Monday, September 21, 2009

To work or not to work: is that really the question?

"We are engaged, when we become mothers, in a new way of being in the world that involves another human being, where once there was merely the long shadow of the letter I."
Anne Manne, Motherhood: How should we care for our children?

Ah! The great Work-Life Balance debate. Once again it has reared its ugly head and I am embroiled in it.

After broaching the subject of my Return To Work with my boss the other day I have found myself at something of a crossroads. I want to Return To Work part time. My boss won't let me. There we were, two women on either side of a desk and of our child-rearing years; one of us being forced to choose between caring for her child and maintaining her career; the other remembering what it was like to be in exactly that position but being forced to put her organisation first. Each could see the situation from the other's perspective and understand her standpoint but that didn't change the fact that neither of us could really give the other what she wanted.

My boss was very understanding of my desire to work part-time. I simply do not want to place Phoebe in childcare 5 days a week. She was the same with her daughter and took 2 1/2 years out of the workforce before her husband took over as full-time carer. Added to the old childcare debate, which I could quite easily bore you with once again, is the sense that I don't have the mental timeshare to devote 37 hours a week to work. At the moment I can't even find the time to clearly think about what my options are for next year and, for that matter, what I might actually want to do. My boss suggested I might want to look for part-time work outside of the organisation or that maybe she could somehow delay my return, depending upon the project she needed me to come back to work on. To their credit, my managers had planned around me working in the area that I enjoy working in; I had been worried that I'd return to the crap that no one else wants to do. Instead it seems that there might actually be quite a good project to come back to work on next year.

The Director's response wasn't entirely unexpected but the alternative to working part-time was unthinkable so I chose to do exactly that: not think about it. Instead I convinced myself that I would be able to work part-time and that it wasn't worth thinking about what I would do if I couldn't. It seems the power of positive thinking isn't actually that powerful after all. Apparently it doesn't change reality, or other people's opinions. Either that or I just wasn't doing it right. Anyhow, I felt okay after our conversation. I knew she'd take that stance at the very least as a matter of principle. A precedent had been set for not allowing part-time work within the department and a few employees had left for that reason in the past. I didn't really think I'd be the exception to this rule. It is a difficult environment to have part-time workers especially as much of the work is support-based. I have worked on a project with a part-timer in a previous job and I found it very frustrating on the days that she wasn't at work. It occurred to me that this is why very few women, especially young experienced women in their thirties, work in IT. Most women are either young graduates, or mature women with their child-bearing years behind them. As my boss said, "it isn't very family friendly". If they want to recruit more women into the industry, as they seem to try to do every few years, they really need to shake this up and sort it out. I shudder when I think of the lost potential of women my age, who are degree-qualified with upwards of a decade's experience who "choose" not to work so that they can look after their children. We struggle to recruit employees with the required level of experience so it seems quite insane to me to force those women to make such a choice when surely we could all benefit from designing our teams and work in such a way that allows them to be employed part-time.

Toby and I went for lunch and talked at length about the various options open to us. I could get work elsewhere, maybe contracting work. I could see it as an opportunity to change careers, perhaps start earning money from my writing. Or, I could go back to work full-time and he could work part-time. After all, my maternity leave is worth a fair amount of money to us if we'd like to have another baby.

The following day, however, I lost myself. I went off to my mum's group and felt really out of it, like I didn't belong there for some reason. My dilemma was filling my head yet I couldn't think about it. I couldn't think straight about anything.

Then Phoebe's sleep issues, which we'd been working on that week, picked up. More on that later. Could she have been picking up on my anxiety? Whatever the reason, it did not help matters to have her skipping sleeps, catnapping, waking up at 5am and taking 40 minutes to an hour to settle at night. It all became way too much for me. We went to a party with my colleagues on Saturday night and had to leave after less than two hours to get Phoebe home to bed. It was so frustrating. I realised I actually missed them. My initial reaction after the chat with my boss had been to leave work. Now I wasn't so sure. How could I just abandon that part of me, the person I was before I was a mother? First and foremost I am a mother but I'm still the IT professional I was before as well. Why can't I be both? Why should I have to choose? Why should I have to spread myself so thin that I can't do either job particularly well?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not kidding myself that I'm the first woman ever to experience this dilemma. Professional and working women have been going through this ever since the feminists achieved so-called equality for us. I have seen countless acquaintances returning to work part-time and just assumed I'd do the same. I don't think I personally know a woman with a very young child who works full time. Why did no one tell me that IT was not conducive to raising a family before I became qualified in it? Would I have even listened if they had in my feminist career-oriented youth? I guess deep-down I knew it but I just thought things would work themselves out. My husband would support me, or I'd stick my children into childcare. Believe me, no one is more surprised than me about my sudden stance on this. Nothing prepared me for how I'd feel about someone else looking after my daughter rather than me. If I'm honest, even the thought of her father replacing me as her full-time carer is a bit disturbing. And let's face it, I will probably still be the person who puts her to bed at night, comforts her when she wakes in the night or when she's sick. But I also hadn't read much about childcare and its effects on babies and really young children. I'm still researching that but so far what I have read does not give me comfort.

So I'm in turmoil. On the one hand I miss the old me, I long for a proper tea break and to go to the loo without an overtired baby following me on hands and knees calling "mamamama". I miss my colleagues, I miss my work. I worry about money. I feel put out at the thought of giving up superannuation, holiday pay and maternity leave. On the other hand I love being a mum and spending my days with my daughter. I worry what state the house will be in if I'm working when I can barely keep it ticking over whilst I'm at home. I listen to Toby and his brother discussing the politics at work, complaining about demanding clients and unrealistic deadlines and I remember the crap that I had to put up with at times and how over my job I was before I was pregnant, how for years I yo-yo'd between being happy and feeling like I was making a contribution to my community and being completely hacked off and under-challenged. Starting something new now might not be the best thing as I really don't have a whole heap of brain space to take away from raising a family.

In short, I have absolutely no idea what I want to do, or what is best for Phoebe and our family. I feel selfish if I think about going back to work in financial or personal and professional terms rather than purely what is best for Phoebe. Then I wonder if I am being naive to assume that me being at home with her, rather than earning money for the family, is for her best. Am I just being lazy? Especially considering I feel like a bit of a useless housewife at the moment. I haven't even found time to plan meals and cook in the evenings. It doesn't help that I'm worried about money and feel like I should plan my meals a week ahead and then buy exactly what I need. Plus there's the whole weaning thing going on and the fact that I feel like I should feed Phoebe organic food. And then there's the milk blister... but that's a story for another post, which I really hope I find the time to write.

There are probably many options for part-time work but not necessarily ones that will pay enough to justify putting Phoebe into childcare for those days. And of course, it seems crazy to me that I have to go to work to pay someone else to look after my baby and clean my house. Why can't someone just pay me to do it? Okay so only one person is employed rather than three, but I'd be much better at it. I wouldn't have to travel and I know better than anyone else how to raise Phoebe and organise the house. And I'd probably cost less. It's at times like these that our market economy seems a bit crazy. There must be another way....


i heart food connect said...

yeah working full time is dumb as, particularly with a little one. working with part-timers can be tricky but also can work fine if well managed. i used to work with 2 mums who job shared and with really good handover, crossover and information sharing, it worked quite well. their kids in childcare got sick a LOT and it often spread through the family. however, my manager's son (who was sick regularly) almost never gets sick now he is 8.

your workplace is losing by giving you such harsh options.


Lins said...

Good point Janette.

I think there are definitely ways to manage job-sharing and as soon as our society realises that a lot of our ills come from working too hard and placing too much importance on money perhaps there will be more of a move to do this anyway, regardless of child-rearing. However, I suspect we're a long way off that. Many work hours could be lost just in handover, which is undesirable in a department already under pressure for resources.

As for childcare itself, much of what I've read suggests that it is of no benefit to the child socially or academically until the age of 3, and then only limited hours, certainly not the equivalent of a full-time job. However, you made a good point re. sickness. Perhaps days spent sick as a toddler will help build the immune system and result in reduced sick days later when the child is at school, which may help academically.

This subject is a minefield.