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.
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.