IT WASN’T until I moved away from Guernsey that I realised how much more generous and supportive other countries are of new parents.
My friends and colleagues in Madrid take it for granted that they can enjoy 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, whatever their job or length of time they have been there. They are given time to bond with their new baby and an hour each day ‘lactation time’ to allow them to breastfeed when they return to work.
Meanwhile, back home in Guernsey a friend posted about the struggles she faced as a new mother and how the island’s laws are designed to protect the employer rather than the parent. As I delved further, I soon realised this was not an isolated case, with some women telling me heart-rending stories about their treatment at a time when they are already feeling the pressures of having a new baby.
Although the law was updated in 2016, it is not only behind Jersey’s, but the whole of Europe on basic rights for new mums.
Currently a pregnant employee is entitled to two weeks of compulsory maternity leave, during which an employer must not permit an employee to work, and 12 weeks of basic maternity leave, regardless of length of service or hours of work. An enhanced period of 26 weeks leave is available for employees who have worked continuously for the same employer for at least 15 months.
However, this is all unpaid. It is left entirely to the discretion of the employer if and for how long they pay the new mum while on leave, although she may be able to claim parental benefits for up to 26 weeks.
One local mum, who got pregnant during lockdown, said she was not eligible for maternity leave as she had only just started a new job.
‘I said to my partner that we can’t keep this baby,’ said Jenny, a 33-year-old finance worker.
‘I had a consultation to discuss options about terminating. We were wanting a family at some point but hadn’t thought about when. I said I can’t do this. I was fearful for my career and my job.’
Her baby is now six months old and she said her employers had tried to be supportive and given her flexible hours, but she had to use her holiday allowance and her ‘keeping in touch’ days as her maternity leave.
‘It was a massive discovery for me,’ she said.
‘I had not been fully aware of the maternity law until I got pregnant. The big thing for me was that unless you are really wealthy or poor, you are losing out so much at that stage when they need you – for that bonding or contact.’
Maria, 25, who is currently pregnant with her second child, said she had to return to work when her first child was only two-and-a-half months old because she simply could not afford any more unpaid leave. She had saved up holiday to allow for this time.
‘It’s horrendous,’ said the practice manager.
‘I had to give up breastfeeding and I probably will again this time. As a mum when you are breastfeeding, it’s quite a lot to take away from a baby that is vulnerable. It doesn’t make you feel very good as a mum.’
However, on an island where many companies have UK and world offices, there is a discrepancy between how employees are treated, depending on where they live, and contracts can vary widely.
‘Any company with a UK office should be forced to use the UK policies so that their staff are treated equally,’ said Loren, a 42-year-old mum of two, who works in finance.
‘There was a woman who worked in the London office [of my company], who was pregnant at the same time as my second pregnancy. She took a year off and was horrified to find out I was only allowed three months (two months paid).’
Another mum, Isabel, agreed that Guernsey should follow the UK in some areas.
‘It is completely irrelevant as to what your length of service is,’ said the 37-year-old HR manager and mum of two.
‘If you go off a few weeks before you’re due, this obviously counts towards your leave and you could end up with just 8-10 weeks with your baby. You spend the first couple of weeks finding your feet and recovering and before you know it you have to go back.’
In the UK, mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave and another 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave. Statutory maternity pay is paid for up to 39 weeks. As part of this, you are paid ‘90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first six weeks and £151.97 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks’ (Gov.uk).
It does not matter how long you have been with your employer.
Many local parents think the current law has impacted the decisions people make about whether to have a baby and when to return to work.
‘They may feel like they can’t financially afford to get pregnant if their work is not willing to offer any pay whatsoever,’ said Molly, a 29-year-old mum of one who works in healthcare.
‘I do feel maternity leave should be a legal requirement for all businesses,’ said Sarah, a 35-year old admin assistant, who has a one-year-old.
‘It’s definitely [affecting women’s choices]. You worry you’re not going to be able to afford having a child. You worry you can’t afford a second child because of childcare costs, cost of living and so on. It puts a lot of pressure on the woman when there is general pressure anyway.
‘I think we should adopt a more Scandinavian approach that’s more family-orientated.’
Maria said she was only able to afford a second baby now her eldest had turned three and is entitled to 15 hours of free childcare.
With businesses not legally having to pay maternity leave, several have said they had to save up as well as relying on benefits.
This is a situation which Deputy Victoria Oliver, president of the States Development and Planning Authority, believes needs to change.
‘We need to have laws that protect men and women who have children,’ she said.
‘Why are we so behind? We lead in some areas of business, but when it comes to our human rights we seem to be lagging behind.’
She went back to work just two months after having her twins, Cara and Eliza.
‘Looking back, two months for me was way too early, especially with twins,’ she said.
‘I definitely felt pushed to go back. I think a lot of women feel pushed to go back after quite a short amount of time.’
Jenny suggested that a claw-back system, like many companies have for training, could work as a way to encourage employees to stay after maternity leave.
‘As an absolute minimum, people need three months’ full pay,’ she insisted.
‘If you leave within a year or two or don’t return, then pay it back. That’s where a lot of businesses are a bit scared – that women won’t return.’
Loren believed the law was a result of the business owner’s welfare always being considered first.
‘What people don’t seem to realise is if you treat your staff well, people want to keep working for you and are happier in their jobs and more productive.
‘Bigger companies could easily afford to introduce better maternity leave, but many won’t do it without a change in law.’
She suggested it could be gauged based on business size.
‘Women would no longer want to work for companies without decent maternity leave once other companies were offering it. Smaller companies would be forced to follow suit if they wanted to retain their staff.’
Deputy Oliver believes that better protection for new mothers should be enshrined in law.
‘It can be quite an upsetting time for women,’ she said.
‘Some women have to quit their job. It can cause postnatal depression.
‘Then you’ve got the added pressure if the child has to go to the neonatal unit.’
She pointed out that Guernsey already has a declining population so more should be done to support and encourage those who choose to have children.
‘Everyone keeps talking about investing in Guernsey’s future – well, the children are Guernsey’s future.’
Some mums are being refused time to breastfeed or have to do so in their office building, leaving them open to embarrassment and sometimes ridicule by colleagues.
‘I used the small meeting room to express, but was subjected to bullying from two male colleagues who thought it was hilarious,’ said Loren.
‘I remember one of the directors laughing as he said that I would be able to feed lots of babies as I had such massive “bazongas” and compared me to another woman on our team who he said wouldn’t be able to feed at all.’
‘I needed to express milk when I returned to work as my son was still breastfeeding,’ said Molly.
‘There was a lot of hassle trying to get them to accommodate three breaks throughout the day for this.’
Although she was eventually allowed, they reduced her pay.
‘I was allowed to express in a locked room. But I was told I wasn’t allowed to eat there. Even though these were my only breaks and chances to eat.’
She was later pressured by her employer, who asked her to reduce these breaks down to two a day, despite her needing three to get enough milk for her baby.
Jenny, a 33-year-old finance worker, said she has invested in discreet breast pumps which allow her to work and pump at the same time in a meeting room.
‘Nobody has questioned it as I can prove that I am working while pumping,’ she said.
‘I don’t know how it works for other people. Are they allowed to pump and work? Do they have that luxury? Are they given time to pump? There is no written rule on that. There is a big question mark over that.’
Maria said her boss offered her use of the staff toilet or staffroom when she returned to work and needed to express.
‘I didn’t know if anyone would feel uncomfortable and it wasn’t hygienic to pump in a toilet,’ she said.
‘I did sit in my car for the first time and tried to pump. But I couldn’t express. It was too much stress.’
Maggie was forced to leave her accountancy job after the birth of her second child because her company would not allow her to work from home while feeding her, as the three-month-old had not yet accepted a bottle.
She was due to return to the office when her daughter was four months old, but asked if she could wait until six months, when her feeds would be sufficiently spaced. Maggie had planned to continue working from home, as she had successfully done during the first lockdown, often putting in late hours whilst her child was in bed.
‘I was due to return in mid-October so, in my mind, I would be back in the office before audit season,’ she said.
‘I was told a resounding NO, citing the “needs of the business”. I was told my partner would have to phone me when baby two “looked” hungry and I’d have to drive home to feed her.’
Putting the needs of her children first, Maggie decided to leave but needed to pay back the 12 weeks’ maternity leave she had already taken. Thankfully, her father was able to come to her rescue. However, she then faced trying to find a new job with a three-month-old daughter.
‘I am not exaggerating when I say that having the rug pulled out from under me a month before my return to work, and being made to feel that my baby was an inconvenience, took me the best part of a year to get over,’ she said.
‘I was angry at effectively being made to choose between feeding her and keeping my job and I felt betrayed by the law for not protecting us both.’
Currently, Guernsey offers no legal right to lactation or breastfeeding time or flexible hours.
However, in Jersey, under the new parental law scheme (2020) employees ‘can request temporary changes to their working conditions for the purpose of breastfeeding and also breaks during the working day for expressing milk’ (taken from focushr.com).
The WHO has said that breastfeeding is the best option for parents for growth and development and preventing non-communicable diseases.
EU law forbids discrimination against breastfeeding mothers in the workplace and in Spain, for example, the ‘La hora de lactancia’ was introduced, which allowed women one hour per day leave to breastfeed for the first nine months, with no impact on salary. In 2019 this was updated to include both parents.
In the UK an employer, by law, needs to provide somewhere for a breastfeeding employee to rest and this includes being able to lie down. Although there is currently no law on paid breastfeeding breaks.
Deputy Oliver also thinks new mothers should have the right to regular breaks to allow them to breastfeed or express milk – not only for the benefit of the child but the woman too, since breasts that are full to bursting with milk can be excruciatingly painful.
‘I was lucky in the States, as the Bailiff gave me a private room and a fridge [to store milk].’
But others are not so fortunate.
Of course, not all women want – or are able – to breastfeed, and some are keen to get back to work as soon as possible after having a baby.
‘It’s all about choice and women should be allowed to choose,’ said Deputy Oliver.
Paternity leave in Guernsey is two weeks unpaid, compared to one or two weeks paid in the UK. Spain is one of the most generous countries, offering fathers 16 weeks.
Adam Farish, 43, a family and systemic psychotherapist, said that, as a father, he felt there was an element of just ‘getting on with it’.
‘The situation as it stands reinforces the patriarchal construct of the man working and the woman staying home with the baby.’
He said his employers had been supportive after the births of both his daughters. For the first birth he took the two allocated weeks and a further two as annual leave.
‘The four weeks went by in an absolute blur, as I’m sure they do for all new parents. I certainly didn’t feel like I had any time at home to truly bond with my child or to offer any real support to my wife.’
Financially, they were unable to take more time off while his wife was on maternity leave. They made use of the maternity benefits and family allowance and in the run-up tried to ensure they were as solvent as possible to ease any financial worries.
He admitted they would not have survived without the maternity benefits.
With his second child he opted to take a week off at the start and then worked for a month of half-days, but he said that was actually worse, as he felt he wasn’t present at home or at work.
‘I think I was able to be more supportive of my wife this time, but the feeling of missing out on so much of those early days and being unable to be in the moment with my new baby prevailed.
‘I feel there could be more of a middle ground where more allowance could be made for a father to have the ability and flexibility in law to be more present for his family and less pressured by the societal norms around his employment.’
Loren, 42, finance worker and mother of two:
WHILE working at her previous company, Loren experienced bullying and was refused maternity and breastfeeding allowances. Initially she asked for five months’ leave and a phased return to work, but this was rejected and she was told she must return to work after three months.
She also asked for a place to be able to express milk as she wanted to breastfeed for six months, as recommended by the WHO. Again this was rejected as ‘there was no legal requirement for it’. This left her with no choice but to stop breastfeeding early.
Loren had requested to reduce her working hours to 25 a week to allow her to go home and express milk once a day. She pointed out that she currently had no lunch hour and rushing home to express would cause undue stress and make it more difficult to do so. But this was refused.
Eventually, after numerous emails, her work finally allowed her room to express at work. But this brought additional problems for her as some of her male colleagues made derogatory comments about her when she went to express.
‘They compared me to a cow and asked if I milked myself on all fours,’ she said.
‘I cried while I expressed milk.’
Her first pregnancy had caused no problems at work, but Loren said her boss seemed to take it personally the second time and was angry that she needed maternity leave again.
‘He seemed determined to make life hard for me so that I would quit, but I refused to back down.
‘They were fine with it the first pregnancy. My boss knew that I was trying to get pregnant because I had lost a baby in 2012 (I was pregnant before I joined the company but had come in on a contract). After my miscarriage I was made full-time and had maternity leave written into my contract
‘But my boss refused to speak to me about it the second time, which was why the communication was all by email.
‘They said that legally they weren’t required to give me more than three months off. Anything further was at the director’s discretion and they refused that.’
All of this stress had a huge impact on Loren, so much so she said she doesn’t want any more children.
‘I had postnatal depression, partly due to the way I had been treated by work and fear of leaving my baby,’ she said.
‘But also as my baby had a dairy allergy and rarely slept. I was in counselling and under the care of a GP who would not let me go back to work full-time before I was ready. I came back on a sick note for three mornings a week and gradually increased my time in the office.’
Loren did not take them to court as her father had just died and she couldn’t bear the thought of going through the process. Even now, six years later, she still gets emotional when discussing it.
‘But the damage was done,’ she said.
‘No one had stood up for my rights when I was there and I was subjected to misery and harassment. I left as soon as I was a year clear and didn’t have to pay back my maternity leave.’
To read Maggie's story, click here.