Maternity leave is often portrayed as an idyllic time, so much so that I was looking forward to it long before I considered having a baby. I imagined spending a year off work sipping flat whites in sunny cafés and pushing a pram down high streets lined with boutique baby shops. It was my idea of a dream.
In those last few weeks of pregnancy, when midwives tell you to put your feet up and get all the sleep you can before your life changes forever, I was coming to the daunting realisation that I was going into motherhood utterly naive about the financial challenges that faced me. My lifelong dream of becoming a mother had eclipsed the economic realities of having a child in 2022. Admittedly, if I had properly understood what faced me I may have put it off, like many other women.
In the past, perhaps maternity leave was meant to be a time to spend managing your recovery and looking after your child without the pressure to return to work straightaway. But we live in an age where finances are tighter than ever and a year out of the workplace can have a devastating impact on wallets and long-term career prospects.
Lauren Fabianski of Pregnant Then Screwed points out that a 'motherhood penalty' impacts all women of childbearing age long before they start a family, with institutionalised barriers limiting their employment opportunities. "Fifty-four thousand women [are] forced out of their jobs every year as a direct result of pregnancy and maternity discrimination," she explains.
According to Lauren, women face a unique set of social and economic conditions which mean that they "spend an overwhelming period of maternity leave worrying about finances rather than being able to focus on spending time with their children".
This is where the ethos of the girlboss swoops in. For every new mum like me who is drowning in a sea of dirty nappies and vomit stains, with barely enough time to brush their hair, there’s a perfectly made-up mum on Instagram filming lucrative ad campaigns for global brands with a newborn baby on her knee.
When I found out I was pregnant I did the cliché thing and followed all the baby-related accounts I could find on Instagram. Before my child was the size of a pea, I had a feed full of sleep coaches and breastfeeding experts, pictures of neutral wooden toys and Scandi-inspired tiny clothes that cost more than my entire wardrobe.
The more mum-related content I interacted with, the more messages I got from other mums under the guise of making friends. It emerged that they were promoting pyramid schemes, asking if I wanted to "make money from the comfort of [my] own home without worrying about childcare".
Society sees maternity leave as 'time off', which opens the possibility for this time to be monetised and commodified, just like the girlboss ethos pressures us to do. And when things are tight, this pressure becomes a necessity.
These spam accounts were on to something. New mums no longer have the luxury of simply opting out of capitalism’s ever-spinning wheel for a year. Maybe if our bills were offset to reflect the huge pay cut which amounts to living on less than minimum wage, then that might be a possibility. But that doesn’t happen. Instead we face the double burden of a new mouth to feed plus a massive drop in income. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) reports that UK maternity pay is the ninth lowest in Europe.
Our capitalist system has no language to talk about the value of looking after a baby. It does not consider it 'work' because it cannot be quantified and calculated, despite studies showing that motherhood is equivalent to working two and a half full-time jobs.
From my experience, society sees maternity leave as 'time off', which opens up the possibility for this time to be monetised and commodified, just like the girlboss ethos pressures us to do. And when things are tight, this pressure becomes a necessity.
A go-getter by nature, she says she still felt a "huge pressure to be hustling" even with young children and she wishes that she could be driven by love of her craft rather than financial necessity. This exposes a hidden problem with the girlboss mantra: it takes hobbies and talents that are valuable in their own right and judges their worth by how lucrative they are, rendering everything we do either an opportunity to be monetised or not worthy of our time.
Society celebrates women who can balance children and work, heralding them super-mums – obscuring the reality that sheer financial need rather than empowerment is often the driving force. Karsen points out that although her online business allows her to spend time with her children, the overriding motivation is her rising debt.
Kulthoom and Nargis are teachers who used their expertise to earn money while on maternity leave. Kulthoom begrudges having to work during this precious time but she feels that the flexibility of marking GCSE papers remotely at least allowed her to balance her commitments. She recalls how she would breastfeed her baby for hours on end while marking scripts.
For Nargis, the pressure is less financial and more social. She says she feels encouraged to "do something" as though "being a stay-at-home mum isn’t enough" but points out that her online tutoring sessions require hours of work beforehand to ensure her son is calm while she teaches.
The unspoken conclusion here is that by idolising women who seem to be able to do it all, we ignore the cost to their health and wellbeing. The onus moves away from the state offering better support to mothers and on to women having to hustle and struggle to make ends meet while still bearing the mental load of childcare.
Our culture vilifies people who don’t generate income as lazy and a drain on public resources. Tabloid newspapers regularly berate mothers who rely on state support as 'scroungers' – an indictment of a system that judges everything and everyone in terms of monetary value. At the same time, hustling is celebrated as ambitious and entrepreneurial, and social media positions it as a possibility for all, whether that's making videos or selling homemade cakes.
Couple this social pressure to be seen as productive with the fact that the cost of living crisis disproportionately impacts parents, especially single mothers, and you have the perfect conditions for the girlboss mantra to kick in and get you commodifying the tiny shreds of free time that you have as a new mum, monetising the hobbies that afford you respite and joy.
Even for women who aren’t driven by financial pressure, the 'motherhood penalty’ still applies. Hannah, 32, was worried that because her industry is so fast-changing, a year out would set her back, even though she had been working for years. So she started a business doing it for herself. This gave her a much-needed mental challenge to offset the physical demands of looking after a baby.
For EJ, maternity leave was a chance to use her industry knowledge to build something of her own – as well as earn some extra cash. While she describes the experience as "increasingly empowering" she also identifies how difficult the early stages were. Breastfeeding a baby all night while homeschooling her older child through a pandemic and juggling her own mental health built resentment towards a system that doesn’t do more for mothers, materially and financially.
The particular strain of girlboss culture that pervades motherhood is all about the end result – a self-made woman who has a career and a family – but it conceals what it took to get there – and the toll on women remains hard to measure.
The irony is not lost on me that while I write this piece to a deadline, I am typing with one hand while breastfeeding my baby. You might congratulate me on being able to 'have it all' but from over here it feels anything but empowering.