Motherhood and career – what is the answer?

Julia Gillard recently stated that it would be difficult to be a top level politician and a mother, which has caused somewhat of a stir. Is it really so controversial?

A friend and I spoke about it today. Our daughters are a week apart in age, and have turned one in the last month or two. When I mentioned the topic, we looked at each other. “Well, derr-r-r-r!” said my friend. “Of course it would be extremely difficult!” I agreed that I couldn’t have managed it. Before I had a child, I had no idea how much she would utterly depend on me for physical and emotional support, and how much I would love spending time with her.

We both know women who have maintained their full-time career, and have husbands who work part-time. The difficulty for women who choose this option is that if you breastfeed your child, you still need to maintain a physical link with your child. Otherwise you have to express whilst away from your child to maintain your milk supply. In both cases, the husband had accompanied the working wife on interstate and overseas trips so that the baby could still be breastfed. I expressed some admiration towards my acquaintance who had returned to full time work when her baby was six weeks old. “Don’t admire me. I wouldn’t recommend it!” she said, with a wry and somewhat sad smile. “It has been extremely difficult on everyone.”

It would be great if my husband could have more flexibility so that we could share the care of our daughter. He loves looking after her. His workplace used to have rostered days off as a matter of course. He retains RDOs, but he is in a minority, and often finds it difficult to take them when no one else has them any more. It’s not just about women being able to spend time with their children. As I have outlined in a previous post, men would also like to spend time with their children, and men would like to be able to choose to share the burden of childcare with their partners. But at the moment, it’s just not economically feasible for us to do that.

Let’s look at the Labor party’s recent suggestion that women be given two years unpaid maternity leave and a guaranteed option to return to part-time work. I like it. It is exactly what I would have wanted myself.

The problem is that I’m not sure how it would work practically. Prior to having a baby, I was a solicitor in commercial litigation. Although my male colleagues on the same level were extremely supportive, and offered to explore the option of a “job share” with me, I am not sure that it would have been practicable in the long run. Knowing me, I would have been working “part time” nominally, but would have ended up working full time from a practical perspective, because I am a perfectionist and a control-freak. (Well, I’m a lawyer; those last two characteristics should be taken for granted.)

I think it would also be difficult given the demands on solicitors these days. You are expected to be “on tap” and to drop everything for the client at any time of the day or night. You think I’m kidding here? In 2005, the Managing Partner of Allens Arthur Robinson, Tom Poulton, said proudly in an interview with BRW:

“We don’t run this place as a holiday camp … We expect our people to treat the client as if they were God … You don’t have a right to any free time.”

Presumably you don’t have a right to be a parent either.

The other problem is childcare. I am currently facing the nightmare. Stupidly, I left it very late in the piece to look at my options, not realising quite how insane the situation is. The childcare centres which provide quality full day care in my area have waiting lists of at least 15 months, if not more. Even ABC Learning Centres have massive waiting lists. There is no flexibility. You have to take the “day” you are given. If you take your child out for any period of time, you lose your “spot”. A few weeks back there was a post at Larvatus Prodeo about childcare, centering around Bronwen Bishop’s calls to make childcare costs tax deductible. The author, Cristy, said:

Ms Bishop’s proposal was designed to ensure maximum flexibility of childcare arrangements, which meant that it would have provided heavy subsidies for home carers including private nannies. Clearly this means that many of the proposed changes were really designed to favour the wealthy. …surely there should have been more discussion of how to make centre-based care more affordable and accessible – since that is an issue that is constantly raised in the community.

I support Ms Bishop’s proposal. I think there needs to be greater flexibility. If tax deductions were available for home care, it might make home care an option for more women, and not just the wealthy. I dispute the notion that home carers are necessarily the province of the wealthy. If I could afford it, and was provided with a tax deduction, I would definitely explore that option.

But I do agree with Cristy that the policy with regard to centre based care needs to be looked at in more detail. As I’ve said previously, I am deeply cynical about the Federal Government’s supposed “family friendly stance”, and the exhortation to “have one for your country” makes me hopping mad. The problem is that now childcare centres are about making profit, they are not about providing care. Of course, it’s preferable that childcare centres break even, but the profit motive means that the focus is now on cutting costs, not caring for children. Cherryripe has done a couple of interesting posts on the controversial ABC Learning Centres (here and here).

I don’t want to leave my child with someone whom she doesn’t know, who has 10 other children to look after and doesn’t have time for her, who might not care if she was upset or hurt. If possible, I would like to leave her with the same person or people, people who know her and care about her and do not have too many children to look after. I would also like some flexibility – why should she remain in childcare just to keep her place if I have time off? The whole thing fills me with dismay and makes me really quite miserable.

This brings me to a new point. This article by Anne Manne mentions the fact that in Finland, parents have a choice of a funded childcare place or three years leave with a guaranteed job and an allowance of equal value to the childcare place. Manne notes that over three-quarters of women choose the leave option. What would I choose? The answer is easy for me. I’d choose the leave option, and I would use the money to pay a home carer if and when I needed one. I should note that I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone who chose the childcare option, or who chose not to have children at all. As I have noted in a previous post on the childcare issue, the whole question is so difficult that I don’t feel comfortable getting on my moral high horse.

I like the Finnish idea. Perhaps we should look even further outside the square and give women even more of a choice.

Update

There is an interesting debate going on at Larvatus Prodeo here. One question raised in comments is – why do parents often have to work two full time jobs these days (even though they might not want to do so?). The consensus is that house prices have a lot to do with it (given that a small house in my area costs about 20 times my annual wage – no kidding!)

I really wish that the Federal Government would do something about house prices. It’s just impossible for my husband and I to have children and to own a house. We’re struggling enough as it is.

I believe that part of the reason house prices have been pushed is because of negative gearing. Australia is the only OECD country to have tax deductions for investment properties. In the US, I gather it’s the other way around: you can get tax deductions for the family home, but not for investment properties. Here’s an example where I think the US is more enlightened than Australia.

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10 Comments

Filed under childcare, feminism, law, law firms, motherhood, politics

10 responses to “Motherhood and career – what is the answer?

  1. Jim Belshaw

    I thought that this was a good piece, Legal Eagle. The trouble is that there is no easy answer.

    We are further down track than you in that our girls are now 17 and 19. When we first married we had our own consulting business. This plus a nanny gave us a degree of flexibility, allowing my wife to work full time, something that was very important to her.

    Then my wife took a full time job in Sydney as CEO of a professional services firm. To make this work, I took over the primary child care role, cooking, driving, school things, etc. To make this work in turn, I have worked mainly from home.

    I have gained enormously in terms of my relationships with the girls. However, there have been costs. Now that I am older, these costs – reduced income, reduced contact networks, problems in meeting conventional job criteria, ageism – have suddenly become very important.

    As a family we need extra income, more than be provided by my wife’s income plus my own current earnings. But I now find a real problem in looking for alternatives. So I have had to try to define a new path to compensate.

    A fair bit of the discussion around these issues focsues on single points, maternity leave for example, whereas I think more attention needs to be paid to ways to better manage things over the working life cycle.

  2. Janet

    It’s such a difficult choice. I’m lucky to have fairly family friendly work practices in my employment but it’s body-on-a seat sort of work. On some levels I enjoy the work, it’s useful, challenging, OK pay and only two days a week. However there’s nowhere for me to go in the organisation unless I significantly increase my hours. Even though there could be different sorts of work suitable for part-timers.

    We need my income, but I just can’t bear to spend the whole week away from my daughter, who’s nearly two. Luckily I don’t have the childcare dilemma, as my partner would be happy to be at home some days and my mother would cover the others. So, I could work full time, but then I feel I’d still be neglecting my most important job – mothering. Which I feel needs time, not all my time but a lot of it.

    I would choose the Finnish leave option. Or part time work with more possibility. Or more hours in the day.

  3. Jim Belshaw

    Or all of the above! I do understand about the desire to be with daughter. I married late, and the joy that my daughters supplied actually came as a complete surprise.

    I think that we do need to look even further outside the square for all people, not just women, although it will always be more important to women. I say all people because there are actually profound cultural things discriminating against men in this area.

    As a simple example, when I used to pick up my daughters from primary school I was one of very few, usually the only, men/man. The women used to club together leaving me standing alone.

    I think that demography itself will drive thinking outside the square at public policy and firm level. We are only now starting to come to grips with the implications of an aging population. Here there is a very interesting economics blog – http://demographymatters.blogspot.com/ – that draws out some of the issues,athough it appears to be written almost entirely by men!

    But I also think that there need to be changes at individual and society level. Here one of my personal drivers is simply the question of choice for my own daughters. Recognising that choices always involve that, choosing between things, what is involved in giving them the freedom to to do the things they want to do?

    An important issue here is that individual needs and attitudes change over time in ways that we cannot forsee. When Dee and I married we were going to have a number of kids. Then Dee found that she missed work so much, had career options that she wanted to pursue, so that multiple kids shrank back to two.

    Sorry for the length of this comment, but I have been trying to think through some of these issues not just for personal reasons but also as part of some thinking that I have been trying to do on cultural change in Australa.

  4. Legal Eagle

    I agree that thinking about these matters doesn’t just involve women, and it’s not just a “chick topic” or a feminist topic.

    You raise a good point, Jim, about parents who choose to work part time to look after their children, and then have difficulty meeting conventional notions of how a job history “should” look.

    I don’t understand why people presume that your brain has dropped out of your ear simply because you haven’t worked for a period or because you have worked part time or from home. In most roles I’ve had, I’ve had to learn from scratch – and I’m perfectly capable of doing that again, after a break.

  5. Jim Belshaw

    Janet, I have completed a post on my personal blog that links to this discussion – http://belshaw.blogspot.com/2007/01/another-funny-mixed-up-day.html

  6. cherry ripe

    An excellent post, Legal Eagle. I have so many thoughts on this issue that I don’t know where to start.

    For now I thought I’d raise another example of a government trying to tackle this sensibly. I once read that in Canada, Mum gets a year’s maternity leave (with some form of allowance paid), and then both parents have the right to go part-time 3 days per week. This means families only have one day’s child care to organise, and allows fathers to have equity in parenting – and mothers equity in careers.

    I remember when we both went part-time, we realised in horror that our family payments would drop substantially, because the Family Tax Benefit Part B is based on having one partner providing the dominant income. I gather there are arguments about tax benefits and the like, but the net effect was that the same amount of hours were worked, but we received a cut in benefits. Go figure.

  7. Law Student

    Doesn’t working full time prevent a mother from fulfilling her obligations to her child/ren?

    Taking into account the mother is working 8 hours day (not including overtime) and sleeping when getting home. Furthermore, when this goes on throughout the mothers working life, the child i suppose is likely to grow up not having that complete child/mother bond, due to the lack of contact hours between the two.

    This will also have negative consequences for the childs future character.

    When both parents are away, peer pressure gets stronger. Kids might hang out with mates who encourage them to steal, do graffiti and become vandals etc…Where as the watchful eyes of the parents would have prevented it.

    I have known children who had both parents working full time and also children with only the father working full time.

    The ones who had their parents working full time didnt achieve much. Bad school grades, bad friends etc…

    The ones with their dads working full time and their mums being home, got to uni and didnt go experimenting bad activities.

  8. Legal Eagle

    Law Student, I think it is difficult to generalise.

    A friend of mine came out to Australia when she was very small. Her parents both worked full time after they arrived in Australia because they had to do so to survive. However, there was a large network of extended family and friends to help out. She turned out fine. She’s married and a mother herself now.

    Another friend’s mother stayed at home, at least until my friend was about 15 from memory. The mother was devoted to her family, and was caring and loving. Despite that, this girl is one of the most screwed up people I’ve ever known. She has had all sorts of problems.

    Still, I know what you mean. A woman of my acquaintance was encouraging me to go back to full time work, and I mean FULL TIME (long hours). As we were sitting there drinking coffee, she got a call on her mobile. Her child’s preschool was calling to discuss her child’s behavioural issues. The child was having difficulty playing nicely with other children. As I sat there, I thought quietly that if the parents had spent more time with the child, they might have been able to help the child learn to be considerate of others.

    So I think it is true that if parents spend less time with their child, they may be less likely to realise that their child might have problems or need their help (unless they are very careful). A child could get into all sorts of trouble if he is left on his own all the time, and no one would know.

    While at high school, a school friend was severely anorexic for a year, but her parents were working so hard that they didn’t notice until she began to look like a famine victim. My friend was always envious of my family, because if I didn’t eat a full meal, my mother would immediately be questioning whether I felt well, and whether I was okay. My friend said bitterly “Your Mum would have noticed immediately.”

    It is important to state that there are more options than just a mother staying home. The father could choose to stay home instead, or (like Cherryripe above) the parents could try to share care (both working part-time on different days).

    I don’t think I’ll lie on my deathbed thinking “I wish I spent more time drafting subpoenas or statements of claim rather than reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 90th time”. I’d hate to regret time not spent with my child. So my personal choice is to maximise the time spent with my child, even though it is financially difficult for us. To me, the mother-child bond is very important, and I want to be around as much as possible if my child needs me.

    Some women don’t feel that way, and that is their choice. That’s fine by me, but I do think it’s important in that case for the child to have someone who can emotionally support her (father, extended family etc). Also, I think it’s really important to keep an eye out for any problems a child might have.

  9. Pingback: Family friendly? - the Coalition's rhetoric-reality gap « The Legal Soapbox

  10. I love the way you are open to the law students ideas. Most working mothers, even part time, are rather defensive. And I really can’t absolve myself, I get pretty defensive too, considering I am a freelance journalist working from home. It’s an eye opener to see such a gentle yet firm reply. Kudos to you

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