Family friendly? – the Coalition’s rhetoric-reality gap

Recently, John Howard said that a “stay-at-home” Mum provided the best start for a child. All I can say is: there is a massive disconnection between the rhetoric and the reality of the “family friendly” policies of the Coalition government. His government’s policies do not make it very much easier.

How does Mr Howard think that a family can survive on one income for an extended period of time? I can tell him that it is pretty difficult. We spent all our savings during the eight months I took off after having my daughter. We had been planning to use that money for a house deposit.

I now work part-time to cover the bills, and over the last year, we’ve managed to crawl back into the black. We are really lucky to have the support of my parents and my parents-in-law, who take it in turns, looking after our daughter while I am at work. Otherwise, I don’t know what we would have done. My present salary wouldn’t begin to cover childcare costs.

My husband has done a postgraduate degree, so he spent a substantial number of years at university (including undergraduate and postgraduate). We’re still paying off the HECs gradually. Despite all that expertise and knowledge, my husband’s wage is not “much” compared to, say, a lawyer or a doctor at a comparable level. Science just isn’t valued.

Of course, I did a dual degree (Arts/Law) and that took a while to complete too. Part of the price I paid for gaining a varied and enriching workplace experience was that I also only earned just above the average wage for most of my career. Ironically, I got my first big pay rise when I was four months pregnant. I know everyone thinks lawyers are “rich”, but I’m here to tell you that sometimes I think I’d have been better off being a plumber. No 5+ years at university not earning any money, no HECs debt, more flexibility and control over your own work.

It’s all very well for Mr Howard to say that a stay-at-home mother is better. But the reality is that most women I know can’t afford to stay at home for too long. Most women have little choice. The same applies for fathers who wish to stay at home (of whom I know a few).

There’s a couple of different reasons why parents go back to some sort of work after having children:

  • They need the money.
  • They don’t want to spend too long out of the workforce in case they can’t get back in again.
  • They crave adult companionship.
  • They enjoy their job.

Let’s address each point in turn. I would say that first point is all-important. A once-off payment of $4000 is not a replacement for $40,000 per annum (an average salary). And these days, prices are predicated on having two wages.

The second point is also important. Take too long out of the workforce and according to employers, you’re cactus, baby. A “has-been”. No use to anyone. (Why workplaces think this I don’t know).

I would say that one of the pleasures of working again has been getting a little time to myself, two afternoons a week. Okay, I’m working the whole time, but it is nice to be able to have a cuppa after my class in peace. A little break also means that my daughter and I can’t wait to see each other. She stands at the top of the stairs shouting “Mummy, mummy!” and I run up to her. (I’ve never had to go a whole day without her yet. I’m not looking forward to that.)

I do actually enjoy my job too. As Goldilocks said about Little Bear’s porridge, it’s just right. Not too much time in the workplace: I’d start resenting it for keeping me away from my baby. But enough time for me to get enthusiastic about it and enjoy the mental stimulation.

I love my baby so much. I don’t want to suggest that I regret having her. She is the centre of my life.

But I do feel like the system punishes educated professional people who want to have a family. First, you spend all that time at university when you could be earning. And then, as soon as you do start earning, you have to pay tax on all that time you spent at university. The more study you do, the bigger the bill is – the more you are punished for learning. Unfortunately, just because you are qualified and learned doesn’t mean that your salary will reflect your qualifications. And it takes a while to work up to a decent salary – by which time the biological clock is ticking if you are female…

The head of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has recently said that women are punished for having children, and that compulsory paid maternity leave should be introduced. But is paid maternity leave the answer? I think it’s important to offer a choice. As I have mentioned in a previous post, Anne Manne tells of a Finnish innovation where parents are offered a choice between a government-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 Finnish women chose the leave option. Personally, I’d also choose the leave option. I would use the money to pay a home carer if and when I needed one. However, I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone who chose the childcare option, or who chose not to have children at all. As outlined in another previous post, I would not get on my moral high horse on this issue.

Obviously Mr Howard has never had to live on one averageish income, with small children to boot. I’d like to see how he fared. And then I’d be interested to see what new policies he came up with.


Have a look at this post on the cost of motherhood at Larvatus Prodeo.

Update 2

Also read this post from a new addition to my blogroll, the delightful RG.



Filed under childcare, feminism, motherhood, parenthood, society

11 responses to “Family friendly? – the Coalition’s rhetoric-reality gap

  1. The reality is scary! One suggestion in the Age article that sounded interesting was a plan (by the Opposition) to give a year’s leave to fathers as well.

  2. fairlane

    Isn’t that the bitter irony of it all? They create a world where everyone must work, must consume, and then chastise us for being “selfish” because we can’t stay at home to raise our families.

    It’s bloody ingenius. Destroy the family, and then blame it on the family members.

    If you “really care” you’ll “find a way”.

  3. PRECISELY, Fairlane. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  4. Andrew

    You should do some maths on how much you are being taxed for your earnings (effective marginal tax rates EMTR’s, that is). Professor Apps has done fine work on these issues but even she under-estimates the EMTRs for the male breadwinner, concentrating most of her research on the EMTR’s for women.

    Returning to work after baby is a family issue. It needs to be addressed as a societal issue rather than as a feminist issue. Men are suffering and are left with very little choice in the great scheme of things.

    I have just gone part-time, partly because I want a life, and partly because I lose about 61.5% of every dollar I earn (EMTR). There is no incentive for me to earn a higher wage unless I double my salary, at which point the EMTR drops to a mere 48.5% or thereabouts. I continue to dream of only being taxed so lightly.

    This is John Howard’s and Peter Costello’s great attempts to get more of us into the workforce. Brilliant idea!!!!

  5. Debbie Doyle

    Trying to get this message across is like trying to tell the emperor he has no clothes on. It isn’t rocket science. A small boy could see the stupidity of what we require new mothers to do.

    Firstly, the minute she gives birth she has a NEW full time job as a security guard. It is a job given to her by law. If you abandon a baby you can go to jail. Society says a security guard gets paid, a mother doesn’t, despite having an equivalent full time job.

    Not only do we expect her to do this job for nothing we tell her that she isn’t working. I once put my occupation as raising children on a government document only to have it crossed out and declared not valid. How’s that to decrease your self esteem?

    I want the job but I deserve more respect! Once they diminished black slaves into believing they weren’t worth an income. I have fallen into the same trap but now I am angry enough to make some noise. Now we are educated enough to know we have raw deal. Educated women of the 21st century need to demand changes.

  6. Horatio

    I’d like to provide a different perspective.

    I’m a lawyer myself, and I’ve been reading many many comments over the years from put upon female lawyers about the difficulty of getting part time work, and costs of childcare etc.

    Most of these women are in ‘elite’ jobs in law for the ‘big six’ firms, earning far more than the rest of us mere mortals, who have to work for ordinary law firms in the real world.

    These people are notably not interested in the very real discrimination against ‘non elite’ law firm lawyers, many of whom have equal ability to the elite lawyers, but who are unable to ever obtain employment in these areas due to their background. And this costs them a hell of a lot more than 40k a year!

    In fact, I remember my first law job in the mid 90s, where I was working at Legal Aid in Morwell, dossing down in an empty apartment, with a mice ridden sleeping bag on the floor, watching the 7.30 report. On the screen I watched a female lawyer complaining how low her salary was – it was only 3 times mine!

  7. Andrew,

    I agree totally, it’s not just a “feminist” issue – it’s a society-wide issue. My husband presently gets the occasional rostered day off, which is fabulous, as he loves to look after our girl on those days. I’m sure he’d love to go part time, and we could both share the care. But we’d be taxed so badly that we couldn’t afford it. It’s easier for me to go part time than it is for him…and so it goes…


  8. Horatio,

    I hear you.

    I worked briefly in a big 6 firm, but only as a very junior lawyer. I never got one of those mega-salaries. I grind my teeth a little whenever I hear people in such positions complaining about their salaries. They should try living on my salary.

    But I don’t want to complain too loudly. In some ways, I’m extraordinarily lucky. When I first started blogging, I wrote a post about people needing a reality check from time to time…

    At least I can afford medical care and food. Even if I have to occasionally max the credit card to buy it.


  9. Horatio

    Legal Eagle. Fair enough then.

    Despite what I said above, I still agree not enough is done for working women and families.

  10. Wasn’t criticising your point – more agreeing – and saying I’m not one of those women!!! But sometimes I get a bit worried that all I do is whinge, and I like to look at the bright side.

  11. Cherry Ripe

    Another brilliant post, LE. Well done. Once you have a baby you realise with utter shock how geared the world is against you. I had a baby and returned to work part-time (after having lectured for a year). I still can’t get a promotion beyond a graduate salary because there’s no willingness to employ a mother part-time in a professional area, even though I’ve been in the workforce now for nearly 6 years.

    It’s enough to drive you crazy. I did everything right – got the law degree, got into my chosen profession (the public service, thank god comparatively speaking), had my baby early when the chances of conceiving were good, the chances of a healthy pregnancy and birth were good (which was definitely on my side in the end), and with enough time to perhaps contemplate more than one or two (remember the extra “one for the country”?)

    Now I just feel screwed. I can’t tell you how often I’ve torn my hair out over this one. Yet I also passionately love my child.

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