Now a few days into my maternity leave (or ‘interruption of study’ as the official university terminology would have it). I couldn’t quite picture reaching this point after planning it all those months ago after first finding out I was certainly pregnant. Starting leave at 37 weeks (full term) makes sense to me as I went into labour at 38 and a half weeks first time round. So now a waiting game has kicked off!
I’ve had some fantastic support at university when planning my maternity leave from my supervision team and others. Inevitably I came across some typically opaque university bureaucracy and the attitude that this had literally never happened before, ever, but my primary supervisor in particular faced it head on and chased through email chains with 6 or so people cc’d (really!) to get to the bottom of whether I could access any maternity pay.
PhD students are currently in a grey area – generally in the UK, we are not employees. We are full-time students. (So we are not technically unemployed either.) Of course, there are general positives to being a student – NUS discounts, reduced council tax bill depending on your living arrangements, reduced train/tube fares, and so on – but naturally we cannot and do not claim any low income or unemployment benefits. So, because I am not entitled to claim these ‘gateway’ welfare benefits, I cannot claim Maternity Allowance. Likewise, as I am not employed, I’m not entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay. These are the two types of government-provided maternity payments which currently both stand at the same rate of around £138 per week. But full-time students (at least, those who have not been employed separately on teaching contracts over a certain number of hours per week) generally fall into a grey area where they are entitled to neither (Guardian article about this recently here: Should PhD students be classed as employees?)
My studentship is a new type provided by the university (rather than a research body with its own established policies such as AHRC, for example), and eventually after the aforementioned to-ing and fro-ing it was established that the university would and should follow Research Council guidelines for its own PhD studentships such as mine. I would be given 6 months maternity pay at the same rate as my studentship, and go on to receive the remainder of my studentship funds as planned when I return to my studies late next year. A fantastic result! Especially after my initial fear that I would be receiving no funds at all for 9-10 months! I am grateful to my supervisor who went out of her way to chase this up. Then, once my entitlement to maternity pay had been established, an administrator in my school did his job brilliantly to ensure various elements lined up on the finance computer systems so my studentship was allocated corrected and maternity pay programmed to be paid at particular times.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for the time and money I’ll be getting during the turbulent period of new babyhood. I can’t imagine living and studying in a country like the USA where this wouldn’t be an option. It’s stressful enough anticipating the lack of sleep, getting to grips with feeding, and all the other tough stuff of the first time round, but with the added element of a growing pre-school age child in the family too!