Full disclosure: I have started reading Lean In and it has got me thinking all sorts of things about gender disparity. Here’s the first in what I imagine will be many rants about the gender stereotyping that still occurs when it comes to parenting.
I think it says a lot about how this country (being Australia) feels about equal parenting when the name of the second-parent supplement is called “Dad and Partner pay”. I appreciate the “partner” part, but the title of this two-week newborn leave implies that it is Dads who go to work, and Mums who stay at home, and it infuriates me!
I feel like a bit of a hypocrite ranting about this given that, in our household, it was indeed the mother who stayed at home. But that had more to do with boobs and my desire to stay at home than it did anything else, and now that I’m back at work we are sharing the load, with both of us working four days a week. And we are lucky to be able to do that.
We live in a society where, in Australia, buying a house costs 4.3 times annual household income. According to realestate.com.au, Victoria’s median house price is $472k. The average income of a full-time Victorian is $1483.10 before tax (Australia Bureau of Statistics), so let’s say $1134 after tax (so on a single income you’re actually looking at house prices being eight times your annual income). If you took out a $400k loan at 5 per cent, you’re looking at spending nearly $500 a week on your mortgage. Experts suggest that your salary to mortgage ratio should be more in the ballpark 28 per cent of your income before taxes. What’s my point? Most families need two incomes.
With parents, there are even more expenses to think of. Think childcare, schooling, not to mention unexpected trips to the doctor (which go hand in hand with childcare and schooling), nappies, food and the unending stream of clothing they grow out of. Yes, two incomes is a must.
So most of us balance family life with two jobs. But why is it that for the most part it is the mum who falls back to part-time work, while the dad is the full-time wage earner? My guess is there are two reasons for this. The first being that, despite all our hard work, the fact remains that wage disparity still exists and the man can often be the higher wage earner. My concern is the second reason. It’s harder for men to ask for a reduction in hours in order to care for their child. For some reason, many still have this antiquated view that the caring component of the family is the mother’s duty.
I have never been of that view. For me, equal parenting is the way to go. It gives the family a better balance, and means that my lovely daughter doesn’t spend too much time with one of us (read, doesn’t turn into a miniature version of her mother). I’m hoping this will in turn make her a well-rounded individual. And you know what else? Most dads want to spend time with their kids.
I think part of the problem is the generation before us had to do it tough. Many women didn’t have access to any parental leave – leaving them with little incentive to return to the workplace – and the man just went back to work mere days after baby was born – it’s simply the way it was. I think it’s also worth pointing out that though my parent’s generation had to deal with extremely high interest rates, many were still looking at a much better income to mortgage ratio.
Times have changed. Not only do most families require two incomes, but many women want to return to work. For me, someone who has always been considered ambitious, returning to work to a clock-in, clock-out job was not an option. If I was going to be away from my child I want to be getting something out of it, I want to be doing great things, utilising my brain, thinking strategically. Unfortunately, many of these roles aren’t offered on a part-time basis, and I also wanted to attempt to have that mythical, magical thing called work-life balance. Fortunately, my workplace agreed to my returning under a four-days-a-week arrangement.
My husband too wanted a form of balance. He often talked of how he would like to take our little girl to swimming lessons, how he felt he was missing out. I suggested he might want to go down to four days a week also. He thought it was impossible. For him, working in a male-dominated environment, the idea of asking to reduce his work hours to look after his daughter was daunting, in fact I spent quite a lot of time persuading him to have the conversation. He did not think his work would go for it. Even my husband, who could very easily be described as a feminist, felt that it was out of the ordinary for him to do anything other than full-time hours.
Fortunately, his request was granted and now we get a great family balance where missy spends equal time with Mum and Dad, and our marriage thrives for it. But not everyone is so lucky (in fact, according to Lean In, our situation of 50/50 parenting fits in with just 9 per cent of the population). My suggestion for those wishing to strike a balance is to ask. People tend to make a lot of assumptions about what their workplace will and will not accept, willingly accepting the traditional roles ascribed to us. The truth is that until you put it out there you don’t know what your employer will say. As a parent you have every right to ask for flexibility. In fact, in Australia, the Fair Work Act actually states this. Sure, your employer could say no, but what are you losing for asking? And if you are discriminated for asking there’s a larger issue there and I would suggest contacting Fair Work Australia.
The larger problem, however, is coming from the top, from government and business. Until we have better parental leave, better childcare options and workplaces that accept that workplace flexibility is a requirement – for everyone, not just parents – we will struggle to shake off these gender stereotypes. We need to make it easier for women to return to the workplace, and return to what I would like to term “real jobs” and not assuming that three days a week means we want less responsibility. We need to have better access to childcare facilities of a high standard, and better incentives to put your child in care and return to work – for some the cost of childcare is so prohibitive that it’s cheaper to stay at home! Finally, we need to have employers who encourage not just mums, but dads, to work flexibly, to balance family life and work life. After all, we’re meant to be working to live, not living to work, and that should apply just as much to dads as it does to mums.
I’m not saying that my way is the best way – it’s what works for us. What I am saying is that I think we should all be afforded the opportunity to have the balance we want, regardless of gender.
Side note: I want to acknowledge the single parents and the same-sex-couple parents who aren’t touched on in this article. I haven’t forgotten you, it’s just hard to cover it all in one piece!