Last month, Corinne Stuart, previously of IPSE, argued that “freelancing [is] a feminist issue”. The number of self-employed women in the UK has grown by 63% in the last decade, and the latest ONS figures show that self-employed mothers now account for around one in eight of the self-employed population.

It’s not surprising that more mums are seeking out the flexibility of working for themselves. After all, isn’t self-employment the ultimate solution to the work/childcare conundrum?

In theory, self-employment means always being free for nursery pick-ups; it means managing work around school holidays and living that ‘mumpreneur’ dream.

The reality can be quite different.

Yes, self-employment can work in the parents’ favour once children are eligible for free childcare or are at school.

Yet I would argue that it is not compatible with being a brand new parent; I expect many self-employed new mums would agree.

My overriding memory of trying to maintain my own business, as I prepared for the birth of my son two years ago, is one of feeling stuck. I was unsure of what to do for my hard-fought business and for my family, and felt unsupported by a maternity benefits system that appears to penalise the self-employed; a system that is at least ten years out of date.

The facts and figures

Currently, self-employed new mothers in the UK are entitled to Statutory Maternity Allowance (MA) for up to 39 weeks. They receive £145.18 per week, providing they have worked at least 26 weeks in the 66 weeks before their baby is born (earning £30 a week or more in at least 13 of the 66 weeks) and have paid sufficient National Insurance contributions.

A self-employed woman can receive a maximum of £5662.02 over 39 weeks. It’s the same amount whether she was earning £17,500 or £35,000, pre-pregnancy.

By comparison, an employed woman earning £35,000 will receive £8425.57 in Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) over 39 weeks (six weeks at 90% of her pre-tax weekly earnings, and 33 weeks at £145.18). She may also get top-up maternity payments from her employer. It’s not unheard of for companies to provide six months, or even a year’s maternity leave on full pay.

The employed woman has the option to explore other avenues of work too – and earn money – while she’s on maternity leave. Anyone claiming SMP is entitled to work and earn in a self-employed capacity without any restriction.

Someone who is already self-employed and claiming Maternity Allowance, on the other hand, can only work ten ‘Keeping In Touch’ (KIT) days while receiving MA – approximately one day a month if claiming for the full period.

The current system often forces a difficult choice for self-employed new mums: take time off, claim MA but risk their business in the process, or cut maternity leave very short, forgo MA and have to organise childcare to ensure business survival.

For new mothers who work for themselves, it can be hard not to view the system as being unfairly stacked against self-employment; just another (serious) disadvantage of freelancing alongside no pension, no sick pay and so on.

Catch-22?

Laura Smith’s freelance business didn’t survive after she took time off following the birth of her daughter three years ago.

Laura had to leave self-employment and ended up relocating her family 200 miles for a flexible, employed role.

She said: “I juggled work and childcare in the first eight weeks after my daughter was born, then decided to take a long break until she was one. It was a risk and it didn’t pay off, unfortunately.

“After taking a year out of my PR and marketing business, I might as well have been starting from scratch. I had my old contacts, but nothing concrete and it felt like catch-22 regarding needing to pay for childcare in order to go out and try and win new business. Do I pay for childcare so I can work, and hope the work comes so I can pay for it, or do I accept I have no childcare and also no availability to work?

“Now my daughter is three and eligible for 30 free hours of childcare, freelancing has become an easier prospect. We’ve just moved back up north and I’m going back to freelancing; hopefully I can build my business back up.”

Freelance writer Jenna Farmer is expecting her first child this spring. She intends to use her ten KIT days within three months of having her baby, and plans to forgo the rest of her Maternity Allowance.

Jenna said: “I am compromising by having a shorter maternity leave and essentially forgoing my full MA entitlement, but I want to keep a hand in things as my industry moves fast.

“I’ve worked really hard to be freelance and love my job; there’s always a worry of it being pulled from under your feet. I used to be a teacher and wistfully think of the year’s maternity leave I could have had. At the same time, I can’t imagine having a long break anyway.

“I might be idealistic but I am lucky enough to have childcare and the option of working from home so am confident I can make it work.”  

Muddling through

Having available – and free – childcare can make a huge difference to new mothers’ experiences, regardless of their work set-up. For self-employed new mothers, it can be a business lifeline.

My own experience of juggling maternity leave and self-employment was still one of muddling through, messily, even with my parents on hand to help with childcare.

I’d set up my PR and copywriting business four years earlier. I was unsure of what my working pattern might look like after giving birth, but hoped for a maternity break – even if it was weeks, not months.

Pre-baby, my income mainly came from project work, with a few long-term retained clients.

I wrapped up my projects, knowing there was no guarantee of future work with those clients – a consequence I felt I had to suck up.

It was more difficult to know what to do with my retained work. Although it made up a relatively small part of my income, it kept my business going. Without it, I didn’t have a business.

I had childcare in place to be able to work at a very part-time level. But even working a few hours here and there was more than the day a month I was eligible to work while claiming Maternity Allowance.

The income from my retained work wasn’t enough to live on, but I didn’t feel able – nor did I want – to ramp up my working hours straight away and miss out on time with my baby, in order to seek out more lucrative projects. And it was almost not worth – in an immediate financial sense, at least – giving up the MA and my maternity leave in order to keep those smaller retained clients.

It was my own catch-22. In the end, I negotiated working at a minimum level with two clients and took some maternity leave, and clung onto my business by my fingertips.

The solution?

The vast range of working patterns that exist within the realms of freelancing and self-employment means that there’s unlikely to ever be a one-size-fits-all solution for new mums who work for themselves. We’re all facing different challenges.

However, the overarching issue appears to boil down to this obvious point: once a business or freelance career has launched, it can’t then be left alone for months without consequence.

Yet, many new mothers don’t want to – or can’t – return to their career at the same level they operated at pre-maternity leave. Rather than making women choose between receiving MA and returning to work, regardless of whether they go back for one day a week or full-time, why not offer them more flexibility regarding the days they’re able to work while still receiving a financial benefit/top-up?

It seems nonsensical that the self-employed are entitled to just ten ‘Keeping In Touch’ days before their MA is affected, the same number of days that employees are allowed to work for their employers before SMP is affected. (As outlined above, employees can work in a self-employed capacity as much as they like, however.)

Without wanting to overgeneralise, a self-employed person will surely need to ‘keep in touch’ with their own business to a far greater extent than an employee will need to maintain contact with her workplace during any period of leave.

An employee’s place of work is likely to have more members of staff, greater infrastructure and support, maternity cover in place and so on. Many self-employed women have no business support. For them, ‘keeping in touch’ is less about making money and more about their business simply surviving while they spend time with their baby and recover after giving birth.

The current maternity benefits system hasn’t caught up with the sharp rise in self-employment of the last decade. Additional measures that would go some way to rectify the imbalance include: self-employed women being given Statutory Maternity Pay, not Maternity Allowance, taking into account pre-maternity earnings and providing many with a higher rate overall; improved childcare provision, with free hours offered before the current age of three; greater free business advice and support made widely available – for example, offering practical help with finding freelance cover if needed.

(Finding cover might have been an option for my business, and was something I’d considered for bigger projects, yet it felt like an additional headache – getting the right person, complex handovers and disruption to clients’ businesses – for potentially little return. The process may be made easier with external support.)

It’s important to point out that there is much to be improved about the UK maternity benefits system overall. There are frequent calls for higher rates of SMP to be offered to low-earning mothers, and for free childcare for everyone. There are enough prolific campaigns currently being led – – e.g. Pregnant Then Screwed’s campaign against maternity discrimination, and journalist Anna Whitehead’s ‘Flex Appeal’ for increased flexible working – to underline an urgent need to address the wider work/childcare situation, not just for the self-employed.

Working mothers often get a raw deal, full stop. For self-employed new mums, it can be completely unpalatable. The ‘mumpreneur’ dream it is not.