Re-imagining work – Part 1

Cross posted

My mother gave up her thesis when my brother and I were born. She found she just couldn’t do it. She never got back to it.
Fellow PhD student

A few years after I became a mother, I realised that I don’t have a career any more. I just have a job.
Senior HR professional

That break we took in Fiji was so good. It have me a chance to reconnect with my children again.
Senior public servant

People want me to come and talk about work life balance because they think I have solved it. But I haven’t. All that has happened is that my husband has taken on the stay-at-home role.
Senior public servant

I really didn’t get a chance to do anything until my children were in their teens, and by then it was almost too late. I’m glad I had my children early, even though it was hard going at the time.
School principal

I haven’t been able to do any research since my children were born, even though my husband is the person who is working a part time job.
Senior academic

I don’t think I’m looking for a career anymore. Interesting work with interesting people will do.
Senior public servant

I think I might see if I can go part time in a few years, down to 80%. I know I will still have to work full time, but at least I won’t have to work weekends too.
Young academic

These are all conversations I have had, over the past few years. I can’t guarantee that the words are strictly accurate, but they are more-or-less right. I’ve certainly remembered the spirit of what people have said to me, because the particular sentiments have stuck in my mind. I can remember exactly who it was who said each of those things: there’s a real name of a real live woman to go with each of those quotes.


I’ve been engaged in an on-going conversation about work-life balance, with so many people. I virtually always talk to mothers in paid employment about their childcare arrangements, trying to work out what it is that makes paid work viable for them. Some of them have nannies, even when their children are all at school, but then, they feel that they don’t really know their children at all. Others have pre-schoolers, so although they regret the lost hours, they haven’t yet struck the after-school and school holiday juggle, which is another whole nightmare. Others have found that if they want to parent their children, then they must abandon their careers, or at least, put them on hold. Some women work a shortened year, but not as short as would suit me.

My own chequered employment career is testament to an on-going struggle with work-life balance. I’ve worked in business, in the academy, and in the public service, and nowhere have I been able to find balance. Business bored me, at least at the low level I was working at. The academy was poisonous, for reasons, some to do with me, some to do with the particular institution at the particular time I was working there, some to do with the nature of academic work in general, some to do with my discipline. The public service was rather better, at least in my unit, where my single, childless, male boss (go figure!) made a big effort to create an environment where parents could work part time, and flexibly. Nevertheless, that is the environment where I heard one woman talking about reconnecting with her kids, and where Mr Strange Land and I became convinced that we needed a wife. The fact is, I have been able to find no solution to the problem of ensuring that my children are cared for, and loved, and parented, and nurturing my own career, and me. If I pursue a career, my children suffer; if I leave paid employment, then not only do I go quietly mad (‘tho Mr Strange Land likes to point out that it ain’t so quiet), but in the longer term, I may lose out, and so too may our daughters.

Of all the childcare/parenting/working possibilities, the shortened year is the one that would work best for me. I’m starting to think that my ideal job (NB: job, not career), is 20 hours per week, in school term time. But that means there’s no management track for me. (And yes, I really would like to run something, some day.)

Even then, the shortened year only works for some people because other people continue to work full time. Someone is there to answer the phones, clear the e-mail, clean the kitchens, resupply the photocopier, talk to clients, just do what needs to be done to keep the organisation ticking over. The fact is that our societies and our work structures are organised around 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and the shortened week is an exception to that. As long as we continue to organise work around that 9 to 5 structure, some people will have to work far longer than they want in order to make flexi-hours possible for the rest of us.

I see no solutions other than a total re-imagining of the way we work.

More to come, in a few days – it’s taking me a while to pull my thoughts on this into coherent form.


18 responses to “Re-imagining work – Part 1

  1. as someone who has been through all this—maybe parenthood needs to be the career for 5/10/15 years, and paid work is the bit on the side. And given the change in work practices, and increased longevity, should 10 years child-caring be viewed more pejoratively than 10 years travelling?

  2. My thesis got put on hold when I had baby #3 and I have been home parenting and trying not to go quietly mad full time for 18 months now. I have had 4 preschool interuptions while trying to read this post.

    I feel any career slipping away as if I stay home for another year I will need to retrain to get a job and my academic topic has been taken on by someone else.

    I feel like I am doing the best for my kids but somedays I feel like “I” am dying. We can’t see any way around it though

  3. I’m interested to see what answers you come up with. Still I’m not sure it is just work that has to be re-imagined. I think schools and parenting practices also need scrutiny and also how we design cities and houses. One thing I am also very conscious of is that however hard it is for middle class women with qualifications and choices to balance things- and I agree it can be- there is a danger in focusing too much on this to the detriment of other women with fewer choices.

  4. @ artandmylife My mother qualified as a professional historian at 60. She’s just had her second book launch and is onto her third research contract. Life is long. Your time will come.

  5. Thx MTNW – You are exactly right that in that I do have choices, I could put my kids in fulltime care and go back to work – right now I have several career options. Many many women don’t not have the luxury of these choices

  6. Part of the problem for me is that the amount of money I can earn working outside the home in a female dominated industry (one that’s treated like a middle class ladies’ volunteer society rather than an industry) is zero once I’ve paid for childcare, the high housing costs of living somewhere near work, and the inevitable increase in packaged or takeaway foods that comes with working longer hours.

    So I’ve given up, for now, and I have to find something I can create for myself. Of course, if I’m self employed I wont have holidays or maternity leave or sick leave, but at least I wont have to try quite so hard to fit into the system at the bottom rung.

  7. I think contracting could work, if you are in the right industry and aren’t bothered by the insecurity of having to find work every few months. In theory, at least, you can work when the kids are at school and take time off when they aren’t. And the people I contract through do make an effort to find contracts with part-time hours, for people who want that. Of course, this way of working doesn’t really allow for promotions. Having said that, the IT contract market appears to have shrunk and I’m sitting here hoping to get a contract when it’s just before Christmas…

  8. Like MTNW’s mother, I am making my career run rather late. Having married young and had a family early, I work as a manager and am doing a PhD now that my family is independent of me. Life will go on when your children are older, and you can make great progress in a short time if you are talented and in the right place. It’s hard while they’re still young, but believe me you will have years if not decades to work in your chosen field before you retire.

  9. Fantastic post, fantastic. I’ve heard/read many very similar stories in my work – labour market policy – and although there are some solutions, they’re not often flexible enough. Shorter weeks and job-sharing might relieve the pressure but they also stifle career development (as you and others have clearly pointed out). Co-locating childcare with work is helpful also but not the way the investment banks do (IMO, opening childcare at 6am and running through to 8pm including weekends is well past what I consider reasonable).

    My family manages at the moment, just, with one child though we’ve both made compromises. I worked four days, one from home for six months and passed up some opportunities. My wife works four days and has also had to forgoe some career opportunities.

    What’s ridiculous about all this is that there’s strong economic and social incentives to have families, what’s missing is real commitment to make work fit family life and not the other way around. I suspect your conclusion, that we need to completely re-imagine work, is right. I note that this is essentially the view of academic Barbara Pocock also.

  10. great post. I agree that it is an incredibly difficult thing to juggle. I would prefer to stay home fulltime with my daughter but feel obligated to finish my stupid PhD. That said, I am not really getting anywhere with it because I can’t find the time or headspace to do it.

  11. I’m with Paul, this is a fantastic post and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

    My partner and I are very lucky in that we are both self-employed, and our extracurricular activities, crafts and writing, can fit into the evenings if need be. But neither of us is on a career path, and when we chose to have our third child we accepted that we’d have to keep doing what we’re doing at least for another five years plus the nine months of gestation. As it turns out, just this week the opportunity fell on my lap to apply for a fantastic job, and for the first time I had an opportunity to actually realise what those constraints mean – although perhaps not quite regret them, since I like what I do.

  12. Fantastic post. I too am looking forward to another instalment. I am another one who has not solved work life balance – just swapped the mother and father roles.

    I also manage a team of 30 people (or so) and so I’m often torn when recruiting between my philosophical need to create work life balance, and how much easier it is to have “ideal workers”.

    I’m acquainted with the woman who writes the Workspace column in the AFR, and asked her once to do a piece on how to create part time jobs that work. Her resulting article concluded that job sharing was the best outcome (but that didn’t fix your school holiday needs).

    I have someone in my team now who works a 9 day fortnight, 9 – 2, which is my most flexible team member. But you’re right, it does somewhat rely on other people being around when you are not, and it can’t be done for all of the jobs in my team.

    For myself, I’m constantly dreaming of a 3 day a week job, but I don’t believe one exists with the level of responsibility and stimulation that my current (full time) one has.

  13. My mum worked as a highschool teacher for a few years until I was born when she was 25. She then retrained as a social worker (part-time for four years, as well as doing other part-time counseling training before that). She started full-time work when I was twelve and my brother was ten, and has had a pretty impressive career since then, combining counseling and management and really making a difference to the government department she works for. I really admire her and think she’s done an incredible job.

    I’m not sure how things will work out for me – I’m nearly thirty and would like to have children soon, but am just finishing a PhD and my partner needs to be in Norway for at least a few years… It’s interesting (and sobering) to read about what other people are struggling with.

  14. For myself, I’m constantly dreaming of a 3 day a week job, but I don’t believe one exists with the level of responsibility and stimulation that my current (full time) one has.

    That’s it in a nutshell for me. I need a certain amount of money to meet the outgoings but aside from this, I don’t need the other stuff. It’s only the desire to have meaningful work that keeps me in full-time employment.

  15. as someone who has been through all this—maybe parenthood needs to be the career for 5/10/15 years, and paid work is the bit on the side.

    As long as we don’t add to the equation “for both the mother and the father”, the “Mommy track” will be alive and well. As I’ve written elswhere, to me, the nearest thing to a solution will be the breakdown of rigid gender roles. Ones’ career may slow down during the childbearing years, but if men and women are equally likely to reduce their working hours, it won’t equate to permanent career suicide. That’s my theory anyway and I think it’s reasonable.

    And given the change in work practices, and increased longevity, should 10 years child-caring be viewed more pejoratively than 10 years travelling?

    Bingo, this is a huge demographic argument that is hardly ever noticed in the “work vs family” arguments. One – we’re living longer, heaps longer. Two – when we talk about work and family, we’re talking mainly about children when young. sure, you don’t want to work 16 hour days when they’re teenagers or you might end up with Corey Worthington, but the idea that you give up paid work and make chilraising your entire career until you die, is really dead and gone. We just need to show the older cohort that childraising is a worthy project – not “sitting at home”, rather working in a different area.

  16. Ones’ career may slow down during the childbearing years, but if men and women are equally likely to reduce their working hours, it won’t equate to permanent career suicide.

    That’s how we’ve handled it, although it was just as much luck as design. It’s still hard for two salaried people to get that kind of leeway in the workplace, at least judging from friends’ experiences. But maybe less than in the past?

  17. Giovanni, what I meant was that we need that kind of excellent behaviour to become the norm – once men are as likely to take time off work for childraising, employers can’t punish women for it so much. At the moment we have a lot of people saying “so Maternity leave, bring it on, we just won’t hire any more women of childbearing age.” Which defeats the purpose.

  18. interestingly, i have to assume that only one job in your career (and yes, i do mean career. while you see your working history as distinct events, i see it as a progression in the development of deborah, the working person), was funded from somewhere other than a public purse – business. i think that should contribute to your thinking.

    your post has prompted me to do a little thinking about how all of our conversations about complex working arrangements, and better work-life balance, are enabled by the high value we place on our own work.

    and how this is possible because we place very very low value on the work of the people we purchase the necessities of life from.