Thursday, 11 February 2010

"Working mums" can't win

There's an eye-popping story on working mothers in Sunday magazine. Much of it consists of the "childfree", as they prefer to be called, complaining about co-workers who are also mothers getting flexible working hours, too much time off, the best choice of holidays.

(Strangely, no complaints about "working dads" are reported - is it that they never need any of these concessions because the mums do it all???)

Here's "Anna", whose biggest gripe is "wellness leave":
"When you've got sick kids it effectively doubles the time you take off. In general, it's just another way of taking a mental health day. Suddenly it's a nice day and you think of them out there having a great time because they're not at work."

I so see where she's coming from. As every mother knows, it's so much fun dealing with sick kids. I mean, when employers are so generous as to let mothers have time off like this, I wouldn't be surprised if some women MADE their kids sick on purpose, just so they can stay at home.

Anna would "love a day off a week to indulge in her outdoor interests and would come in early or work in the evenings to make up the time. 'Most employers would say that's not on. But for those with kids it's suddenly okay, yet it's a choice to have children.' "

That is so true! Everyone knows that having a child is just the same as any other really expensive hobby, like having a vintage car or a yacht.

And I bet Anna would not be impressed by arguments about needing the next generation to work so as to keep the economy going and meeting her needs when she's retired. I mean, what's wrong with just importing people from some poorer country to do it?

The article's final message is that the aggrieved should make their managers understand that "flexibililty needs to work for everyone, not just parents." Because there is absolutely no difference between outdoor interests and sick children.

26 comments:

Julie said...

Anne, I love this post! Thank you so much.

Boganette said...

I was soo confused by that article. I don't have kids. And most of the women in my office do. I have never once felt any animosity towards them for bringing their children into work, having days off because their children are sick or breastfeeding at work/arranging time to breastfeed/pick kids up etc.

I've never felt like I was "missing out" when they take leave to look after their kids. Frankly I'm just glad that I don't have to look after a sick child as well as work.

You can't say staying home with a sick kid is the same as wanting to enjoy the sun (as rare as it is in Wellington).

The woman quoted came across to me as someone who hates her job and wants to blame others for how irritating her work hours are.

Who doesn't wish they were outside in the sun instead of working? I hate my job, I hate working shifts but I'm not going to blame mothers for that. Because my job would suck way more if I had to work shifts AND raise kids. Fuck that.

And also the bit at the beginning about smokers really shitted me. I may have a quick smoke every two hours but I don't go out for hour-long lunches so Pffft!

Anonymous said...

Damn uppity workers should know their place?

Hugh said...

And I bet Anna would not be impressed by arguments about needing the next generation to work so as to keep the economy going and meeting her needs when she's retired.

I'd be really interested to hear these arguments, myself.

stephen said...

Is it wrong of me to think that the answer is to allow all workers unscheduled days off for emergencies? And to take unscheduled leave from an Unscheduled Leave Allowance if the weather is nice, or it's your birthday, or because your mood is particularly crummy? There'd be no cause for jealousy then.

(Imagine the benefits, social and economic, if every unseasonably sunny day in Wellington were an optional holiday...)

This is a consequence of having an inhumane system of work where one class of worker is encouraged to be jealous of another instead of asking questions about the whole framework of regulated hours of work in post-industrial economies.

I have the luxury of being in a workplace where people can be fairly flexible and are trusted to to do so. I don't see in principle why all workplaces that don't provide essential services couldn't work like this.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the original article (was there a link or was it a print thing?) but I have worked with plenty of people with this sort of attitude.

I think the sniping arises because the work still needs to be done that the person who is not there attending to a child was going to do/or had been doing - often it is not just the person attending to other matters who covers for the situation afterwards and during, it is those around who don't go off to other commitments (with or without good reason becomes irrelevant). Appropriate or not, this often creats resentments over time.

Also while an expensive hobby or outdoor interests are not usually deemed 'equivalent' to attending to a child, there are other serious reasons people may have that are not widely accepted as reasons but that could also benefit from more flexible arrangements.

I'm thinking of people with medical commitments that may not be public knowledge and that for good reason the person may not wish to have as public knowledge. Where by comparison whether someone's cares for children tends to be publically known.

Boganette said...

(Imagine the benefits, social and economic, if every unseasonably sunny day in Wellington were an optional holiday...)

So true! And because it's only sunny here about five times a year it shouldn't cost much. I'm with Stephen I'd be a much happier worker-bee if I could get a day off when I feel like rubbish. Or when I feel like I need some sunshine!

Nikki said...

I'll admit that I haven't read the article yet (or the comments) but do child-free coworkers realise that parents are entitled to exactly the same amount of sick leave as child-free workers despite having double the amount of people (or more!) needing to access that. Argh.

Now off to read article before I make any more silly comments ;)

terry said...

I think you will always get people sniping about anyone who has unscheduled time off for any reason. Generally these people who complain are the first to take time off, in work time, to do something for themselves. However some parents at my work place are taking advantage of the kindness of others. Anyway my story, I had a medical procedure booked in last week, I'd been waiting and stressing about it since November. Mary (A woman my at work, not her real name) decided she had to go to her kids school for the day, the day I was having the procedure therefore I was expected to postpone! Needless to say a very brief phone call from my surgeon to the HR manager sorted things in my favour. however Mary as a person is someone who will try to work anything to her favour without a thought to anyone else. most parents I work with are considerate to their workmates about taking extra time off to look after children.

A Nonny Moose said...

I'm with Stephen - EVERYONE should have the opportunity to have a "Duvet Day" (wasn't that what they were dubbed in the 90s?), or Emergency Leave Allowance.

You know and I know that the majority of working teams don't indulge in this sort of mommy sniping, but the media lurrrrve to put women in their place from time to time. Unfortunately, there is also the bad eggs that give too much grease to the squeaky wheel of mommy sniping.

I had one in my office until recently, and she was a cracker case of using her kids to get out of work - they must have been the sickest kids in town. We actually caught her in the lie (one of the final straws in a litany of problems with this woman, she was gone not long after) - her kids were SO sick, the whole family went skiing!

I guess we all have an anecdote of the good and bad, but the media and society prefer to play up the bad for the old "mommies shouldn't work" meme.

Julie said...

Sorry I did a crap job of not finishing my last comment before hitting publish:

I can't find the article online, but based on Anne's post and my own experiences of being back at work about 15 months (Wriggly is now 2) I wonder if the quotes in the article are really all that representative.

In my workplace we have whanau leave, which is when we use sick leave for someone else we need to look after other than ourselves. The first time I used this was when my partner was suffering greatly from wisdom teeth and we both lost a night's sleep as a result - I wasn't sick but I also wasn't fit to work, as a direct result of my partner's illness, not my own. So I used whanau leave.

In another situation I might use it to take a sick parent to a doctor's appointment they didn't want to go to alone, or to support a sibling who had more sick children than they could handle, or something like that. To my thinking that would be an ok use of whanau leave, which is debited from my sick leave to a maximum of (iirc) 5 days a year. So it's not all for the benefit of the "child-enslaved." (That's the logical opposite of "childfree" right?)

And none of my workmates would bat an eyelid because they are compassionate individuals who know I'm not rorting any system. We have a pretty high level of trust where I work, by and large, and it helps.

I suggest the "childfree" woman in the article read the novel I Don't Know How She Does It. Although there were lots of things about the book that bugged me it gives a bit of a picture of the difficult balancing act of being a working parent, and a working mother in particular.

I love Stephen's idea. But I feel bound to point out that in fact you can legitimately use your sick leave now, as long as you just use one or two days and there is no pattern, when you need a duvet day. Mental health is important too, and if you determine that you need a mental health day you should be able to take it and there shouldn't be any questions either if there aren't any other issues (like taking every Monday off sick, or not getting your work done).

There have been some cases in recent years that have found in the favour of employees who have done things on sick leave that at first glance might seem dodgy. E.g. there was a guy who was on sick leave because he was suffering various medical issues as a result of stress and he went fishing. The employer found out and tried to do him for it, but the court found in favour of the worker because fishing was something he genuinely found relieved his stress and his doctor backed him up.

Perhaps if attending to our mental health wasn't so stigmatised we would all feel a bit better about other people taking leave when they need it!

Deborah said...

Excellent post, Anne.

It seems to be a perennial issue. I wrote about it back in 2007 when some poor put-upon Dom Post writer was grumbling that she or he never got extra time off, unlike the parents in her / his workplace.

Who pays for flexi-time parents?

Hugh, in answer to your comment about the next generation serving the needs of current workers:

What the child-free need to remember is that we parents are providing a vital service for their future. In twenty or thirty or forty years time, today’s children will be the doctors, the road builders and the checkout operators needed by the working generation of today. They will build the houses, grow the food, and make the clothes. They will research the medicines, drive the taxis, and make sure the water keeps on flowing out of the taps. Some of these needs we can meet through immigration, but not all, and in any case, we will be competing in a global market for migrants. The children you see in our cities and villages today are a critical resource for our future.

Deborah said...

Then there was the childfree colleague who complained that unlike the mothers in our workplace, she had never been able to just take six or twelve months holiday, unlike all those lazy mothrs who had taken maternity leave. It was unfair, unfair!

She was quite put out when I pointed out that our workplace was remarkably flexible in respect of leave without pay, and she could almost certainly get six or twelve months off, anytime she wanted to go without her salary for that period.

Hugh said...

Interesting Deborah.

Seems to me that you're arguing, not just that the nameless co-worker is wrong in calling mothers the selfish ones, but that she herself - and others who choose not to have children - are the free-riders.

Deborah said...

No, I wouldn't call them free riders, at all. But parents aren't selfish exploiters of the child-free, either. A little bit of mutual tolerance and respect, neh?

Hugh said...

Deborah, the idea that the child-free are receiving a, to use your words, 'vital service for their future' for free is hard to reconcile with the idea that they're not free riders.

Anonymous said...

Actually Hugh, they're not just receiving it for free - the childfree (or, to be more precise, those who are not caring for dependents, which might include dependent or ill partners or other relations) actually get bonus time, because they get to use their sick days when they're actually sick - not when their dependents are. Plus the childfree never have to pay for 'voluntary' school fees, school uniforms, feeding their children.

I also wouldn't say free-riding because I acknowledge that first there are some people who simply don't have the capacity to be parents, and that generally a rising global population means that we should as much as possible create our future workforce out of young immigrants, refugees, etc. and the childfree are often attempting to acknowledge/force that (even though it's blatantly not working, see NZ's presently aging pop). However, I don't think it's realistic to suggest that an aging population can be entirely supported in the manner to which we are all accustomed by increasing immigration rates - just for example, immigrants (particularly but not limited to English-speaking immigrants) often lack any grasp of treaty of waitangi issues. Child-rearing is a necessity and it is also expensive.

-- Tui (not logged in today)

A Nonny Moose said...

"What the child-free need to remember is that we parents are providing a vital service for their future."

As Child Free By Choice, I get a bit of a sigh on whenever I get asked "who is going to look after you in your old age? It'll be someone else's kids!". One of the thousands of reasons I chose not to have kids was BECAUSE of the burden of familial expectations - having watched my parents give a lot of their lives to caring for elderly and infirm parents, I did not want to burden MY kids with those expectations.

Who IS going to look after me in my old age? As a CFBC, this IS one of the things you think about long and hard. And the answer is...myself. As a CFBC I have the education, finances, resources and time to invest in retirement and healthcare. If it is from immigrants, I'd be more than happy to recompense and respect their skills and knowledge. For example, I have learned from my newly acquired Chinese side of the family what wonderful, friendly and compassionate family people they are - I look forward to having their kids and wider community around me in 40 to 50 years time.

With that looked after, the more smug may say "but it sounds like a terribly lonely old age". Again, I have had the time to devote to more involved relationships in other parts of my family - I have remained on a level (some would say "friends") that I couldn't imagine MY aunt having with me 30 years ago.

It's all about understanding the different investments in different parts of life - mutual understanding as Deborah says.

Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting how the article (and some of the comments here) frame this as an issue of the childed vs the childfree. Hello, the thing that needs to change here is the employer and the way the work is organised! If the employer enables flexible working that acknowledges that people are actually human beings with responsibilities outside of work (which actually they have to or they're on another planet) then they need to adjust stuff so that this doesn't set co-workers against each other. Or is it OK for them to pretend the workplace is divorced from reality??

Hugh said...

You know, I should have said this earlier, but 'childfree' is not a synyonym for 'chooses not to have kids', let alone 'doesn't have kids'.

Anonymous said...

Here is a description of the ideal world, as found in one of Echidne's comment threads.

"Biologically, it *would* be a good idea to have your kids young, and if we were a matriarchy and were organized around the life cycle of the human woman rather than the human man, that would work out great. Women would have their children when they are young and strong, their own parents are still pretty young and healthy, and they would train for their future in an environment that assumed that they would very likely have small children. So there would be small day care units in every building on a college campus, for instance. And every workplace would have day care units, and moms would go down to the day care unit and hang out with their kids instead of smoking on their breaks. And there would be more breaks, and the assumption would be that children are integrated into our daily work lives. And when our children go to school, they would spend part of the week back at work with Mom or Dad, learning about the rhythms of work, apprenticing to the jobs Mom and Dad do, maybe even doing a little bit of work themselves to help out. You know, like hunter gatherer and farming families used to do, that we got rid of because factory work is horrible for children (and, in fact, humans in general), but we could bring back in office work or service professions.
Your late teens and early twenties would be college and small-child-rearing. When you're in your 30's, your kids are teens and need little supervision from you, and can actually be helpful at your workplace. Your career starts to really take off. All of your "I have to take off work to take care of my young kids" happens when you are young and junior and don't have a lot of responsibility at work; as you start to reach managerial levels, your children are no longer small.
And men are expected to live their lives by the same rhythm, participating in the child rearing when they're young, taking off when they're older, because there's no "mothers stay at home with the baby and fathers work" -- all workplaces assume that there will be children there. And people without children don't rise any faster than the people who have them, because the workplace assumes that you're going to take kid time off and if you don't have kids, hell, take the time off anyway and play with your dog. No one else comes in a full work week, why should you? The workplace assumes that people will work a reasonable average of hours, and does not make scheduling based on forcing horrific overtime, because that's just not the culture.
And that would be a great alternate universe to live in, and I wish I was there right now. But since that's not the world we live in, women have to balance work and reproduction in ways that men don't, and junior employees actually suffer *more* demands on their time, and you need to have greater financial stability to afford kids because you have to be able to afford taking pay cuts or unpaid time off."

lutramania said...

I'm one of those people who will by choice never reproduce. I've worked a great many office jobs with 90%+ female employees, most of them mothers. Never have I felt hard done by because I don't have children. A little excluded at times, but that's another story. Who are these mythical workers who get to take days off whenever they feel like it without repercussions? Where do they work? Who are these employers? What would they do if they found themselves without any childfree employees to pick up the slack for all the freeloading parents? (...)

In my last permanent job, there were certainly people who got more time off than everybody else, more unquestioned sick leave and who were free to come and go more or less as they pleased. But these were called managers, not parents...

Without having read the article in question (is it online?), "Anna" sounds like one of those woe-is-me individuals with entitlement issues who possibly spends too much time around like-minded childfree people and has worked herself up into believing she's being treated unfairly. Nothing particularly unique to the childfree.

On a different note, I really cannot agree that people who choose not to have children are somehow shirking their responsibility or not pulling their weight. It's nobody's duty to reproduce; the sentiment alone is about as anti-feminist as you can get.

Chris said...

Can you stop slagging Dads? Some of us are solo and we have to take domestic leave to deal with sick kids and (much more annoying) "Teacher only days" etc.

Don't expect sympathy. Do expect you to frame gender neutral.

Or come out of the closet as misandrists.

AnneE said...

Fascinating comments! Time to clear a few things up here. No, I could not find this article online - maybe the SST doesn't put its Sunday mag up? No, I do not think people who don't have children are in any way to be criticised for this. But neither do I think they should criticise or complain about people who do have children for having to meet the needs of those children, as well as undertaking paid work. I loved Anonymous's vision of what a genuinely flexible workplace that recognised the need for SOME people to have children, and for all kinds of caring work generally, would look like. And yes, someone does have to have some. As Susan St John and I wrote in A Super Future: The Price of Growing Older in New Zealand:
"The standard of living for older people [and everyone else] next century...depends on the skill of New Zealand's workers...Old and young need each other..younger people..are our best hope of a future in which decent living standards for all can be achieved."

AnneE said...

And sorry, Chris, I really didn't mean to slag all those great dads who do pull their weight - but the article riled me for so totally ignoring the fact that kids do have two parents and focusing solely on mothers, so I reacted.

Julie said...

Chris, I didn't see much mother-centric stuff in the comments, a lot of it was gender neutral?

IMHO one of the biggest chances of making positive change for working mums is to provide support for working dads. We need to make it socially ok for dads to be active parents, to take time off for child-related stuff, to not have to work stupidly long hours to earn enough to provide for a family.

And as several other commenters have pointed out, what we really need to change is not parents but the workplace.

In the office where I work I am the only woman with young children - all the other women who have sprogged have adult children. But I work with three men who have young children. Of this ridiculously small sample; one family has the mother home pretty much full time, another has the mother working part time (and a lot of her work is evening work), and the third has the mother in a full time plus job, but she has quite a bit of flexibility during school holidays. All three of the men work full time, and all three do take time off to care for their children when there's a clash with the mother's obligations. It's common for them to take time off or work from home during the school holidays to share the load.

So I think the sharing is happening more and more. But we still have a long way to go.