Returning to work can't be this expensive

I was never that good at maths, but it just can't be right.

New Statesman
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

The page in front of me is covered in numbers, squiggles, brackets, asterisks and crossings-out. It looks a little like the Rosetta Stone and makes about as much sense. This is my first fumbling attempt, through the fug of sleep deprivation and baby brain, to figure out how on earth I am going to go about returning to work.

Moe is now four months old and the lovely, fuzzy hormones are on the wane. As is my maternity pay. From next month I will be earning £135.45 per week. Even with my precarious grasp of mathematics I can work out that’s not enough: our mortgage alone is £150 per week. In another three months my pay will drop to nothing. Nada. Zilch. And I am this family’s principal breadwinner.

The plan was to save up during my first few months of leave, while I was still on full pay, to see us through until the Moe is one. Having been through the gigantic palaver that is pregnancy and childbirth, I reckon I have earned at least a year knocking about at home watching daytime telly before getting back into the rat race.

Saving shouldn’t have been that difficult. I have one decent job, Curly has two. We rarely go out and we’re so knackered when we do that we get a bit yawny after one drink. As far as I’m aware, neither Curly nor I blow money on hookers, a hard drugs habit (although I refuse to rule it out) or online gambling. All we ever do is go to the park. If we’re really larging it we might buy a cuppa and a Kit Kat from the posh new caff.

Nevertheless, every time I check the account, we’re back below zero. Each month there’s a new reason: the boiler needed servicing, or the car insurance renewing, or there was a nice coat on Asos and my finger just slipped. The upshot is that we have saved a grand total of £150 to see us through the next six months.

To make matters worse, it is far from clear that we’ll be any better off once I am back at work because the nursery bill for both children will be astronomical. I pick up my pen and embark upon another column of elaborate hieroglyphics. If I work three days a week and Curly keeps both jobs, and we put both Larry and Moe in nursery . . . on the other hand if Curly gives up one job and we persuade my mum to do Wednesdays . . . alternatively I could look after Larry’s friend one day a week and ask his parents to take Larry on another . . . or could I perhaps work at home and look after Moe at the same time, using a combination of Calpol and CBeebies?

No matter what I put on one side of the equation, the number on the other remains the same: 100. That is, we will have a maximum of £100 left over each month, after paying our mortgage, childcare, bills and food. That will need to cover clothes, petrol, travel to and from work and lunch, clothes, activities, car and house maintenance, clothes . . .

That’s not right. It can’t be. I was never any good at maths. Sod it, it’s clearly better not to think about it. I screw up the paper into a little ball and hide it at the bottom of the bin.