I grew up in Eastern Europe in a middle class family when education was the primary focus. By the time communism was gone, I knew nothing less than an average Western child. I was brought up by loving parents, who both worked very hard - mum as a caregiver, father as a breadwinner - to make sure I did not end up in prison. 32 years later I find myself in their shoes having recently given birth to our son whom by the time of writing is two months old. I was professionally active until the very last day of my pregnancy and did not have to change my lifestyle very much while expecting - a few adjustments here and there and that was it. As with any unknowns, however, I kept wondering if once I would become a mum, I would be able to retain my lifestyle - career, education, traveling, projects, dinners, friends, etc.
There is this assumption that having a child is the end of the world. I dare to say it is a beginning of a new one. Secondly, that the woman's priority changes. Finally, we cannot forget about the financial burden which suddenly lands on any parent shoulders - I do not think anyone would deny it. So what do I think about it all?
The End of The World
Well, having children is not a decision one takes lightly. With all the joy of expecting, a lot of couples hear: make sure you sleep as much as you can because after he is born you will always be left sleep-deprived. Other would say: you may as well forget your freedom for the next 18 years or so. Now, as much as I take others advice into consideration I am also aware they say so through their own lenses. Yes, maybe for them it was the end of their world. But it does not have to be for you. It takes a little bit of planning (financial, especially!) and the willingness and readiness to adjust. I would not dare to try to convince you that nothing changes. A lot does. Having said that it is a beautiful new world and not the end of your world. Two months in, into the new role of being a mother I can say: do not worry! Someone once told me that I have a very high tolerance to pain (tell me this when I am seeing my dentist) so my perspective certainly cannot equal yours. My sleepless nights may feel a little lighter than yours although we spend the same amount of time trying to comfort the little one. Your life will definitely slow down for some time as mine did, but I wanted to tell you that you do not have to give up. Nor should you. Take your time and do everything at your own pace - as I did. But, do not give up your previous life, just adjust. I see too many women going on maternity leave whose dreams vanish in thin air. Between all the nappies, feeding and the new love in your life, stay interested in whatever your subject is. You will need it - to escape mentally from caregiving hurdles and to enable to you actually enjoy motherhood.
I would also like to remind you that I am well aware of the situation of disadvantaged women, single mothers and families who were not given the same opportunities and whose life looks significantly different from my own. They are the every day heroes despite their disadvantageous position. The famous phrase work-life balance does not exist for them, all they really care about is the survival. So, it is even more important to cherish what you have worked very hard for and keep your one eye on your passions.
"If you can't fly then run. If you can't run then walk. If you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward" -Martin Luther King
Woman's priority changes.
We all play/have different roles in life: wife/husband, mother/father, investor/manager, etc..Each of the them interlocked and blurred in the endless daily list of responsibilities. So does our priority change when the little one arrives? Yes, it does. However, I would rather say: priority expands thus changes. One year ago, I would still put family first although I did not have children. Plus, it is not only the mother's priority that expands but also the father's as he take on this new role. "A 2014 study of more than 6,500 Harvard Business School grads (...) showed that a third of male millennial expect to split childcare responsibilities 50/50 with their partners, (...) compared with 16% of boomer men [born in US between 1946 - 1964]¹"*. So, it is not longer only the mother's world that suddenly changes.
My husband and I have decided to split the parental leave equally: I take the first 6 months of maternity leave followed by my husband who will stay with the baby for the second part of the year. We both believe that it is our collective responsibility to provide both income and nurture to our family. But sadly, we are still a minority. As reported by The Guardian (April 2016), 'a government assessment suggested 285,000 working fathers would be eligible to take the [paternity] leave, but only 2% to 8% would do so. This compares with about 9 in 10 fathers in Sweden and Norway'. Why UK figures are so low? Money, baby, money. In Scandinavian counties as much as 80% to 100% of fathers income is replaced while they are on leave. In Sweden, for example, three out of 15 and a half months of parental leave is reserved only for fathers². However is it not only money and social expectation the main factors contributing to such low numbers of fathers becoming the primary caregiver. 55% of surveyed mothers said they did not want to share their leave. Now, I am more liberal on this point. I am not in any way possessive over my still-developing qualities as a mother. Plus, I also wanted for the father-son relationship to develop. Wait. We wanted. I agree that there is nothing like a mother-child connection but that does not mean other relationship are not as valuable. Just imagine all the fun this little boy will have with his father. Rome was not build in one day, neither do relationships. That is why it is important both of us spend time with our son. Again, this kind of flexibility to decide who will be the caregiver may, to a large extend, be influenced by the still 'well-preserved' social expectation that it is a mother's job to provide care and also by a significant discrepancy in partners income. We all know, generally, who earns more. Furthermore, sometimes the decision to share the leave with the partner, or rather not to share it, is predicated on more serious aspects such as violence or alcoholism of the spouse. But if you can I encourage you mother to let the father spread his wings as well. Give him space while you go and enjoy a movie at the cinema, pass your next exam or simply have some quality 'thinking' time.
When I can see a major event in my life on the horizon the first thing I do is: a nice cup of tea. Then I grab a pen & paper and I start counting - but not the total days left to the event but sterling pounds in my bank account. It is quite easy for me as I do not have a negative attitude towards money. Plus nobody needs to convince that finances matter. And it matters especially when you are expecting. I am far from an opinion that we must have a lot of money to raise a happy human being but I do believe that a good financial planning will provide you with less stressful environment for you and your children. So, let's have a look on maternity leave pay in different countries: (to enlarge click on image)
Note that for comparison purposes I used the term 'maternity leave' to reflect the time off-work (paid or unpaid) the mother is untitled to. I was, however, unable to apply the same to Sweden as their legislation talks about 'parental leave' rather than maternity and/or paternity leave. I actually like it much better. It implies that it is collective parental effort to look after the children rather than a time off-work given to a mother, so-called 'maternity leave'. I have compared maternity leave/parental leave and pay for an employed person taking Poland, United Kingdom, Sweden and United States as examples. In Poland, the mother is entitled to 12 month maternity leave paid at 80% of the salary. If she, however, shortens maternity leave to 6 months she would receive 100% of her salary. Also, paternity leave for Polish fathers (2 weeks) is quite generous - 100% of the salary, compared to UK's statutory paternity leave, paid at 50% below minimum wage. Poland looks quite family friendly country. However it cannot beat Sweden with almost 16 months of parental leave - a mother or a father is entitled to. Swedish parents receive 80% of the salary for almost 14 months and as mentioned above three out of 16 months are reserved only for fathers. From European perspective US has quite a shocking maternity leave policy: women are entitled to only 12 week's unpaid maternity leave but this only applies for companies who employ more than 50 people. The UK, scores much higher in comparison with the US as mothers are entitled to 12 months maternity leave with 9 months paid leave. However, once you look into details, mother's working in the UK receive only 90% of their salary for the first 6 weeks. The remaining 33 weeks are paid at flat rate, total of £139.58 per week (£604.85 per calendar month) - and this is before tax. For the sake of argument, let's assume you receive £604.85 per month - is it 50% of the minimum salary for a full time worker. Regardless of which country you live in, you are certainly aware what you can, or cannot, do with minimum wage. Now cut it in half.
It is our collective responsibility to provide both income and nurture to our family.
Even if your company and/or the government offers 80%-100% of your net salary for the entire duration of the leave (consider yourself lucky!) it is important to understand how much money would you need for one-off (shopping) to prepare for baby arrival and roughly the monthly expenditure for the baby. Different countries different realities but despite the size of your bank account, it is wise to know how much money will you spend for all the essentials. Why I place such an emphasis on budgeting, especially when you are expecting? Because it is time to cherish the arrival of your baby. I can tell you there will be a lot of emotions involved with the arrival of the little one and the last thing you want is to stress about is money. I would also like to add that despite my absolute sympathy for the opposite sex, I never count on anyone else than myself to provide for me and my family. It is because I do feel responsible for providing both: care as and financial stability to the family. So does my husband.
Now I would love to hear about your experience of being on maternity leave. Did you enjoy it? How long were you on leave? Did you share it with your partner or such option was on even on the table? If so, why?
¹ SLAUGHTER, A., Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. London: Oneworld, 2015
² STANDAGE, T., Go Figure: Things you didn't know you didn't know: The Economist Explains. London: Profile Books Ltd, 2016