are you going to breastfeed? Sleep train? Which attachment style do you want to adopt as a parent? Can we meet for coffee two weeks after the birth? And how long are you going to take off work? 

This last question is the one I struggle the most to answer. For all of the others, I’ve adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude that I feel fine about committing to.

But when it comes to work and the idea of stepping back from my career for an undetermined period, I feel a lot of anxiety and fear. 

In fact, sometimes this question plunges me into a spiral of deep anxiety.

You see, I’ve always wanted to be a mum, ever since I was a kid. But at the same time, I love my job and I will miss it. Yet, even in 2022, despite decades of fight behind us and many more hard-won rights to show for it, having a baby can still be a major career set-back. 

It’s evident in the statistics. 

According to the campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed, in the UK ‘54,000 women a year lose their job simply for getting pregnant [and] 390,000 working mums experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work each year.’

And while this is horrifying and unjust on its own, it gets worse when you factor in the impact on earning potential and career progression of women who decide to become mothers in an economic environment that already punishes them for their gender.  

The so-called motherhood pay penalty is well-documented, with a study from the Joseph Rowntree Trust and the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2018 demonstrating that by the time a child reaches the age of 20, their mother will earn 30% less per hour on average than their similarly educated father. The report goes on to say that about a quarter of this is because of the women in question only working part-time after childbirth. 

I don’t think I should have to sacrifice everything I’ve achieved to become a mother

And while many may assume that this is a personal choice made by mothers who want to spend more time with their children — which would be a completely understandable decision to make — it is also down to, at least in part, the astronomical cost of childcare in this country that is forcing many women out of the workplace. 

In 2019, Pregnant Then Screwed undertook research showing that the UK’s unaffordable childcare was pushing almost one-fifth of parents out of their jobs, the majority of them women. Before you assume that this is again a choice made by mothers, for many couples it makes more financial sense for the woman to leave work, given their lower earnings and/or earning potential. In my case, it certainly would be. 

And this is all before you consider the gender pension gap, which research by the union Prospect put at 37.9% in 2019-20, and the detrimental impact the pandemic has had on women in the workplace specifically.

All in all, it looks a bit… terrifying.

The fact I am self-employed and therefore entitled only to statutory maternity pay is, of course, another concern that I’m sure is shared by those of the other women in the same position in the UK (of which there are 1.7million) with plans to have children.

But beyond all of these very real reasons for feeling anxious about leaving work for maternity leave, there is another that I find harder to admit: much of my personal identity and self-esteem are tied up in my work, and I’m worried about who or where I’ll be without them.

Put more simply: like many other women, I’ve worked bloody hard to build my career and I don’t think I should have to sacrifice everything I’ve achieved to become a mother.

Of course, I know that having a baby will be a really special and enriching experience, and that if it is the case that I feel any sort of loss of identity by leaving work, this is likely to be filled, at least in part, by the sense of satisfaction I get from my new role.

I also know that I am one of the lucky ones; I have a partner who (correctly) recognises that his share of the childcare responsibility is 50%. Of course, this shouldn’t be considered as ‘lucky’ and is the bare minimum that all women deserve in their partnerships – but we are fortunate that we will be able to make this a workable option financially, too.

The reality is that financial pressures make this an unrealistic option for many, and it is only fair that we should have an economic system that doesn’t penalise women for taking time out to become mothers, or a childcare system that is so grossly unaffordable that it limits our options in this regard. 

Judging by the government’s decision on International Women’s Day to vote down an inquiry to the costs of childcare in the UK though, it doesn’t feel like this issue is being taken seriously.

In the madness of pregnancy — the joys, the worries, the anticipation, the excitement — anxiety about stepping away from work is not something I have heard discussed much among expectant mothers.

Perhaps they, like I, feel that given how wonderful (and fortunate) it can be to conceive a child, any negative discussion of what we’re giving up to do so could be read as a lack of gratitude. 

The truth is that until women have the same freedom to make choices about how to build their lives as men — whether that’s down to the decision to become parents or how to structure their careers — we will never achieve true gender equality. 

Because, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I’ve never met a man who has worried about the loss of their career on the precipice of becoming a parent. 

It makes complete sense that women like me may feel anxious about giving up work, especially those in lower-paying careers — and it doesn’t mean that we are not looking forward to motherhood or are ungrateful for the journey we are on.

It is purely a reflection of the skewed and unequal society we live in and the knowledge of how this is likely to impact us moving forwards.

In 2022 the idea of being able to have the career you want and be the parent you want to be shouldn’t feel as radical as it does.

But until policymakers commit to really understanding the issues at hand and how they are holding women back — and then to addressing these, we are destined to be stuck in the impossible in-between.

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