The Cost Of Starting A Family Is Keeping Me Trapped In My Job

·10 min read

“I currently feel like I am caught in a trap, being pulled between my desire to leave this toxic environment and the desire to be a mother.”

Hannah, 31, works in marketing in the tech industry. She’s among the 40% of workers globally who, according to one survey, are thinking about leaving their job – would love to leave, in fact. But she can’t afford to quit right now because of the cost of family planning in the UK.

“I am just coming up to my one-year anniversary in a role which I really do not enjoy or find fulfilling,” she says. “I would love to be able to leave – particularly as my boss is very aggressive and yells at me for displaying autistic behaviours, even though I disclosed my autism before I even had a job offer.”

Hannah’s employer currently offers statutory maternity pay, which she wants to qualify for. More pressingly, she and her husband are paying for private IVF abroad. “Therefore I need to keep earning at the moment to afford all of the expenses that entails. I am also due a share allotment that I do not want to lose. When it matures it will be worth a life-changing amount (enough to clear our mortgage and then some) so I want to try to persevere through the sexist and ableist comments.”

Having children in the UK is not cheap. Even if you are lucky enough to be able to conceive naturally, or you are choosing to adopt over conceiving, the state of statutory maternity pay (SMP) and the cost of childcare can keep you financially bound to a terrible job.

Currently, SMP amounts to 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks before dropping to £151.97 or 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. This is less than minimum wage and has increased by only £11 a week since 2017, when the TUC reported that British maternity leave was among the poorest paid in Europe, with only Ireland and Slovakia worse off.

If you are self-employed, a freelancer, have recently stopped working or are doing unpaid work for your partner, you can apply for Maternity Allowance instead of SMP (which amounts to the same £151.97 a week without the additional six weeks), though there are restrictions there too.

Paternity pay is also flawed, similarly amounting to £151.97 a week for only two weeks, and 24% of fathers don’t even qualify for that. As for the shared parental leave policy – which allows a partner to take leave during the first year of the baby’s life but is subject to the same conditions around employment and only pays the same £151.97 a week – uptake has been incredibly low.

It’s worth noting here that the words ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ are enshrined in law so same-sex couples or trans parents will only be entitled to maternity leave if they carried the baby. Meanwhile the partner is always referred to under ‘paternity’, leaving out the non-biological parent irrespective of gender.

Beyond parental leave, the cost of fertility treatments in the UK is also high. For those who are unable to conceive naturally for whatever reason, the cost of IVF is up to £4,500 a round, not including the cost of sperm (around £1,000 a vial) and any and all testing needed. Other fertility treatments like intrauterine insemination (IUI) can cost between £800 and £1,300 a round but also have the attendant costs of sperm and testing where necessary. And while some can access fertility support through the NHS, there are several barriers which are heightened if you are not in a cis straight couple. Unlike heterosexual couples, who need to tell their GP they’ve been trying for a baby for two years to get NHS support, same-sex couples and prospective single mothers in England are subject to a postcode lottery, with four in five Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) requiring same-sex couples to privately fund the start of their fertility journey.

That’s to say nothing of the cost of childcare in the UK, too. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2021, the UK has the third most expensive childcare system in Europe, behind only Slovakia and Switzerland.

Kemi, a 32-year-old working in tech PR in Wimbledon, is caught between an unbearable boss and the fact that she can’t afford to risk finding a new job and waiting for their maternity policy to kick in.

“My manager has been increasingly and unfairly demanding [over COVID] – I’m being micromanaged, my boundaries aren’t respected, she calls me at all times of the day and she can be quite offensive and inappropriate in our one-to-ones, to the point where me and my co-workers are in tears.” Any attempt on Kemi’s part to develop within the company or branch into different departments has been blocked, which has had a knock-on effect on her mental health, she says. “Last year I had to take a month off due to stress at work but the situation still hasn’t improved.”

However, Kemi has been at the company for four years and the maternity policy is robust so she can’t justify leaving while she and her partner try for a baby. “If I was to go on leave, my maternity pay would be quite generous. I have recently turned down a role because the maternity leave was not as generous and I would lose out on about £10-15k in pay and benefits should I fall pregnant quite soon. I just can’t afford to take such risks with my finances at the moment.”

Of course, conceiving a child is far easier for some than others, which throws up even more financial barriers.

Hannah has low Anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) and has miscarried before, and is trying her luck with IVF in the Czech Republic instead. “The total cost, including flights and a 10-day stay, is around £4,000. This is a lot cheaper than we were quoted in the UK (£7,680). Most UK-based clinics won’t take me but the clinic in Brno has a better success rate than any other I have found, and my cousin had success at the same clinic after four failed cycles in the UK.” Hannah’s decision to go private has been driven too by negative and ableist experiences with the NHS, she says. “I have previously had tests on the NHS where my results were misfiled and lost – causing a huge delay to the process. We have also had some negative comments regarding our chances of conceiving an autistic child. Therefore we opted to pay for private treatment.”

Kemi has an underlying health condition that has resulted in her paying for extra scans and tests ahead of pregnancy. “My company-funded health insurance has helped with some of this but the ongoing management when I’m pregnant will not be covered. I feel really lucky to be in the UK where I have access to great specialists for my condition but some of the tests and ongoing care my consultants suggest will need to be paid for. Also, I will most likely have to begin my maternity leave earlier than usual so need to bear that in mind.” This condition could also limit her ability to conceive naturally, meaning Kemi would have to rely on fertility treatments. “A significant amount of women with my condition have children through a surrogate,” she adds, “which would be a very big expense.”

Her biggest worry is the cost of childcare. “Neither me or my partner live in the same country as our families,” she says, “so we can’t depend on grandparents or family to help with childcare. Reading about the cost of nurseries and childminders makes my eyes water but it is something we’ll have to face so the planner in me is already trying to save for that.”

The financial barriers are even harder to surmount when you want to have children outside of a cis, heterosexual relationship. Thirty-three-year-old Lorna works in the construction industry in Wales and is finding the continuous cycle of deadlines and high expectations draining, both during and outside work. “For the past three years, and since the pandemic especially, this line of work has begun to take a toll on my mental health. I more often than not dread opening my emails and struggle to switch my brain off when it’s time to leave my desk for the day.” As a bisexual cis woman married to another bisexual cis woman, she has no choice but to stay in her job if they start trying to conceive as they will have to go private for treatment.

“I don’t think people realise how expensive fertility treatment for same-sex couples is, whether you choose to go private or apply via the NHS,” she tells R29. “Choosing a sperm donor and purchasing sperm, paying for IVF treatment and egg harvesting/storing is extremely expensive. We are having to cover all costs ourselves and are relying heavily on life savings we’ve built up for this purpose.” Because of this, Lorna says: “We need the IVF to work first time, both times, in order for us to be able to afford two children.”

“There is simply no way we could even begin to afford IVF if I left my current job, which offers crucial financial stability not only for the outlay expenses and testing to begin treatment but also maternity leave and an enhanced maternity package,” she adds.

Much has been made in the last year about the UK’s falling birth rate, resulting in scaremongering articles and even ‘fertility seminars’ designed to ensure women don’t ‘forget’ to have a baby. But the reasons why the birth rate is falling are more complex than ‘forgetting’ and a big piece of the puzzle, as my colleague Vicky Spratt so astutely put it, is financial. Many are choosing not to have kids altogether or are putting it off indefinitely, while others are making greater sacrifices for the sake of growing their family: putting up with a job they hate (and the ensuing mental health impact) just to keep their maternity leave or be able to afford fertility treatments and childcare.

The impact of unhappiness in work is not to be sniffed at. Put simply, being miserable for the majority of the week will impact your non-work hours. It can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, long hours can lead to more depression, and the increased stress can result in burnout.

In fact, in 2017 the University of Manchester found that people employed in low-paying or highly stressful jobs may experience worse health than those who remain unemployed.

A solution to these problems is needed on a societal and policy level, with a reform of shared parental leave and maternity leave, pressure on NHS CCGs to form a unified distribution of fertility support across the UK, and an improvement in government-backed childcare. This is why support for campaigns like Pregnant Then Screwed and Stonewall’s current push to change the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines on fertility treatments for same-sex couples with their campaign IVFforAll is so vital.

Prospective parents shouldn’t have to jeopardise their mental health to start a family. As Kemi puts it: “While I know starting a family will always be a big change and involve some sacrifice, it does feel like women have to sacrifice a lot more. I am in essence putting up with a toxic, stressful work environment because I can’t afford to leave and have a baby. While I am looking forward to welcoming a baby in the near future, I dread the idea of having to stay in my current work situation for the next two years.”

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

I Hate My Job But Can’t Afford To Quit. Now What?

The NHS Is Contributing To Fertility Inequality

The Truth About Going On Maternity Leave

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