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Back to Business After Lockdown Maternity Leave

Returning to business after maternity leave is challenging at the best of times but doing so after having a baby during Covid-19 lockdown is a whole other story.

By Dawn McGuigan

Returning to business after maternity leave is challenging at the best of times but doing so after having a baby during Covid-19 lockdown is a whole other story. Two new mothers tell us how they’ve adapted to get back to business in a world that’s changed immeasurably since they logged off to have their babies.  

In March, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), published a report on women in self-employment. It was good news.

Three in four women were happy in self-employment and 55% set up on their own to achieve a better work-life balance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women were more likely than men to select flexibility around childcare as a motivating factor for their self-employed status. In fact, one in eight solo self-employed people are working mothers – that’s 611,000 women in the UK and an increase of 61% since 2008.

That’s amazing, right? Thousands of talented women working on their own terms to create the lives they want to live. Brilliant.

Then Covid-19 hit us. The country went into lockdown. Schools closed. Childcare stopped. Employers and businesses changed their business models overnight.

Self-employed women on maternity leave watched this unfold with horror, simultaneously trying to get to grips with their new babies and figure out their contingency plans for keeping their businesses afloat.

Laura Agar Wilson, 38, had her second baby in December 2019 and intended to return to design and business mentoring at Wholeheartedly Laura in June 2020. As she could not access childcare for her six-year-old son, she extended her maternity leave and planned to work her ten Keeping in Touch days to keep the business afloat. But when we were banned from visiting other households those plans also fell through. “My KIT days had to be cancelled as I couldn’t use childcare from my parents,” said Laura. “I do feel like my business took a hit because it was longer than I had planned to be completely away from it.”

Childcare during Covid-19 impacted working women the hardest. A Pregnant Then Screwed survey of almost 20,000 women in July 2020 found that 74% of self-employed mothers had their earning potential reduced because of a lack of access to childcare, and 72% of all mothers surveyed had to reduce their hours because of childcare issues.

Jeni Smith, 35, decided to set up her own business – Networking KnoWho, a consultancy that offers networking strategies and training for businesses – halfway through her maternity leave. Little did she know that business launch in March 2020 would coincide with a nationwide lockdown.

“I couldn’t go back to work, I already had my P45”, said Jeni. “Yet all the work I had lined up to deliver training was cancelled and the world was no longer allowed to network. So, like most businesses, I had no choice but to diversify.”

Learning to adapt quickly has been the key to survival for many businesses. Both Laura and Jeni had to move swiftly to tailor their services to the “new normal”. Laura has seen a surge in demand for website design as businesses move their products and services online. Jeni spent the seven weeks of her husband’s parental leave upskilling, pre-recording training and developing online courses. “All of these diversifications helped me grow the business and I don’t think I’d have had the time or the headspace to explore them had lockdown not happened”, said Jeni.  

But constant change and juggling of responsibilities can be exhausting. “I’ve been working more evenings and weekends to manage workload around the reduced school hours for my son due to staggered start and finish times”, said Laura. Jeni’s also working around the clock. “With my husband being employed full time, his work hours take priority so I’ve been working reduced hours and catching up on evenings, weekends and nap times.”

And what about the dads? Working from home has given many fathers an insight and input into the daytime childcare routines they often miss out on. For Laura, that meant more support with childcare to continue working and for Jeni it allowed lunches and evening walks together. “Lockdown gave us so much more time together as a family”, she said.

The work Laura and Jeni did to make their businesses more agile also made them more resilient to any future Covid-19 restrictions. Laura said: “I feel less anxious about potentially having to self-isolate because I know I can work flexibly and still run my business.”

A lifestyle and economic revolution is blossoming out of our Covid-19 recovery. We don’t want to go back to our old ways. We want more flexibility in how we work and greater equity in childcare responsibilities. That revolution appears to be good news for self-employed mothers and their potential to achieve the work-life balance that suits them and their families.

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