‘Four maternity leaves took an unimaginable toll on my life’

·3-min read
Natalie Brown
Natalie Brown

More than £70,000. That’s the basic cost of raising a child to the age of 18 for couples in the UK, according to the Child Poverty Action Group’s latest “Cost of a Child” report. More than £70,000 per child, that is. Throw in additional expenses like food – which, somewhat bizarrely, isn’t classed as a basic cost – and childcare and that figure rises to more than £150,000 per child. Or £600,000 if you’re a mum of four like me.

Of course, we all know having a baby is expensive. But what I didn’t quite appreciate is the cost of having a baby (or four) to my career. Pre-kids, I was the news editor of a local tabloid newspaper group in East Sussex – a job I loved and had worked hard for. Arriving early and leaving late, I slowly but surely rose through the ranks from trainee reporter to chief reporter, before finally earning my editorship role.

At 30, and 38 weeks pregnant with my first baby, I reluctantly left my desk to go on maternity leave in 2011, confidently – and, in hindsight, naively – setting my out-of-office with a return date of just five months later. I was already looking forward to getting back behind my desk without the inconvenience of a bump.

But I never set foot in that office again. After becoming a mum, I simply couldn’t see myself in the job anymore. We had deadlines three nights a week and the culture was to stay in the office until the paper went to print. But I didn’t want to put a newspaper to bed – I wanted to put my baby to bed.

I handed in my notice and went freelance. I started at the beginning again and slowly but surely built a new career as a writer around naps and nappy changes, then nursery drop off and pick up, and then the school run. It wasn’t about having a career any more, it was about earning enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table, while staving off the mum guilt that, for me, came hand-in-hand with working motherhood.

Natalie with her children
Natalie with her children

Now, aged 41, after four separate maternity leaves – most recently during the pandemic when I was forced to extend my fourth and final maternity leave in order to home-school my older children – I feel so far behind my peers that I’ll never catch up.

There were – and still are – lower-paid jobs I can’t put myself forward for because of the astronomical cost of childcare and the unpaid work which needs to be done at home. With four children I’d essentially be paying to work.

When I scroll through social media and see my (mostly male) peers sharing the latest glossy cover of the magazine edit, or humblebragging about their latest career coup, I cannot help but wonder where I would be were it not for the fact I am a mother and they are not.

A question that often niggles me is that if I’d chosen not to have children, would I have been able to earn 50 per cent – or more – of the £600,000 it’s supposedly going to cost my husband and me to get each of our children to 18? We’ll never know, but what I do know is that having children has taken my career in directions I never imagined. My tell-it-how-it-is parenting memoir wouldn’t have been possible without them, and although the motherhood penalty routinely makes me simmer with rage, it has also given me plenty to write about.

Maybe when my children are big and grown I’ll finally be able to share the latest glossy cover of an iconic title I edit, or humblebrag about my latest career coup on social media. Good things come to those who wait. Right?

Confessions of a Crummy Mummy – The Baby Years, by Natalie Brown, is out now (Filament, £14.99).