‘I felt betrayed by the law for not protecting us’

Maggie, 38, a local accountant and mother of two, explains how she felt forced to choose between feeding her baby and keeping her job...

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(29806447)

WHEN I had baby one, I was entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave with no pay.

I remember my family expressing concern at me returning to work so quickly after having a baby but I didn’t (yet) understand the fuss. Although my partner was qualified in his trade, and had been doing his job for 17 years, he didn’t earn enough for me to give up work so the reality was that I had to return.

However, once the baby arrived I realised that 12 weeks was not going to be enough as breastfeeding was still erratic and the thought of leaving her was unbearable. Although my employer did not, by law, have to grant my request for extra (unpaid) leave, my director allowed me another two months and for that I will be eternally grateful.

A month before my return, baby one accepted a bottle, which was a bitter-sweet moment for me, and my expressing journey began. Little did I know in those early weeks that she’d then reject my breast in favour of a bottle (known as ‘bottle preference’) for all daytime feeds and I would have to express seven to eight times a day to start with, including three sessions at work.

On my first day back at work, I cried my eyes out at the thought of leaving her, but tried to adopt a grateful mindset – grateful that I earned enough for Daddy to be home with her (and I hadn’t had to hand her to a stranger) and grateful that I was ‘allowed’ to express for her at work. I did this for a year, pumping as soon as I got up, at work, and the minute I got home before I could even hold her. It was relentless, especially in those early months, but I managed.

Fast forward to baby number two. I had now been working for the same company for almost four years, but it was now owned by a large global company and, crucially, the senior management had changed.

This time round I was entitled, by law, to 26 weeks of maternity leave, none of which had to be paid. Luckily, my employer paid 12 weeks (which is nowhere near as generous as some employers but much more than others). Due to financial reasons, I opted for five months leave in total, using a combination of my reduced annual leave (Guernsey doesn’t protect the right to accrue holiday while on maternity leave)and a loan to cover the unpaid element.

After suffering with back spasms and a return of morning sickness during the final weeks of my pregnancy, which was during the first lockdown, I had to start my maternity leave early. Per the law, if you are unwell due to your pregnancy after 36 weeks, your maternity leave can be activated by your employer. Baby two was also nine days late so I’d effectively used a month of my leave up before she’d even been born.

When she finally arrived, she had a severe tongue tie, which was 75% attached. Breastfeeding was a challenge in those first few weeks until the tie was snipped. After trying to arrange my return to work for almost a month, I had a video call with my manager and head of HR. Baby two was three months old and wouldn’t yet accept a bottle. I was due to return when she was four months old, at which point the feeding would still be erratic. I asked if I could work from home until she was six months old (for eight weeks), by which time the feeds would be sufficiently spaced that I could figure something out if she still wouldn’t accept. I explained that my partner would be home, which meant I could work, and baby one would be at preschool. I was an accountant and had successfully worked from home through the first lockdown, often putting in late hours once baby one was in bed. I was due to return mid-October so I would be back in the office before audit season.

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. I was the only one with a camera on during the call, so they could see me sobbing my eyes out at the thought of her distressed and hungry. My manager was clearly uncomfortable and kept saying he had no issue with me working from home and maybe there could be some sort of compromise, but he was overridden by HR with a firm, ‘No, she is to be in every day’.

I told them I didn’t think I could return, at which point I was reminded that I’d have to work my notice (three months, which I ended up doing from home). I also had to repay my maternity pay, which was a real blow considering I was the sole earner and baby one had just started preschool.

I was then faced with the task of finding a new job while breastfeeding a three-month-old baby. I remember going to one interview a month or so later – breasts leaking and feeling shattered from a combination of night feeds, having a toddler, working full-time and anxiety about finding a new job – and the interviewer asking me questions like, ‘Why do you want to work here? Where do you see yourself in five years?’ and me thinking, ‘Please, I just need a job’ and ‘to have survived this’.

My employer had not arranged maternity cover for while I was off and the company was experiencing high staff turnover due to the aggressive and inflexible style adopted by the new head of operations, where it was made clear that personal lives were to be ‘left at the door’. They knew my financial situation so thought they had me over a barrel, never expecting that I would be able to repay the maternity leave in order to leave.

My father will never forget the phone call I made to him asking to borrow the money, crying a primal cry that had him choking up at the end of the phone. Similarly, my ex-manager said he is still ‘haunted’ by the HR call. I am a determined person with boundless energy – five marathons, sunny ‘can-do’ disposition – but I felt backed into a corner and helpless. I wanted to meet my child’s needs, not starve her into accepting a bottle (which a doctor told me doesn’t always work anyway). I also failed to see how me sobbing at my desk, driving back and forth to home to feed my baby, was in the company’s best interest either. When I tried to explain how erratic breastfeeding is in those early months, the HR lady just kept asking over and over what ‘times’ she would feed so they could plan when I’d be at my desk.

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. 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. Luckily I had not signed one of the new contracts sent to all staff while I was on leave, which included a ‘non-derogatory statements’ clause. These clauses are more commonly found in compromise agreements, not employment contracts. Effectively, I would have been unable to speak about what happened, which I believe would have had dire consequences for my mental health. The explosion of emotions found an outlet in ranting to friends and family, whereas the alternative would have been to internalise what a therapist explained to me was effectively a ‘trauma’.

If Guernsey truly wants to ‘invest in its people’, then the maternity laws need to be re-visited. My hope is that they don’t just align them with the UK, although that would be a huge step in the right direction, but that they look to places like Scandinavia, who recognise the importance of getting those early years right, understanding the savings later down the line of doing so.

The law as it stands, coupled with the reality that most women have to work, means that employers currently play an important role in raising our island’s children. Unfortunately, not all employers can be trusted not to abuse this position. For instance, following the maternity law update in Jersey where women can now take a full year off unpaid, the terms offered to my ex-Jersey colleagues now include an incentive to encourage women back to work after having a baby. They receive six weeks of paid leave and then a further six weeks (at reduced rate) once the employee has returned to work and has been working for three months, with a tie-in period of a year afterwards. Instead of paying the full 12 weeks in full at the start, this approach unfairly coerces those with limited means back to work before they are ready.

As we all know, pregnancy is not always planned and the idea that you have to ‘earn’ 26 weeks off with your child or face losing your job unfairly punishes both mother and baby.

The financial reality is that the majority of women have to return to work so the 12 weeks allocated for those not meeting the service criteria (15 months’ service by 11 weeks prior to due date) is just not good enough when you consider that maternity leave can be automatically activated from 36 weeks of pregnancy onward and the baby could arrive up to two weeks ‘late’. In this situation, someone could be forced back to work with a six-week-old baby. Not only is neither mum nor baby ready to be separated, should mum also wish to breastfeed, the ability to do so is not protected by law. Instead, employers are encouraged to be accommodating, which means the onus is on the employee to fight for it, during which time milk supply is compromised and there is a risk of mastitis (infection of the milk ducts). The UN is working with governments and businesses for exactly this reason – they argue that a woman should be freely able to ‘choose’ how to feed her child, and businesses should not be able to influence this decision.

A statistic I read in an article in the Guardian a month or so back – ‘Suicide is the leading cause of death for women in their baby’s first year’ – does not surprise me. That first year is an incredibly vulnerable time, both physically and mentally. If we add to that the financial burden of unpaid leave, the current housing crisis (including a reluctance of landlords to rent to families) and a lack of laws protecting the right to flexible hours for those with young children, it means we are placing a crushing weight on the shoulders of our workplace parents in that first year. If public and professional consultation is not sought, with the view to updating our maternity laws, then I’m afraid the #GuernseyTogether tagline and mental health awareness campaigns are merely lip service.

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