When I envisaged parental leave at the end of last year, I can’t say it ever crossed my mind that the rest of Australia would be staying home too. But while the pandemic mantra “we’re all in this together” brought some comfort during a time of great unease, there’s no doubt the phrase held significantly more weight for new or expecting parents.
As a new mum, social isolation has often felt doubly lonely– and I was inarguably one of the lucky ones. My baby boy was born at the end of January; timing which allowed me to see family and friends briefly before the world went awry and, more importantly, establish a mother’s group.
During a period when I felt more overwhelmed and less capable than ever before, these women (and a handful in particular) made things less daunting. Our collective struggles –sleep deprivation, uncertainty and milk-soaked tops, became a badge of much-needed solidarity.
My heart aches for the hundreds of women who’ve missed out on this. Not to mention families who have lost vital income, who’ve been cut from support networks or mothers who have struggled with their own health issues or that of their babies without easy access to medical advice or assistance.
But amid the myriad challenges, there’s also been an indisputable silver lining for many families, including my own: My partner’s presence.
As a teacher in NSW, my partner was afforded a measly two weeks paternity leave (at half pay) which he took up from the date of our son’s birth. As well as being a massive support to me during this period, he also loved being home and bonding with his new baby. In truth, he settled into the role of ‘parent’ far more seamlessly than me. But no sooner had his leave started, that it crept to a close and a sense of foreboding settled in. How on earth was I supposed to manage without him?
The next few weeks after this are largely a blur. I could quite fairly be described as an emotional hurricane—reasonable for a woman recovering from a c-section, battling hormonal surges and drops every few minutes and trying to reconcile an equally magical and terrible life shift. Of course, this is the same hand of cards every woman is dealt when she has her first child. I needed support at that point more than I had ever needed it before.
When COVID restrictions came into effect shortly after, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I felt relieved. Offices were closing, and while schools remained open, my partner was given a rotation roster with his colleagues as student attendance was next to nil. This, coupled with the falling of the April school holidays, meant that he was home for a large chunk of time. A chunk of time which not only enabled him to grasp the life of primary caregiving, but more importantly, bond wholly with his baby.
Seeing this and knowing that I was actually appreciative of a crippling pandemic because it afforded my family time together, made me acutely aware how ridiculously bad Australia’s current policies and system is for parents, children and the broader economy.
Not only is it structured to prohibit women from economic participation– which will only be heightened in the wake of COVID– it also prevents men from properly experiencing, (in all its monotonous and glorious detail) the full scope of parenting.
I have often said that my partner is innately wired to be a Dad. It sounds cheesy, but he is the most natural, attentive, playful and loving role model for our little boy. But, without a pandemic throwing the world into flux? He would have missed out. Just like so many families before us.
With a new era on our doorstep, it’s time for government to pay heed; to see how costly our current system is and how badly it’s failing families. We have an opportunity now to get things right. Let’s not miss the chance.