What kind of woman gets pregnant just to take a year off workSarah and Yuliana did. So are they exhausted by office life… or selfish and irresponsible
01:13 GMT, 3 May 2012
Trying to explain the beauty of Shakespeare to a group of unruly teenagers too busy sending text messages to listen felt like a soul-destroying way to earn a living. It was frustrating work, and secondary school teacher Sarah Kerr felt so demoralised that she needed an escape plan.
So she took what she saw as her only route out of a job she was finding unbearably stressful: Sarah got pregnant. Now she spends her days at home with her one-year-old daughter, Alex. It’s a long way from the chaos of the classroom, and Sarah is unapologetic about the choice she has made.
Choosing pregnancy as an escape from work seems rather drastic. After all, childbirth and motherhood are not exactly a walk in the park. Yet, according to a new survey by a glossy weekly magazine, nearly half of 2,000 British women questioned said they were considering having a baby to get a year off work.
Escape route: Sarah Kerr admits she had daughter Alex so she could take a break from her stressful career as a teacher
It’s a shocking statistic and one which will enrage many people. After all, using pregnancy to jump ship and leave others to shoulder your responsibilities hardly bolsters the female cause.
Lord (Alan) Sugar, entrepreneur and host of the TV show The Apprentice, spoke for many when he said recently that UK maternity laws meant people ‘were entitled to have too much; everything has gone too far’.
Hard-pushed employers and over-worked colleagues will be among those who agree with his analysis.
The same survey revealed that one in three women works longer hours than she used to, and more than half suffer sleepless nights because of job-related stress.
In a tough working environment, it’s not hard to see why maternity leave — up to 12 months of partially paid time off — can be appealing.
Maternity rights in Britain entitle women to 52 weeks’ leave and are the envy of the world. Women having babies in the U.S., by contrast, can take 12 weeks’ leave, unpaid, though a few states do have laws forcing payment for some of that time.
If a British mother doesn’t want to return to work after maternity leave, she must give her employer the notice stipulated in her contract. She doesn’t have to repay statutory maternity pay, but some employment contracts can require a woman to repay all or part of any enhanced maternity pay.
'Being a mother is exhausting, but I’d always choose this over my stressful job'
For Sarah, 34, paid maternity leave provided the break she needed from her stressful job.
Having worked as an English teacher in inner-city schools for ten years, she felt that she’d reached meltdown.
‘I loved my job and was committed to it, but it had become more about reaching targets and drilling for exam grades than engaging with students,’ she says.
‘The extra paperwork, preparation and lack of resources just loaded on the pressure,’ says Sarah, from Halesowen in the West Midlands.
Escalating bad behaviour in the classroom didn’t help, nor did the lack of support from management.
‘Some days the children would be running round the classroom, or even up and down the corridors, refusing to listen to the lesson I’d carefully planned and I felt I had no back-up to deal with it,’ she says.
‘On one occasion, I ran into the management office in tears, saying “I can’t be in that classroom any more” because it had got so bad.
‘From the time I arrived at school at 8am, it was non-stop teaching, prepping and supervising, with a 15-minute window to grab lunch.
‘When the official school day ended at 3pm, inevitably there’d be meetings or children asking me for help with their course work, and I could never say no.’
Evenings and weekends were spent marking and planning for lessons.
‘I was committed to my pupils, but I started to feel bitter about the lack of support I received.’
Happier now: Motherhood is much more rewarding for Sarah than her career
Watching colleagues go off on maternity leave started Sarah thinking. She and husband Sean, a painter and decorator, had been married for two-and-a-half years, and while they’d discussed having children one day, Sarah’s desperation meant she seized upon it as an escape route.
‘I started to think that pregnancy could be my way out,’ she says. ‘Sean and I became less careful with contraception and I hoped it would happen so that I could have a break.’
It was a radical course of action. After all, taking protracted time off is not the most honourable of ways to extricate yourself from work.
Maternity leave can leave an employer in the lurch, especially in small businesses where there’s no money to pay replacement staff, and puts pressures on to colleagues forced to take up the slack.
Nonetheless, Sarah was delighted when she got the news she wanted.
‘It was like a weight had been lifted from me,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even consider how relentless being a mother might be. The idea of being at home seemed luxurious in comparison to the stressful commuting, difficult lessons, long meetings, planning and marking.’
That said, Sarah does admit she felt guilty about leaving the pupils who valued her teaching.
‘I was leaving my job in the lead-up to exams and felt a sense of responsibility towards the students.’
'Maybe I should have taken a sabbatical so I could have had time to rest and think about what I wanted to do'
Sarah’s close colleagues kept telling her how lucky she was to be ‘escaping’.
The moment that Alex was born in April 2011, Sarah knew there was no question of her taking less than her full entitlement of 52 weeks maternity leave.
‘I wanted as much time off as I could have,’ she says. ‘I found motherhood magical and the thought of not being with Alex was distressing.’
After nine months, Sarah realised she couldn’t go back and resigned. ‘I’m so much more happy and relaxed now,’ she says. ‘Being a mother is exhausting, but I’d always choose this over my stressful job.’
On maternity leave, Sarah received full pay for a month, 90 per cent of her pay for two weeks, 50 per cent of her pay for six months, then statutory maternity pay. For the first six weeks, this is 90 per cent of average pay. After that it’s at the basic rate of 123.06 a week for 33 weeks.
With low morale rife and fewer job prospects, maternity leave can be seen by some as offering breathing space. Women get to keep their jobs and have extended time off, with the added bonus of having a baby.
Chartered occupational psychologist Alison Price has encountered dozens of women who have had a baby in response to the economic downturn. ‘Today’s difficult conditions may exaggerate the push away from work and the pull towards having a family,’ she says.
While this may be understandable, the notion of women abusing the relatively generous maternity system only adds fuel to the fire for employers already sceptical about the wisdom of employing women of child-bearing age.
Among their fears are that once a woman decides to start a family, she may be out of the workplace more often than she is there.
‘The people dumped on are often women who don’t have children or men who don’t have the option of taking extended paternity leave. This can lead to resentment,’ says Professor Christine Edwards, of Kingston University Business School.
‘Taking maternity leave as a short-term way out of a stressed working environment is daft. Research shows that career prospects and future earnings deteriorate when a woman goes part-time.
‘What women should do is try to negotiate better working conditions with their line managers.’
Change of direction: Yuliana's maternity leave has made her realise she wants to work for herself
As a student enterprise manager, 31-year-old Yuliana Seymour, from Purley, South London, landed what she thought was her dream job at Southbank University in May 2010.
But she soon came to realise it was a poisoned chalice, with no staff, a measly budget and little support from colleagues.
‘I was working up to ten hours a day, and while it was rewarding, it was also exhausting and isolating. Some mornings I felt so low that I didn’t want to go to work.’
After marrying her boyfriend, Selwyn, a tutor, in November 2010, Yuliana came to a decision.
She’d been in her new job for only seven months, but felt she needed the space and time to work out what her next step should be.
‘I hadn’t planned on getting pregnant for at least a couple of years, but maternity leave would give me financial support as I considered my options. I knew lots of women who’d done the same.
61 per cent of women return to work after maternity leave, according to the National Childbirth Trust
‘I wanted a way out and pregnancy seemed the answer, though I did feel a bit guilty — especially as I hadn’t been in the job long.’
A month later, Yuliana was pregnant. She was thrilled — but her employers didn’t share her delight, and she was soon counting the weeks until she could leave.
Her daughter, Jessica, was born last September, and Yuliana admits she was naive to anticipate that motherhood would be a break.
‘Maybe I should have taken a sabbatical so I could have had time to rest and think about what I wanted to do,’ she says.
Still, Yuliana plans to take every day of her 12-month maternity leave and doesn’t feel bad about her employers.
‘They have two people doing my job, which shows how much I did,’ she says. ‘Maternity leave is giving me time to think and has made me realise I want to work for myself.’
Yuliana was on full pay for six weeks, half-pay for four weeks and now receives statutory maternity pay. Effectively, she will have been paid for nine months out of 12.
If she doesn’t go back to work, she will have to pay her employers back two months’ full pay.
Incredible as it sounds, Dr Ellie Lee, reader of social policy at the University of Kent, believes Yuliana and Sarah’s pregnancies are their way of protesting against difficult working conditions.
‘In the past, if you were disgruntled with working conditions, you’d strike or protest and work towards change. Nowadays, those options aren’t available,’ says Dr Lee.
‘Stressed working women have very few avenues of complaint and get to the point where they think: “What else can I do” ’
Ticket to freedom Maternity rights in Britain entitle women to 52 weeks' leave
Whether women are seriously using pregnancy as a means of protest is debatable, but there is no denying that many women find motherhood to be a more appealing option than a career.
‘If you’ve become ambivalent about work, becoming a parent is a way to discover a new identity,’ says Dr Lee. ‘You can build a new life around children that can feel much more rewarding than a job.’
However, using pregnancy to escape work has wider, more sinister repercussions. Women have fought hard to be taken seriously at work — to have a presence in boardrooms, run large companies and close the gender pay gap.
Using tactics to take time off when men don’t have a similar option puts the fight for gender equality back years.
Sarah and Yuliana may be happy to opt out in the name of motherhood, but they — and others considering the same course — should reflect on what they could be doing to the careers of the thousands of working women left battling the recession without them.