Part-time smartschmuck-time

Cross posted on The Hand Mirror

The headline in Tuesday’s Australian says it – Part-timers fail at work, home. Beaton Consulting surveyed 10,000 white collar workers, and found that part-time workers feel that they are falling behind in their careers, working just as hard as their full-time counterparts, but paid less, and at the same time, they feel they simply don’t have enough family time. It’s a lose:lose situation.

You can get a PDF of the entire report here (2MB), or you can go read Penguin Unearthed’s excellent summary. Penguin Unearthed gives a measured analysis – I recommend reading it – but me, I’m going to be a little more rant-y about the whole flaming issue.

The report’s findings certainly gel with my own experience, and with what I know of the experience of other working mothers. That’s possibly because I have typically worked in so-called ‘knowledge’ jobs, where the output is dependent on my thinking and analysis and writing, not on producing widgets or providing service. When you’re in a knowledge job, the work is always with you, there’s always more that could be done. There’s always times when deadlines loom, and no matter what, you end up working late at night, or during your “time off”, to get something done. I can see that women, and men, who work in managerial jobs might have much the same experience – no matter what hours you officially work, the job always, always creeps over into your private life. The net result is that you end up working virtually full time, and getting paid part-time, but not progressing, not getting the promotions and the higher pay, because you simply are not physically there on the job during normal work hours. But your time at home with your family is over taken by work too. You end up stressed, tired, permanently struggling to keep up, juggling, juggling, juggling, all for lower wages than your colleagues. Lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.

I can see that part time work might be viable for manufacturing and service jobs, jobs that start and end at a particular time each day, but typically, those are lower paid jobs, so parents get caught in a different trap. In order to support their children, to feed, clothe and educate them, they need to work longer hours. So no family time for them either.

Even in professional jobs where people can work shifts (nursing, for example), working part time is a sure way to non-promotion. You can’t manage the nursing team for a cardio-thoracic unit on a part time basis. If you have children, you end up working a few shifts here and there, usually at night, so that your partner (assuming you have one) can care for the children. But even if it’s not exactly dead-end stuff – you are after all, keeping your hand in and keeping your skills up to date – your career goes on hold for years and years.

I just don’t see how part time work is a solution to the huge problem of combining children and a career. I was relieved to see this study, confirming that everything I had found to be the case for myself, everything that other mothers had told me, was not just a few failures here and there, not just a few women who weren’t tough enough to make it, but a widespread and persistent problem right across the part time workforce. There’s something systemic going on here.

Of course, the article in The Australian makes the ritual dig at women for not having children – it wouldn’t be a proper story about women in the workforce if it didn’t do that. See Stef’s excellent rant about the “there’s a fertility crisis because women dare to have careers” trope for more on that.

And of course, there’s the ritual “successful woman doing it all story”. You see, ladies – this woman can do it, so if you can’t, it must be YOUR FAULT. Except that to her credit, the woman interviewed for the story knows that she was lucky on the fertility side, and she is quite well aware that her work-life balance only balances because she is sufficiently highly paid that she can afford to hire a full-time nanny. Even then, she says, “I’m a bit wary of the term ‘balance’. Sometimes I think I’m on a tightrope.”

But I’m going to stick my neck out here, and say that she hasn’t got to the tough times yet. I’m going to make two claims, both of which will upset some people, I think. It’s easier when your children are pre-schoolers, or you still have at least one pre-school child, provided you go down the nanny route rather than the childcare / creche route, and it’s much easier when you have just one child. Not the case for this woman – she has two gorgeous daughters – but even so, she’s still got one pre-schooler, and therefore still has a nanny. Even then, it’s a tight-rope for her.

The real crunch comes when you have school age children. Have you noticed that schools shut down for 12 weeks of the year, and they close their doors around 3pm everyday? Suddenly, you have to find childcare, not just after school, but during those 12 weeks. Sure, you can cover at least some of it with your own leave, and your partner’s leave, if you don’t object to never taking leave at the same time, but even then, if you are both entitled to four weeks leave, you still have at least another four weeks of childcare to arrange. And pay for. Out of your after-tax income. In the old country at least, childcare is not tax-deductible.

Then there’s the seemingly endless school trips, the after-school and weekend running around, for sports, ballet, drama, music, whatever. I have three daughters, and each girl does just one thing each out of school. I have cunningly scheduled two of them for the same afternoon, in the same part of town, but even so, that’s one afternoon of cars, chivying children to “Move faster, please”, ensuring that the afternoon’s non-participant doesn’t feel neglected, rush, rush, rush, but at the same time trying not to flurry the children, so that they can enjoy their lessons.

I’m well aware that the moment you have just one child, your life changes forever. You don’t go out anymore! You think constantly about your child, devote enormous amounts of emotional energy to them, restructure your entire being and way of life for your child. Adding another child or two or three doesn’t add to that restructuring of your entire being. You have already made the enormous change to being a parent. However I do think that the physical effort and time commitment increases significantly with each child. To be sure there are some economies of scale, but not many. My mother thinks that the logistics of having one child just aren’t so bad – with a bit of planning and forethought, you can tuck them under your arms, and carry on. Things get more difficult with two children, but the real point where the logistics become fraught with difficulty is when you have three. I don’t know – seeing as I went from one to three within the space of twenty minutes – but I would be interested to hear what other women think about this.

So what’s my point? Just this – if I see one more story featuring some woman who claims to be able to do it all, and she has just one child, or has pre-school children, I will throw my computer across the room! That woman has certainly faced the challenges of work-life balance, but I think that the real crunch hasn’t hit yet. Case in point – Mai Chen, who is fond of opining that because she can do it, so can anyone, and women should just work harder. She has some remarkable achievements, and for those she deserves admiration. But solving the work-life balance problem is not one of them. Bear in mind that she has a partner who stayed home with their child and she has just one child. She is not a role model for making work and children somehow, magically, balance.

Having said that, I suspect that even if I am now in the thick of the time-commitment years, when there is just not enough time in the day for the parenting and the work I would like to be doing, I have not yet hit the years when the emotional commitment can hit hard. There are no teenagers in my house yet. I’m interested in hearing about the difficulties that parents of teenagers face when it comes to work-life balance.

As Penguin Unearthed says, we need to change our work patterns, if we are genuinely going to find some way of doing this work-life balance thing, and employers who learn to do that will be rewarded by being able to choose employees from a much wider pool. It’s more than just making part-time work available – remember that the starting point of this post is that part-time work is a losing game. It’s about rethinking how to manage work patterns and work requirements so that flexible work isn’t simply code for paying someone less money so that they have the privilege of walking away from their desk from time to time, but still doing a full-time job.

Of course, the riposte to me will be that I chose to have children, and I chose to have three children, so now I must bear the consequences of those choices. (Of course, I didn’t ‘choose’ to have twins, but I was very glad that I did.)

I think that we are confused by the language of choice. There are many things that we choose to do, many choices that we can make, but it’s only very recently that we could choose to have children, or not to have, children. But somehow, because we can use contraceptives, because we do have access to abortion, children have become seen as yet another consumer good, something that some people can choose to have if they want to, and other people can choose not to have. And that’s all there is to it, just like choosing to have a car or choosing to ride a bike.

But that’s a very hollow notion of choice. Having children is a fundamental part of human life plans, something that is integral to our understandings of who and what we are. Children and families structure our societies and the way we form communities. It’s not just a consumer choice here. So we should be looking for ways to fit work around people’s lives, including children, not making people fit around work.

In any case, the “choice” to have and rear children is disproportionately born by women. Whatever our intentions, however many dads we can find taking on primary childcaring roles, the great majority of people doing the day-to-day caring for children are women. Go to any primary school at home time, and you will see that the majority of parents collecting children are women, who if they are working, are working part-time. It’s women who are bearing the brunt of the burden of working out just how to find some sort of balance between working and rearing children. It’s a gender issue, and a feminist issue, and like so many feminist issues, it’s one that if resolved, will benefit all of us, not just women.

Okay… rant over, for the time being.


11 responses to “Part-time smartschmuck-time

  1. Having balanced two and three jobs over the last five years, I feel a lot of empathy for part-time workers who are also mums. It’s hard enough to balance the demands of two projects and employers let alone the needs of little people you are so important to.

    I remember as a young’un being really hopeful that someone would have resolved the problem of balancing paid work and having children before I got there. And while I don’t currently have kids, I’m at an age where I might, and the problem remains. Linda Clark was once held up as a paragon of balance for women while she hosted Nine to Noon and was the mother of (I think) two pre-school twins. But not so long after that she gave up journalism to head to law school and a life with greater balance. And good on her.

    However the reality you point to in your excellent post remains – this is a systemic issue for women and it can’t be properly addressed by individual women making “good” choices for themselves – it needs to be addressed in a systemic way.

    Thanks for such a lucid and well-considered post 🙂

  2. Thanks for the link, and the great post. I do think that part time work could be more of a solution than it is at the moment, but to make part time work, a workplace needs to take it seriously, not just treat it as a quick temporary way to keep their mothers until, as one employer said, “her daughter’s two now. Hasn’t she got over it yet?”

    I’ve heard about workplaces where part time work is very common. Often in places where it is the only way to keep good staff. They work because the whole team takes it seriously and works it into the routine.

    But at Gen X, there are increasing number of dads doing it too. That will help, as it becomes not just a female issue.

    In my own team at work, there are three dads working part time, although they all work more days than their wives in a week.

  3. Excellent post. I have 3 children – the oldest is 5. I thought school would make it easier- ha! I worked part-time with my first which developed into full time somehow, part-time after my 2nd and also did masters study and then it all fell apart. I couldn’t DO IT ALL. No way. It was a total collapse for me and I felt so so bad that I couldn’t. I continued to do my study until #3 came along and now I know that the kids take all my time. I cannot imagine trying to work outside the house just now although I am doing a little study. I am totally fed up with being asked “when are you going back to work”, I am TIRED of the constant running around around, pick ups, drop offs, ballet, trips, birthdays, and all the household stuff. Doing that and working too??? No. Ok I could if we needed the money but part-time work means loss of “Working for Familes ” income and expensive child care – we’d be worse off financially. And sorry but people “doing it all” with only one child irritate me SO MUCH and all the time and energy they have for that one child. However I used to be that person so…

  4. Make Tea Not War

    No one gets to have it all. We all have to live with the consequences of our choices and the fact is that every time you choose you lose & a certain amount of regret is inevitable. Time and energy aren’t infinite resources and if you have three children, of course it will be hard, impossible even, to commit the same amount to a job as a childless person could. If you only have one child maybe you gain in terms of having a less demanding care-work load and more ability to succeed in the workforce- but don’t assume there isn’t sacrifice involved- the guilt about the only child missing out on siblings, the regret and the sadness of the children that could have been if a different path had been chosen.

  5. Yes…. except that by-and-large there is one group of people who get to have it all – partner, children, career – and that’s men, with exceptions of course. That’s why this is a gender issue.

  6. I would have agreed whole-heartedly with Deborah, but – now that I’m on the verge of returning to the workforce myself – now believe that men aren’t necesarily in a good position. Yes, by and large they can have the children and the career prospects, but this is at the expense of time with their families. In general, if anyone is part-time it is the mum, while the dad is fulltime – which means that the dad only gets to be with his kids on the weekend. You can’t say that presents any sort of work life balance.

  7. Men don’t “get to have it all”. If men offload the childcare responsibilities to women, then they don’t *really* get to experience parenthood in the same way. But I agree that men get a lot closer to having it all than women do, and that’s wrong.

    I think we’ve got a long way to go in accommodation for parenthood in the workplace- both for women and for men, although until men start being primary parents a bit more often, it’s not as urgent a deal for us. I think the first step is definitely that we need part-time to really mean part time, and not “almost full time but paid a lot less”.

  8. In the past I think many men weren’t concerned that they were missing out – my dad was very involved in my upbringing, but this was quite unusual at the time. Now I think dads are starting to want to spend more time with their children, certainly this is the case in my own family. This creates new tensions of course!

  9. And on the more frivolous side, some of us chidlfree types would appreciate the opportunity to work a bit less too. I can only choose less work for the same hourly rate by contracting and taking breaks. Which often means working silly hours for six months then taking a few months off before lying about what I’ve been doing in order to get another job. See, holidays are all very well but an employee who takes 3-6 month “holidays” every year is not desirable.

    I would like to be able to work 80% of the hours for 80% of the salary, but the companies I work for will not consider that.

  10. I was talking to a former colleague on the weekend, and she told me a friend of hers has just ‘solved’ her work life balance problem by moving from part time to full time work.

    Now she starts work at 5am, and her husband is home all morning. She gets home at 2pm, and her husband heads off to work for the afternoon and into the night. Apparently this is an enormous improvement for them on the one and a half jobs at the same time set up they’d been working on previously.

    It would drive me absolutely bonkers though. For a start, perhaps we could get employers and employees to agree that a 40 hour week is a maximum, not a starting point? Because it’s not efficient to work longer hours, it’s just macho showing off, and it entrenches bad work practices.

  11. Thanks for a spot-on post. Having juggled work with my husband as much as was financially possible (we both work part-time and some of this is home-based) our oldest has hit her first lot of school holidays and my mind is boggling at how we deal with the next 16 years of this (our little one is 2). The math of leave-taking simply does NOT work – 3 weeks a year each yet school takes 12week breaks – each year we will be 6 weeks short. Not to mention the whole issue around working part-time as a fast track to losing any ability to be promoted, regardless of capabilities. We have already downshifted and I wonder how we can sustain our attempt at being there as much as we can for our kids – childcare and “afters” care provides just that – care, not love – and we are trying to save our kids from that as much as we can. I also agree with Deborah – this is a systemic, gender-based issue – my husband is certainly in a minority at school pickup time……