Maternity Leave: A practical and helpful guide to understanding your options and arranging your leave

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How long can I take off on maternity leave?

How much will I get paid while I’m on maternity leave?

Can my partner and I share the time off to look after our baby?

What things should I consider when deciding how long to take off on maternity leave?

If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, this post is for you. I will share with you my experience of arranging my maternity leave and what I learnt along the way. I hope you find it useful.

Introduction

All throughout my pregnancy people would always ask me how long I was going to take off work for my maternity leave. Alongside the question of ‘do you know what you’re having, boy or girl?’, maternity leave was top of the question list. I never understood why it was such a hot topic until it came to actually working out what I was going to do.

I had always assumed that I would take a year away from work (which all women in the UK are entitled to). However, as I hadn’t really given it more thought than that, I hadn’t appreciated what an important decision it was. In my head it was simple- I wanted to have the maximum amount of time off to be with my new baby. I soon found out that in reality, it wasn’t that simple at all and there were a lot of things to consider. There was a lot of information that I didn’t have and many discussions that needed to take place. Below I set out the information I gathered and the questions I asked myself.

Firstly, I needed to find out what I was legally entitled to.

How long can I take off on Maternity Leave?

In the UK, the Government sets out exactly what mothers are entitled to (www.gov.uk/maternity-pay-leave).

All mothers can take 52 weeks of leave. This is called Statutory Maternity Leave and is split into Ordinary Maternity Leave – this is the first 26 weeks of leave- and Additional Maternity Leave – this is the last 26 weeks of leave.

Although you are entitled to 52 weeks leave, you do not need to take the full 52 weeks off. It really is up to you how long you want to take off, you just have to take a minimum of 2 weeks leave after you have your baby (the minimum is 4 weeks if you work in a factory).

To be eligible to for Statutory Maternity Leave, you need to let your employer know before you are 25 weeks pregnant:

1- that you are pregnant (your midwife you’ll give you a MAT B1 form (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/maternity-certificate-mat-b1-guidance-for-health-professionals/maternity-certificate-form-mat-b1-guidance-on-completion) which confirms your pregnancy), and

2- when you want your maternity leave to start.

Your maternity leave start date needs to be a Sunday (irrespective of your normal working days and hours) and the earliest you can start your leave is in the 11th week before the week of your due date.

Finding out this information was crucial in helping me make my decision. It was great to know that I was legally entitled to take a full year off. Now I just needed to know how much I was going to get paid so I could make an informed decision about how much time I would actually take off.

How much will I get paid while I’m on Maternity Leave?

Similarly to how long you can take off for maternity leave, the government has set out what you are entitled to and the eligibility criteria. However, unlike Statutory Maternity Leave, how much you get paid while on maternity leave depends on your personal circumstances.

You may qualify for either Statutory Maternity Pay or Maternity Allowance. You are eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay if:

1- when you are 25 weeks pregnant, you’ve been employed for 26 weeks continuously by the same employer,

2 – you earn at least £118 a week (on average),

3- you have provided proof to your employer that you’re pregnant (e.g. provided a MAT B1 form), and

4- you’ve told your employer when you’d like your maternity leave to start before you are 25 weeks pregnant.

Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for 39 weeks (meaning that you will not be paid anything for any weeks you take off over 39 weeks). For the first 6 weeks, you will be paid at 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax. For the remaining 33 weeks, it is paid at a rate of £148.68 a week or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).

If eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay, you will be paid in exactly the same way as your employer currently pays you (for example, monthly or weekly). You will also pay tax and national insurance.

If you do not qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay, you may be able to get Maternity Allowance. The amount you will get paid depends on your personal circumstances but will either be:

  • £148.68 a week or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for 39 weeks.
  • £27 a week for 39 weeks.
  • £27 for 14 weeks.

More information on Statutory Maternity Pay and Maternity Allowance can be found at www.gov.uk/maternity-pay-leaveand I would definitely recommend reading this information carefully as your personal circumstances impact what you are legally entitled to.

Based on this information, I was eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay. I was now clear on how long I could take off and how much I would get paid each week that I was off. Armed with this information, I sought to find out if my employer had their own maternity leave policy and whether I would get anything in addition to what the Government sets out.

What will my employer offer me?

After speaking with my HR department, I found out that my employer did have their own maternity leave policy- while the Government sets out the minimum that you’re entitled to, your employer can offer you more (although not all do) and so it is definitely worth checking!

I found out that I would receive my full salary for 26 weeks! With my employer effectively topping up the Statutory Maternity Pay that I would receive for the first 26 weeks.

As Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for 39 weeks, after the 26 weeks of full pay, I would receive 13 weeks pay at £148.68 and then nothing for 13 weeks (If I took the full 52 weeks of leave).

In addition to the benefit of receiving full pay for 26 weeks, I was also entitled to paid time off to attend all of my antenatal appointments- these appointments included not only medical appointments but also relaxation and parenting classes. I made the most of this and attended all of the classes offered by my local hospital!

I felt extremely lucky that my employer was very generous with their maternity leave policy. However, even if your employer does not have their own maternity leave policy that offers you anything in addition to Statutory Maternity Pay, it is still worth exploring how they can support you during your pregnancy- for example, can you work from home or reduce your workload to make things easier?

I felt very supported by my employer. I was able to vary my start and finishing times to avoid travelling on public transport during peak times and could work from home at least 2 days per week. These arrangements made such a difference to my level of comfort, especially during hot weather (being on a busy train in the height of summer is never a pleasant experience but doing it while pregnant can be unbearable) and during my third trimester when I was very tired.

Have a think about what would make a difference for you and explore with your employer how you can make it happen.

I now had all of the information on what I was legally entitled to and what my employer would offer me in terms of leave and pay. It was a relief to know that I could take 26 weeks off to be with my baby with no change to my income.  However, what about the remaining 26 weeks?

Affordability

If I was going to take the full 52 weeks off- which I really wanted to do- I had to consider our finances. This was something we needed to consider jointly as it affected both Jamain and myself. We had to ask ourselves some tough questions… Could we afford for me to be paid £148.68 a week for 13 weeks and then nothing for the last 13 weeks? We had a mortgage and bills to pay, a lifestyle that we were used to, and importantly a baby (which everyone likes to tell you are expensive). Could we cover these expenses and where could we cut down our spending if we needed to?

These questions were tough because everything in me wanted to have the maximum time off to be with my baby. However, there was no getting away from these questions.

The first thing we did was to look at our salaries and outgoings to see if one salary could cover all of the core expenses (the mortgage, bills, food etc.). This let us see if there was any shortfall and if so, how much we needed to save to cover this shortfall before I stopped receiving full pay.

We also considered whether, even if we could cover all of our core expenses with one salary, did we want to only cover our core expenses. We have a lifestyle that we enjoy and we wanted to work out a way to keep it. After many discussions, we decided that we would build up a savings pot that was equal to 26 weeks of my salary. We were able to do this because we had started to think about it early. We gave ourselves space to think and also, once we had made a decision, a good period of time to save!

All of this meant that we had a plan! I could take the full 52 weeks off to be with our baby.

Other entitlements while on Maternity Leave

I was surprised and very happy to find out that you accrue your annual leave and days off in lieu for public holidays while on Maternity Leave. I was so happy to find this out because of the options it gives. For example, the options we considered were:

  • Use my annual leave to extend my maternity leave (with my annual leave and bank holiday days off in lieu I could have an extra 8 weeks at home with my baby- 60 weeks in total!)
  • Use my annual leave rather than Statutory Maternity Leave for the last 8 weeks of the 52 weeks I wanted to have off.
  • Work shorter weeks when I return to work after maternity leave by using my annual leave to take 1 or 2 days off a week.

We actually decided to go with the second option outlined above. This worked for us as it meant that I would have 52 weeks off in total and would be paid my full salary for 34 weeks (the first 26 weeks and the last 8 weeks). We used my annual leave for the last 8 weeks as this was during the time when I would not receive either my salary or Statutory Maternity Pay and so would not receive any income at all.

As an added bonus, it also meant that because our little boy was due at the beginning of February, the last 8 weeks of my 52 weeks off included Christmas and getting paid a full salary rather than nothing made sense as Christmas is definitely a time of increased expenditure!

Shared Parental Leave

Shared parental leave is quite a new thing in the UK but it essentially means that you can share your leave entitlement with your partner. There is information online about Shared Parental Leave published by the Government (www.gov.uk/shared-parental-leave-and-pay) and your employer may have their own policy.

The Government states that you can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay (Statutory Shared Parental Pay is paid at £148.68 a week or 90% of your average weekly earnings, whichever is lower for the entire 37 weeks). You are able to share 50 weeks of leave and not 52 weeks because the mother needs to take a minimum of 2 weeks off after having her baby. The 50 weeks can be shared however you like (i.e. you do not need to take 25 weeks and your partner takes 25 weeks).

The other great thing about Shared Parental Leave is that you can choose when to take your leave. You and your partner can take it in turns to have time off or you can have time off at the same time. This flexibility means you can really make it work for you and your partner.

Shared Parental Leave is not really something that Jamain and I spoke about too much. I believe this would change if we had another baby though… I absolutely love my time at home with Theo and it’s such a wonderful blessing to spend so much time with him. I feel so lucky to be able to watch him grow and develop. While I would not want to give up any of that time if we had another baby, I would want Jamain to experience being on parental leave and how wonderful it is. It would also be lovely to have time off together.

Talk, talk, and talk some more

Even armed with all of the information about how long you can take off, how much you’ll get paid and an idea of your finances. Deciding how long to take off on maternity leave or whether to take Shared Parental Leave can still be tricky. Especially when you have your first baby, it can be difficult to know exactly what you want to do in terms of your leave. You may also not know what your partner is thinking. Jamain and I spent a lot of time talking about how long I was going to take off and what it meant for us (what we wanted for our baby and how it would impact us financially).

I also spoke to friends and work colleagues about their experiences and how they made their decisions. These discussions were invaluable and gave me a number of insights and questions that I may not have thought about in isolation, such as what it’s like to be at home with a baby, would there be any impact on my career by taking a year off and how did I want to stay in contact with my employer while I was off.

Talking to lots of different people gave me a great opportunity to explore my options and really work out what I wanted to do. I would really encourage you to talk to as many people as you can about their experiences.

Conclusion

I’ve had the biggest smile on my face writing this because maternity leave is a truly special experience. I hope this post has helped you understand more about what you’re legally entitled to, where to look for more information and given you some ideas on the types of things you may want to consider when making a decision about maternity leave.

Finally I want to leave you with my 3 top tips (which are also set out in our YouTube video- see below):

1- Find out exactly what you’re entitled to so you can make an informed decision- check the government website and speak to your employer.

2- Talk to your partner, family, friends and work colleagues. You’ll get some great perspectives that will help you make your decision.

3- Think about it early! By thinking about it early, you give yourself time to put in place anything you need to enable you to take off the time you want (e.g. time to build a savings pot or arrange child care before you go back to work).

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