Andi Fox of Blue Milk is a blogger I read because she’s always smart, and makes me think, even when I think she’s wrong or I can’t relate to what she’s writing about. She has a guest post up at Essential Baby about returning to work after having a baby. In it she says:
workplace flexibility, phased returns and part-time options will help companies recruit mothers – and failure to do so leads to an unnecessary loss of skills and experience. I’m particularly encouraged by this message because for a long time I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that part-time work is the secret to happiness. And not just for mothers either! [emphasis mine]
It’s that last line I want to focus on, because I’m somewhat bemused by how tightly focused the flexible working debate seems to be in mainstream media. There seems to be a willful disregard of all the other reasons why people might need flexible working, work from home or part time roles to allow them to continue with their jobs. It’s not like getting pregnant turns women from mechanical workers into human beings with other needs and responsibilities.
In no particular order, here are a few I’ve seen in my closest circle, none of which have anything to do with voluntary motherhood and many of which have nothing to do with choice:
- A broken leg, swine flu and other accidents
- Long term illness or disability
- Panic attacks, depression and similar
- Caring for a family member
- Caring for other peoples’ children
- Relocation of the workplace
- Relocation of the home
- Narrow field of employ + can’t relocate
- Unexpected caring responsibilities thrust upon them
- Religious commitments
- Caring for animals
- Snow and other bad weather
- Unreliable public transport
- Hobbies and passions
These aren’t all permanent – heck, even in Switzerland the snow melts eventually – but pretty much everyone will have one of these things happen in their life time. I certainly have, and luckily my employers have been supportive – or I’ve started looking for new work, because if an employer threatens do dock your pay because of transport delays, why would they support you if you get hit by a car?
Andi Fox comments that even in a “positive discussion about women combining work and family”:
I couldn’t help notice the odd little barb that reminded us that having a paid job and a family isn’t supposed to be easy. For instance, there was concern about how job-ready mothers will be on return to the workforce
Having a paid job and a life isn’t supposed to be easy, according to many employers. Why don’t we just admit it? The goals of most employer are not that their employees lead happy, fulfilling lives which are successful in many ways – they’re organizations designed to make money, and do that by trying to get the most work possible out of their employees.
The benefits most articles suggest working mothers demand aren’t complex or impossibly expensive. They’re, in my experience, slighter demands than the benefits many software companies offer well-paid single young men. In hip young companies, where trust is standard and creativity is expected, then you can expect to be able to do the following, without much comment:
- Start late if the bus is late and make up missed time at the end of the day
- Start late, just because you feel like it, and making the time up later
- Work through lunch and leave early
- Take a laptop home and working while you wait for a delivery
- Check personal email in a meeting or work when your contribution is not required
- Take personal calls in the office
- Take a day off at short notice
- Arrange for part or all of a commute to count as work, as you’ll be working on the train
- Arrange your schedule or work part time so you can pursue a hobby or sport
When we talk about work-life balance as a motherhood issue and tie it up with maternity benefits, parental leave and adjustments relating to childcare, we do two really crap things. First, we separate the category ‘mothers’ or ‘parents’ from the category ‘workers’, making the smaller group fight the whole fight. Second, by stepping away rather than standing together, we ensure that what should be a general workplace improvement becomes a special privilege which you can only get if you personally grow a baby.
I had a job interview once, where one interviewer explained to me that while the contract was for 40 hours, they generally expected more and said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly) if it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t working hard enough, followed a smile, am I right? and a laugh.
A job interview isn’t the best place for a philosophical debate, but my answer was simple: I didn’t take the job. There is more to my life than work, and work needs to respect that.