Thursday, 1 October 2015

Were you labelled a 'sponger' for taking maternity leave?

I got a taxi last week. Now I'm sure you couldn't give a damn how I get from one place to another, but bear with me. It seems that whenever I get into a taxi I partake in the usual 'polite' conversation with the taxi driver in true Peter Kay style: "are you busy?" And conversation ensues about very British things like the weather or the traffic or, if I'm in the taxi for more than ten minutes, issues about society today. The problem, though, is that although most taxi drivers are perfectly nice people, many have made me more aware of prejudices against women, and, more specifically, mothers. This is, of course, nothing to do with their profession and perhaps more to do with the fact that I am more likely to chat to a taxi driver than a bus driver or an office worker. 

While I was pregnant with my youngest child I took a taxi to the hospital. I had already walked the three miles to work that day so I was hardly going to put my swollen ankles through any more walking (which for the purpose of this blog post implies that I am not a lazy person). I explained to the taxi driver that I was going for a prenatal appointment and then we got talking about children, and it was all very lovely and civil until he asked me if I knew the sex of my child.

"A boy," I said.

"Oh, that's good," he replied,  "It's better to have a boy because he'll make something of himself." 

I'm sure his comment was harmless, in the sense that most ignorant comments are; they don't hurt anyone initially but create a chain reaction of perpetual sexism that we seem to be perfectly ok with. Yes, men still earn more than women, but are we happy to just accept this as the norm? If I had a daughter would I tell her that's just the way it is and she should simply wish to be born a male? 

On another taxi journey with a different driver, we got talking about various things; the weather, the traffic and holidays. He spoke about his frequent holidays around the world, mainly to America. We talked about how American citizens only get two weeks paid holiday. The taxi driver was very sympathetic (as someone who clearly took a lot of holidays) and I agreed and said how we're very lucky, especially as American women can't take as much maternity leave either. 

"Oh I agree with that!" He said, as his face turned from a jolly smile to one of disgust, "Women sponging off employers, it's unfair for small businesses."

"And so what do you suggest mothers do?" I asked. Clearly he thought I didn't have any children because I was on my way to a meeting, and maybe he thought mothers don't go to meetings or invest back into the economy they've been 'sponging' off. 

I have had a lot of people reflect this view to me about women on maternity leave and my view is not unsympathetic to small business owners, but that does not leave me without a voice as a mother who works very hard. People are quick to say their opinion but very slow to read up on the facts.

"How much salary do you think my boss had to pay for me while I was on maternity leave?" I asked 
"Oh, I don't know..." He said, looking as though he was calculating a figure too large to comprehend.
"Nothing." I said, cutting him short.
"Oh." He said, looking slightly surprised.

I continued to say how I had complete sympathy for my previous boss, after all, he had to find my replacement, albeit probably on less of a salary than me, and he had to cope with me going to appointments in work time and was very accommodating. But let's not start getting arsy with women for sponging off employers when employers don't actually have to pay them anything at all. 

The taxi driver felt sorry for people who have less holidays than him, yet he probably doesn't care if his employer pays for his privilege of having more holidays. He's just glad of the opportunity to go on holiday and get paid for it. So, you say, maybe I'm not sponging off my employer, but I'm sponging off the government? To be clear, the government pays 90% of a mother's wage for the first 6 WEEKS of her maternity leave, and £139.58 a week for the next 33 weeks (that's £558.32 per month for around seven months, should you choose to take it). Now I am extremely grateful for the money the government invests into mothers, and that's not so I could lounge around watching Jeremy Kyle. When I took my first maternity leave I was in a state of shock as to how hard it actually was to raise a child. I found myself desperate to get back to work (despite the fact I'd earn very little after childcare), not because I didn't love my son, but because it's bloody hard work. But I stayed at home with him for nine months because, for me, I felt it was important. I figured that nine months in the scheme of things, was a small investment into the security of a little baby who would grow up 'to make something of himself.' (And I'd say the same if he was a girl). For other mothers this is different but, in my case, I wanted him to have one family member around – and, as I earned less, it made sense to be me. 

So what can I do with £550 a month? That's not enough to cover my mortgage, let alone feed my family of four and pay for clothes and all those Costa coffees you think I'm out supping all day. I am grateful for a husband who supported me, but even so, we had to seriously clamp down on our finances. It doesn't sound much like sponging, does it?

On my latest (and hopefully last!) maternity leave I looked after my children in the day and spent nap times and evenings building up my portfolio and making contacts in order to start my own business. I did so because I am passionate about what I do (to make something of myself?) and it made sense to do so now because if I went back to work I would be earning next to nothing after childcare. I also wanted to be in control of my hours so I could do school drop offs and have a little time with my kids. Admittedly this means I often work into the early hours but this is the price I willingly pay. I do not complain about my lifestyle, but I'd like a little more respect than to be labelled a sponger.

We have an attitude in this country that if you're not working hard in a paid capacity you are of little worth. I challenge you to try and look after two children for the week and tell me a week in your work is harder (and that's not me moaning about how hard life with kids is, I'm just genuinely asking you to consider what it's really like). Unless you are extremely unfortunate, juggling three jobs and scrubbing toilet floors to survive, I would bet you'd find 'work' an easier option; less rewarding, maybe, but easier none the less. I look back at both maternity leaves as hard work. £550 a month is hardly going to buy me a car is it? Looks like it's another taxi fayre for me. 

So what's the solution for the government? Should we stop having kids? But who would raise the next prime minister or the next rocket scientist? Should we put our children into institutions? But who would provide enough love and security to raise people who are compassionate and self assured? That's not to say it can't happen through institutions, or that it's guaranteed through family, but for me I know only myself and my husband can offer our children a special bond that will give them a good start in life. I couldn't care less what job they do as long as they have a good work ethic. I couldn't give a shit how much money my sons earn as long as they are kind.

So why are we so adverse to supporting mothers? Why do we value it less than paying an extra two weeks a year for people to go to the Bahamas? Why do we belittle women and tell them they are spongers and that they will never make anything of themselves, simply for having ovaries? I work bloody hard and I don't actually know many mothers who don't. In fact, most mothers I know are the hardest working people I've ever met, so don't give me any crap about how all mothers are spongers or that I don't invest back into my economy. Now excuse me while I go to another meeting.
...Taxi? I think I'll catch the bus.

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