Dissecting the work/life balance: Why it isn’t working for mums

Kinderling News & Features

A working mother is not a new phenomenon, and there are more now than ever before. Whether it’s by choice, or by necessity, working mums are here to stay.

Of course, this comes with a fair share of mother guilt, plus a heavy domestic and emotional load. And many workplaces haven’t shifted to allow for flexible hours to accommodate this new normal. 

What can we do about this stressful situation many experience? On Kinderling Conversation, Shevonne Hunt sits down with CEO of nanny recruitment agency Placement Solutions, Louise Dunham, and professor of gender and employment relations at University of Sydney, Marian Baird, to talk about possible answers. 

Women do the majority of domestic work 

It starts with looking at workplaces themselves. Has the workplace in general been slow to recognise that many families have two working parents?

Marian says that the picture is varied across sectors and industries. Some have responded well, and have accommodated the two-working parent household, while others have been slow. 

In particular, Marian says that in general men aren’t given the time they need as a parent. “The response to fathers taking leave, or assisting with the care, has been much, much slower,” Marian explains. “It’s partly because employers haven’t responded to the father’s role and men’s roles in the same way as they have to women’s. Women are actually carrying the burden more, we have this perverse outcome as the result of that.” 

It’s been a growing problem, that women are going to work then coming home to do a majority of the domestic work. 

“Women do the greater proportion, something like two thirds, three quarters of the domestic work,” Marian says. “All of that is unpaid or non-market work. We also know that a lot of work is outsourced, either to parts of the economy that are legitimate, some in the black economy, but also to grandparents who pick up a lot of that extra care that families and households need.” 

Families need extra help, but the system is flawed 

“The concept of maternity leave and parental leave in Australia is now embedded. The next sticking point is this period when a mother returns to work and tries to juggle childcare of young children and her career,” Marian says. 

One option for family care is employing a nanny to take care of your child. However, often nannies are hired outside of agencies, working illegally. 

“Globally and in Australia, most nannies are working under the table, cash in hand, part of the black economy,” Louise says. “The first thing that I think parents really need to think through, is the quality of the care that they’re going to have in their home ... It’s not just about outsourcing and getting people into the home to take up the burden of childcare, or whatever the particular domestic task is that you might need help with, it is a matter of the whole thing working so that the people who are working for you are paid legally, paid properly, and are part of the solution, not an amendment to it.” 

“Nannies are professional, proactive child carers. They do housework related to the children only. They are not cleaners, or anything else. Their role is solely related to the care of the children.” 

Listen to Marian and Louise on Kinderling Conversation:

“Many of us have been in that situation where you’ve just got to find extra help, and we don’t have a fully-fledged industrial sector that provides domestic care and help,” Marian says. “We also have a very undeveloped child care system, and it’s very expensive, especially in certain city areas. So, in a way what’s happened in Australia, is we’re very short on the structural foundations to enable mothers and fathers to both work ... What’s happened as a result of that is that people seek their own solutions, and a lot of those solutions are found through this completely unregulated economy, where there’s no protection, no surveillance, no quality control for either the children or the workers.” 

Changing the system 

For Marian, the next question is how do we shift the structures in which we work? For starters, we need to be willing to spend, “It will cost money, I think people need to recognise that. We have to pay.” 

Louise also notes that Australia has come a long way, including the introduction of in-home care standards put in place in 2008. Additionally, there are three key developments on the way to help change the home care industry.

Firstly, “We’ve got the draft national in-home care guidelines that are being considered for the new childcare package at the moment,” Louise notes. “Nannies, also to be known as early childhood educators (and that’s a shift in emphasis too) must be qualified. This is a great development.” 

The second change is that nanny agencies will also be encouraged to employ educated nannies. And thirdly, the greater public need to be educated about what a modern nanny looks like; that is, not a 21st century Mary Poppins.

“We’ve got to come up with a new system, and in child care we’ve got to come up with a system that isn’t a hodge podge of band-aid solutions, but is a whole new way of looking at it.” Louise believes. 

We need to value a mum’s career worth

Both Louise and Marian believe that part of this is considering the true value of a mother’s wage in terms of childcare.

As Marian explains, “We usually say ‘the mother’s wage can’t afford it’ but in fact the children are the product of both, and we should be thinking, ‘what’s [my partner’s] wage as well as my wage’, and maybe we need to recalibrate how we value that care ... We have to rethink the fundamentals of payment, care and the value of it.” 

“We have to come up with a new way of thinking that incorporates women’s salaries,” Louise adds. 

Marian believes the government needs to support families more, and live up to their G20 commitment statement to increase female participation in the workplace.

“I do think we need a better government subsidy for childcare, whether that includes in-home child care or centre-based child care. It needs to be integrated, rather than this patchwork system that parents have to try and piece together all the time. We do need a system that covers infant care, preschool care and then after-school care because they're the other area parents struggle with,” Marian says. 

The idea of work is slowly changing 

 “We are in a phase of major transformation of the concept of work, and I say that as an educator in that field. But I don’t think this means women will work less. I think that we will see men and women working more, and for longer periods in our lives,” Marion says. 

In Australia, women are back into full time work in their 50s, which means they’re not only caring for their own children, but potentially their own parents as well.   

The other issue is that Louise raises is that grandparents are often still working if they’re not unwell. 

“Grandparents aren’t as readily available because they’re back in the workforce. I think we really do need a radical shift, and the radical shift has probably got to start with both sides of the working parents. There are a lot of statistics that show women still are picking up most of the worry about who’s going to do the child care,” she says. 

Women see it as their responsibility to manage the child care, and as Marian notes, women are the shock absorbers for this fraught system, often putting their own careers on hold. 

“We do know from the date they eliminate all leisure, all personal time from their own lives, so any spare time is either spent in child care activities, domestic activities, or market-based work activities. At some point in people’s lives that all becomes a bit too stressful and too much, and I think we need to facilitate some movement out of that for the whole of the country,” Marian says. “Any survey you do on the standard question ‘I feel stressed or pushed for time’ all women will say yes. How long can we bear that for?” 

Marion sums up; “We need an uprising of women to say, we won’t take that any longer; we need a shift.”