It is unlikely that many working parents were surprised by the National Working Families report released by Parents at Work last week that showed the juggle between work and family is more often than not a struggle. The health and welfare of parents is compromised because of it.
While these findings, sadly, aren’t remotely surprising, I’m not convinced it has to be this way.
Too often, it seems, when it comes to the subject of how Australian families combine their caring responsibilities with their participation in paid work the automatic response is to sigh, shrug and accept defeat. The prevailing narrative is along the lines of: ‘It’s a square peg, round hole dilemma and short of money growing on trees or some other magical development eventuating, it shall remain ever thus’.
But working and caring doesn’t have to be a square peg, round hole proposition. Here, it certainly is to a large extent but that’s not immutable. Other countries are far closer to a scenario in which the two realms can co-exist and it’s not because of a random stroke of luck. It’s because they have intentionally re-engineered the equation to make combining work and family closer to a square peg, square hole.
This sort of change includes legislating for paid parental leave in a manner which specifically incentivises and encourages men and women to share the care. That then leads to a cultural expectation and attitude that permeates workplaces, communities and families that women and men can and do work and care. It eases the rigidity of outdated stereotypes about mothers and fathers and men and women. It chips away, very effectively, at the narrow notion that men work and women care.
It means designing early childhood education and care in a manner which benefits parents, children and educators alike. Where it is universal, accessible and high quality.
Without these sort of wholesale, structural reforms it is true that the combining of work and family will remain somewhat intractable. Those reforms are critical for creating and sustaining the necessary cultural shift to mean more parents can work and raise a family without compromised sanity and wellbeing.
But, that isn’t to say there aren’t other things that individuals and employers can do to help facilitate more juggle and less struggle.
Shortly after the findings were released I was called by a producer on The Project and asked if I would be willing to make some comments on it, to which I said yes.
One of the questions in our preliminary chat was inevitable: ‘How is your own work/life balance?’
My answer? A constant work in progress. It isn’t static because neither work, or children, are. Whether I’m struggling or juggling changes daily, sometimes hourly. And while I’m loath to pretend I have achieved the elusive nirvana of total work-life balance, when I step back and rise above the minutia for the most part I am able to work and parent without my mental health being compromised. (Mostly.)
Here's my interview with @theprojecttv last night about how we can alleviate the angst too many parents feel trying to juggle family with work. (Also featuring the wonderful & the indomitable @parentsatworkau CEO Emma Walsh) https://t.co/ptEMgv9m08
— Georgina Dent (@georgiedent) October 30, 2019
Ahead of the interview I devoted some thinking time to the practical factors that have made this so.
Flexibility. This is the absolute game changer. Having autonomy and true flexibility in how a lot of my work is created and executed is the balm that helps salve the work/family cogs on a daily basis. Of course there are certain tasks and projects in which total flexibility is impossible but where it is possible and offered, flexibility increases significantly what it is possible to achieve.
Having had employers and managers who promoted flexibility and truly valued output over the hours at a desk has been transformative. And the flexibility works both ways: because of the flexibility I have so often been extended, I offer the same in return. If a story needs to be written or an event attended or an interview completed that is possibly ‘outside hours’ I will more often than not make it work. Flexibility isn’t shorthand for having a laugh.
Part-time work. There are plenty of weeks since having children where I have worked full-time hours, sometimes many more, but the honest truth is that’s the exception rather than the rule. I find working full-time hours and trying to be a present and engaged parent is difficult. Certainly not impossible and I certainly know of many parents who find it preferable to be paid for full-time hours rather than participate in the ruse of working full-time hours while being paid to work part-time.
Challenging the notion that big, serious jobs must entail a full-time commitment is something that would advantage many families in their juggle. It is possible to do meaningful work without working 60 hours a week. Plus, remember that New Zealand CEO who trialled all staff at his company working 4 days a week and productivity went UP?
A supportive co-parent. It would be difficult to find a vocation as family-unfriendly in nature as my co-parent and husband’s line of work but we try to approach work, home and the kids equally. In many weeks it’s an attitude more than a practical reality but when the starting point is that both of our various work obligations and the caring requirements of our children are shared priorities, it facilitates a semblance of balance that would otherwise be impossible .
Good quality childcare is an investment not a cost. As a household we have spent an eye-watering amount of money on childcare for our three children but it’s not a number we have ever tried to curb because it’s an investment. In their education, socialisation and our longer term future. In the short term there have been some periods of time where we could have saved more by cutting their days or us working less. Treating it as an inevitable expense rather than a sum to come out of one of our salaries bypasses that position.
Cut corners. It was over a year ago when a door-to-door sales person knocked on our front door spruiking a meal delivery box. At the time I resented the disruption because I was madly trying to finish a column before school pick up, but a year on, I can say, with my hand on my heart, that him persuading me to sign up was the best decision I made in 2018. I cannot put a price on the time and mental energy it has saved. Three nights a week we don’t need to think about what to plan or buy for dinner: a box is delivered on Sunday with three healthy and delicious meals ready to be prepared and I love it.
I am no poster-parent for work life balance. There have certainly been plenty of times when I’ve been quite the opposite: when it feels like I’m drowning in work and family and cannot possibly meet all the demands. Occasionally those times just need to be ridden out: accepted as inevitable.
But other times I have had to pull back. To say the word I dread: No. To disappoint. To recalibrate.
It’s not a perfect science but I refuse to believe more of us can’t enjoy work and family without feeling like it’s a perpetual game of whack-a-mole in which our own well being is the thing being hit.