Friday, 21 May 2010

what I know to be true

Isn't it funny - I know so so many of us share this particular problem and yet reading your comments on my last post is an enormous relief. It's evidence that we share this problem. And it has to be said, I do like my evidence.

That I received so many comment so quickly is also significant here - people don't just agree, they are rushing to agree. This is a hot button, so we share not just a problem but a certain preoccupation with that problem too. I'm especially, amazingly humbled that some commenters have actually felt like what I wrote was helpful, gave them support, made them feel freer or in some way affirmed them. Since I feel completely at sea I'm honoured if I can make anyone else feel less so.

I also realised, based on a few comments and a quick search of the archives, that my references to study may come out of the blue. Indeed most of the chatter and posts about all that was on the previous blog - the one with the very poor search and link capacity. And while in recent times it hasn't featured, this aspect of my life is important in many many ways. So here's a quick precis.

Before I had kids I worked long hours in a demanding and challenging and well remunerated job, nay career, in government. When considering having children I did what I generally do about big decisions, I thought long and hard about how and when and what would happen. I consulted and read and listened. I realised things couldn't work as they were. As a manager of people, part time work was never going to mesh well. I moved sideways in my large organisation to a different job, one I liked a bit less but which seemed plausible as a part time option. I chose to work for the manager who seemed most likely to support me in being a part time senior worker. I was very strategic. I happily worked right up to and including my due date and held only mild concerns about work life after baby.

I eagerly returned to work when Amy was about 9 months old (despite chronic and extreme sleep deprivation and a lack of stable childcare), keen to escape for at least a few days a week the relentlessness of caring for a baby who demanded constant attention and a house suddenly groaning with chores. But work as it turned out was equally awful. Day after sleep deprived day I trudged to the office where I was out of touch and underutilised. Both Amy and I seemed to get sick at a rate I found incomprehensible when compared to my pre child life. At night I came home and sat with baby Amy as she played in the sandpit and I cried. How had it all gone so horribly wrong? How could the baby I had wanted more than anything, who I loved more than I had ever thought possible have so utterly ruined my life? It took a full year for me to accept that my strategic manoeuvres had amounted to nothing in the face of the twin headed monster of the family unfriendly workplace and the work unfriendly family. So much for my brilliant career.

But I wasn't prepared to give in and concluded that if I could just find a more suitable job in a more suitable workplace everything might be OK. I had never for a moment considered myself a candidate for stay at home mum. It didn't suit me as a person, but also, having been raised by a single parent I couldn't be comfortable with that level of dependency and how vulnerable it would make me. I pass no judgement on those who do stay at home - we are all free to make the choices that work best for us and there are many many paths to the same end - but it was just not something I wanted do.

Of course engaging and at least reasonably paid part time work is not easy to come by and I was reluctant to leave my job until I had a plan b. Since I had gotten pretty much all my jobs through networks and past employers I did my best to find work this way as well as using recruitment agencies and looking through job ads. I was horrified to discover not just a complete lack of opportunities for a well qualified and experienced worker with excellent references, but in some quarters an open hostility to giving 'people like me' a 'break'. Employing me was seen by so many people as a 'favour' I was astonished - before kids I was head hunted for work but after kids it was like I had been dipped in shit.

I also found an enormous reservoir of women like me - women for whom motherhood had brought not just joy and hardship but also a rude shock that no amount of success before children seemed to shield them from. In a myriad of guises and variations we struggled with the realisation that the advent of children in our lives had taken us from independent equal citizens with economic autonomy to subjects of our gender and reproductive status and at least partially economically dependent. And again I reiterate our experiences of this were not the same and for many the joys of motherhood were adequate compensation but it seemed a near universal experienced that women were shocked by their sudden change of status and the limitations they now faced.

If I couldn't work around this problem I decided to become better acquainted with it. I enrolled in full time study to do a research masters degree in public policy with the topic of work and family: gender, risk and wicked policy problems. The degree was highly pragmatic - I was pegging my bets that my greatest likelihood of finding part time meaningful work would be in the policy area, and it also seemed to me that work life or work and family balance were popular buzz words that might equate to more jobs.

The next 2 years I spent reading, talking, listening and thinking about workplace policies, government policy, welfare structures, gender, domestic arrangements, the market, economic units, statistics, time use, institutional structures, risk, bureaucracy and feminism. A lot of that time I felt deeply outraged, depressed, shocked, hopeless, compromised and lost. I felt like so many of the things I had grown up believing, that I was continually hearing and seeing were lies of the highest order. It seemed that being a woman totally sucked and nuclear families totally sucked and pretty much all the alternatives did too. That the gaining of family equated pretty much directly with the loss of self for women - and no amount of recasting and reframing could deny that. I'm not saying all women get the rough end of the stick, but I am saying that on pretty much every objective statistical measure, women who have children are worse off than women who don't, and men who have children are pretty much better off than men who don't.

I oscillated between a balanced view of men as equal victims to the institutions that shape and limit us in this way, and feeling like men most definitely got the better deal and in many instances were knowingly complicit in maintaining this inequity. The persistence of patriarchal structures and ideology is well evidenced in differential rates of pay and long term superannuation savings, instigations of divorce, victims of assault and murder, mental health profiles, exposure to poverty, time use statistics and a load of other measures besides and made it hard to not become paranoid about a grand conspiracy. And yet society and women in particular go on doing a marvellous job of maintaining that patriarchy as an inescapable force is dead. Even after the relatively inescapably gendered experience of motherhood hits, most women continue to see their inequities in isolation, as an individual experience.

And of course despite all the high falutin' theorising and abstract and statistical thinking I was also confronted daily by blokes who didn't seem that bad. I deeply loved (and still do!) my partner - he was no boogey man - and there were plenty of others around I quite liked too. I saw many of them labouring under their own confusions and difficulties and it was unseemly and dangerous to be shouting emperor's new clothes! when everything felt so unstable and chaotic as it was. The things I had learned, the ones I felt were well substantiated and irrefutable and yet somehow incompatible with going on in a nuclear family and being happy, I had to put to one side. I tried to focus on being happy instead of trying to make things equal. I tried to live in the now instead of railing against the failure of my expectations. I tried to make it work with what I had. Piece by piece solutions were negotiated and deals struck. I became much less depressed and anxious, I settled in for the long haul.

That all sounds super neat and tidy doesn't it? In some ways it is - life has become clearer as time has passed and compromises are easier to accept. But now something else is happening. It's cropping up here and there, and for people who are near to me. For some those deals are falling apart, the compromises are not bearing out, a new phase has changed the stakes. This too is well documented (another of those things I learned and put to one side), and again it is a gendered thing. As children get older the domestic load shifts, the nappies are gone, the cleaning the texta off the walls and wiggles concerts go too, mothers groups fade away and play groups end. The mundane work that was once invisible becomes even more so, and harder to boot - coaching children through the social challenges of school, supporting learning and overcoming learning problems, staying in touch as peers and private worlds take over. There are women who want to reconnect with their 'careers', men who want help with the bacon bringing home bit, women who want a rest after what they see as the marathon of mother centric early childhood, men who don't want things to change. The deal shifts again.

Statistically speaking this is when there is a big spike in divorce rates (largely instigated by women) and the emergence of a range of social and behavioural problems in children. Women's attachment to the workforce tends to increase around this time - existing part timers do more hours, those out of the paid workforce rejoin. The overall quantum of time available to devote to domestic work decreases, and often a more rapid family unfriendly pace ensues. All kinds of stuff goes wrong, and for many women the increase in paid work hours does not translate to a commensurate decrease in domestic responsibilities. Many men feel women are now getting a free ride. And while dissatisfactions may run on both sides of the gender divide it is women who are more likely to decide the deal is no longer worth it (and I am still speaking statistically here, not personally).

On the upside this can lead to new negotiations, new deals. I'm beginning to see new permutations and combinations in the lives around me and some of them cheer me greatly, but some of them make me feel like no one ever gets an even break. Separated families rarely leave the majority of their problems behind and generally gain new ones. Once the mutual incentive to see the emperor's new clothes is stripped away there is an endless supply of bad deals to mine for ammunition for the my life sucked the most game and a renewed attempt to make things fair and equal. Everyone (except the lawyers) ends up poorer financially, more at risk of all kinds of hardships and bad stuff and no matter how well people separate there is a price to be paid.

I think the fundamental difficulty here is this equation between fair and equal. Certainly fair always meant equal to me - you know, half for you, half for me. But how can you make things equal when there are things only one of you can do by virtue of biology? When so many things make sense in terms of efficiency or pragmatism, but leave you cold in some other way? How do you equate the responsibility to earn a living with the responsibility to keep a child fed, reasonably clean and, well, alive? How do you decide to share all the responsibilities knowing this makes both of you vulnerable to the mummy track at work and the no one is really holding the fort at home? Because we can argue till we're blue in the face about which is harder or more rewarding and more tiresome or more sustainable or anything else. There is no equal anymore, just a thousand different ways to calculate what's fair - calculations that change from person to person, day to day, hour to hour, circumstance to ever changing circumstance.

So I guess that's it. The deal is shifting for me here and I'm no longer sure what I think about where I sit, about whether I've been sold a pup or had a free ride or whether my consciousness is false or only just coming clear. What I do know is it is not comfortable. In my paid work life I feel deeply and terminally compromised and right now see no way clear of that without walking away from the domestic responsibilities I see as inevitably, non-negotiably mine. Without drawing away from my children, without taking a level of pressure and rush I see as leading nowhere good. Equally I see the home life we have as predicated on a level of effort and lifestyle choices I see as precluding the things I value and love about having a home life.

Where is that middle path?


Edited to add: I started responding to a few comments but decided really these are important additions to the post above so I'm adding them here. If something doesn't make sense go back to the comments section to see what I'm responding to.


I would love to read the Radical Homemaking book as recommended by Gina. I checked out a few reviews and so on and think it would be very interesting. From what I can gather it is a challenge to traditional views around families, economic units and the specialisation/division of labour. If that's right I would certainly agree that there is a lot of scope for such a position. I found a historical understanding of the construction of families and the division of labour really helpful when I was doing my study, and certainly gave me a sense of how in this historical moment there are two really different paradigms in conflict. Very briefly I'd characterise this as the shift in the basic social unit. In the recent past the family was the basic social and economic unit - and by this I mean each part of the family had it's own specialised role and task and it didn't make sense to think of people outside that structure. 1 earner+1 childbearer/domestic manager+children=family. The family was the taxable unit, the voting unit and the legal structure for the ownership of property. In our time individuals are the basic unit of society, with domestic, family and work roles a series of personal lifestyle choices. In a legal, economic and government sense men and women are interchangeable with all the same rights and obligations. Basic biology and reproduction (as well as the obvious other gender differences of women's and men's life courses) stand in direct conflict with this - while we have the same rights and obligations, we are not equally able to utilise those rights or meet those obligations.

I certainly don't say my studies created a position in me that's 'right' - rather it created what I see as the position to take in order to be least 'at risk'. This notion of risk is kind of complicated (if you are interested read Ulrick Beck's Risk Society) but basically it says the incentives and institutions of society (and government) and individual choices can be looked at in terms of how they steer you toward or away from risk. To take a very simplistic example government pays for vaccinations for people because this reduces the rate of illness (and fatalities), the whole of society benefits from this but also individuals face a lower risk of experiencing these illness. Those who cite potential side effects from vaccines are not incorrect (there are no risk 'free' options) but the risk of serious consequences from vaccines are lower than from the illness they prevent. This risk profile is subject to how many people are vaccinated - the more people who don't vaccinate the more people are both exposed to and carry and pass on the illness thus increasing the risk of getting it, so vaccines are most effective in reducing risk where they widely used.

In relation to this family issue you can say, for example, that from a worker point of view part time work carries more risks than full time work (less promotions, less job security, less superannuation etc), families carry less risk when both parents have some attachment to the workforce, but the risks increase when both parents are in full time work. A greater level of economic self sufficiency (I think what the radical homemaking book points to?) reduces the risks of market derived problems (toxins in products or inflation or whatever) but increases the risks associated from being outside the dominant economic paradigm (missing out on market incentives or the benefits of full time work for eg).

And these risks are not distributed evenly within families or across genders. Choices that minimise risks for women as individuals and workers almost certainly increase risks for children (Claire and Chris' point), choices that reduce risks for man as workers almost certainly raise risks for either women or children or both. And to further complicate matters what reduces risks for a family overall may carry the greatest risks for one or more individuals within the family.

From a purely economic sense in terms of both direct earnings, government based incentives and sanctions and long term calculations (all based on averages and norms and thus not true for every individual), the lowest risk work and family arrangement is a full time male worker and a lower end (less than 30 hours per week) part time female worker. There are also other non economic benefits to this model and it is in Australia the dominant family model. But in this model the highest risk profile (based on lots of measures) belongs to women, the next highest to children (depending on lots of things like the type and hours of mother's work, the type and hours of father's work, availability of market solutions to supplement domestic work etc) and the lowest risk is borne by fathers.

Of course life is more than economics, and similar risk profiles can be generated around lots of measures (health, happiness etc etc). The real caveat here (and not coincidentally why economics is king in the analytic tool set for governments) is that economic measures are much more stable and objective. By this I mean the ways in which it is measured are more objective and less varied - we can spend a very long time indeed talking about ways of measuring happiness, or even what happiness is, but how much you earn has a very few variables in a definitional sense. For this reason the statistics we generate through these measures are more predictable and we can more easily grasp what variables tend to have what impact on outcomes (not definitively of course but with some predictability). But the other things is non economic measures tend to be much more internally conflicted - people can do extremely well on some health measures and very badly on others, they may high levels of both happiness and sadness that are not reconcilable and which may take place simultaneously. Since the kind of analysis I do is intended to provide some support to making decisions about what to do, data which is unreliable, subjective, contradictory and non-causal isn't as helpful. Economics is a good starting point because of its simplicity but it is not all and it is probably not even the most important tool for most individuals.

I'd also stress here that risk is theoretical - it doesn't always bear out and there are lots and lots of variables that tinker withs outcome, but the differential risk issue comes out full force when families either separate or when one or both parents becomes incapacitated or dies. And while no one starts a family with the idea that either of these things will come to pass - for a very very large number of people it does! And then the house of cards comes down in the most terrifying way - mothers with tenuous workforce attachment suddenly need economic independence, men with high levels of workforce responsibility suddenly need to take on family responsibilities and all at just the moment when domestic and child responsibilities radically increase (maintaining two households or dealing with grief and/or caring fall out).

Research is absolutely conclusive that when making decisions, people tend to overplay short term risk and underplay long term risk. So families decide that less workforce attachment for mothers makes everything easier and less risky right now - mum is home for kids, there is less rush, there's a much greater capacity to absorb the unexpected and difficult (sick kids for eg), dad can get to work on time and do the long hours his full time career path demands. It is in the here and now the best arrangement. But over time those long term risks start to come home and then suddenly mum is struggling to get a decent job and the kids are in extended long hours of market based care and the entire formula has changed.

I'm adding all this detail (and I'm sorry there's so much - if you think this is bad you should read my thesis!) because I want to be very clear that knowing all I do does not direct me to an answer. What it does it illuminate both the risks inherent in the choices open to me and give me a statistical kind of understanding about how likely some of these risks are. It reinforces how bloody complicated it is, and how the deck is at least slightly, in a very general sense (and as is consistent with life without kids - hello patriarchy!) stacked in favour of men.

And now you will have to excuse me as I go tend to children who are sick again...

18 comments:

Gina said...

Hi Suze. Read your last post with interest and this one too. I noticed a comment on the last post about a book called Radical Homemaking by Shannon Hayes, which I too have been reading, and I would be fascinated to know your thoughts on it (given your PhD topic) if you get a chance to read it. It has struck many chords with me (a full time at-home mother by choice right now) and I guess describes why I consider myself both a feminist and an interdependent housewife and don't see these as being at odds.

Jen said...

Suze, both this post and the last are so incredibly well composed. The subject rings so true. I haven't read the comments on the last but I will now. Thank you for your words. Truly.

scientician said...

I've enjoyed reading your blog for a while now and am just enjoying it more and more. Thank you for writing so intelligently and honestly about life. I'm yet to have kids, and have a career I love. I'm anticipating everything changing for me once I do have children and am curious as to how my partner and I will negotiate all the facets of household responsibilities, and slightly overwhelmed by the notion of everything changing. I can only hope that it's for the better, in an overall sense.

Kate said...

Written brilliantly as ususal Sooz - have forwarded the link to my consultant career woman sister who just had a baby and is pondering how to all things work and family.

Lisa said...

Thanks Sooz, for this post and your last. You put it all so clearly. My deal is completely different to yours - I am a single mum whose domestic set up could not be more different to yours, yet I still feel some of these same emotions and responses to the situations and inevitable compromises of which you speak. Completely different lives, but parallel experiences, in most regards.

Chris said...

I too have enjoyed reading your blog for some time and your last 2 posts ring so true. I have tried to be a stay at home mum, but felt I need more and now work part time. At a job that I don't really love. But I keep going. I'm not at all sure what the solution is. I moan and bitch to my beloved husband about the drudgeries of domestic chores. I envy his daily train commute - time to sit quietly by myself. But come the weekend I can't nag him to do domestic duties because all he wants to do is spend time with the children, which I respect and adore about him. With the big 40 birthday approaching very quickly I am slowly coming to the acceptance that this is our blessed life. My career is so meagre now, but my children are happy. While my life feels (somewhat) stagnant, their lives are changing so quickly, I try and sit joyfully by the sidelines. Friends with grown children warn me that time passes quickly and that my time will come again. I hope I will feel I did my best when they wanted me around.

I guess I am hoping that you can have it all, just not all at once.
Thanks so much for your thoughts.

Leonie said...

This evening I had my husband read both today's and yesterdays posts. He appreciates both the similarities and the differences in our situations. The well written style and eloquence of your pieces has provided him with a less personally emotional account of some of what I have been trying to explain to him in the last few months as we try to determine the balance that works for us with three small children, and the emotional, physical and financial needs and desires that go along with families. So thank you for providing me with a resource that I have been able to utilise to explain to my husband some of the many things that are going through my mind as we go through this process. And also evidence that it's not just us, there are so many others going through this process who are experiencing these frustrations and challenges.
I'm hoping for you that your middle ground is not too far away and that you find it soon. I'm still working on mine.

knitaddict said...

I wish I knew!!!! When you find it let us know........I've been looking for it since the birth of our youngest and she'll be 5 in August!!!

Thanks for making me realise that it's not just me!!!!!

Lozzy said...

Oh Suze,
I know exactly how you feel and how confusing life is for the mum who isn't just a mum, the creative person who is trying desperatly to fit her creativity around her children while still giving them a stable environment! I sometimes wonder if my partner and his family recognise that I am more than a cleaning machine, mum and errands runner...I am trying to start up my own business with very little support, but to my asstonishment have found my biggest fans and supporters are my kids and other mums...weird world isnt it?

Claire said...

I found it so shocking, this change in role. I've gone from feeling special in our society (high earning engineer!) to just being a run of the mill mum like billions of other mums... and earning nothing in the process - so I'm now DEPENDENT on my partner not to mention the hit to my superannuation. But how can I go back to my old career when it would (I fear) have major, negative impacts on my child?

kris said...

Thank you, again, for clarifying some things we are going through ourselves. Our kids are 3 and five, and we thought we were coming to a place of a little more ease as stable childcare and f-t school are just around the corner. But it seems to have suddenly got harder to manage, though I'm not exactly sure why.

Both my partner and I struggle with work/ family/ self time. But I've noticed (and resented) a key difference in our struggles: he struggles to fit in all the opportunities offered since having kids; I struggle to generate the opportunities that used to be offered but have melted away since I had kids - and then I struggle to fulfil them when they are offered. Since having kids, he has moved from p-t work to f-t career and I've moved from a f-t career to treading water in its p-t manifestation. The stresses are there for both of us, but the reasons and implications are very different and gendered.

All this was brought home to me when he told me about his promotion to his dream job as I stirred a lumpy white sauce for mac and cheese, a week after deciding that me dropping to p-t was the only way we could survive as a unit. And then the kids didn't eat the meal, of course. And my partner went out to celebrate while I stayed home and did the washing up.

No matter how lovely my partner, we can't leave patriarchy at the door.

sooz said...

Gosh, there is so much I want to write in response to all these amazing comments! Aside from a huge thank you of course!! I started typing a few responses but brevity is not my strength so I've cut the comments and posted it back into the bottom of the original post.

Ren said...

Hi Sooz, as you know, in my household we are sharing the earning and the childcare. Both of us are part time. The implications of this is that our household will be poorer financially in the long term, both our careers will go down the drain, but it works for us, and although we've made this decision with our eyes open, I still every now and then feel a bit of regret too.

telfair said...

Wow, these posts really resonated with me. I am experiencing the same kind of feelings on a regular basis and have really been fascinated with reading your take on it as well as your readers' comments!

Lyndal Williams said...

Suzie,
You've touched on some really interesting and complicated issues I find myself continually discussing with family + friends.
Did you happen to catch this episode of insight?:
http://news.sbs.com.au/insight/episode/index/id/197
And, I can't wait for your book to come out one day when you have time to write it!

craftydabbler said...

I haven't been reading blogs lately, but logged on today. What you are writing about is so topical for me. Over the last few months I've gone back to school, and expected more help with the domestic side of things, but for the most part that hasn't materialized. I've actually been letting the house go to the point that it is unpleasant to be here, and yet it is perceived by the family that I need to take care of everything and there is no regard for it when it is tidy. We have talked and instituted a chore chart to help balance things, but I still feel that there is an underlying expectation that I am everyone's maid. Sorry, this is a bit of a rant, but my goodness, I am frustrated and fed up.

Jodie said...

Sooz,
I am just catching up and am floored by all the thoughts. This strange family evolution is exhausting and unfortunately continual.
With kids now 18 and 15, I have been through this re-negotiation again and again. It hurts and is hard is so far has never been "right".

Kelly said...

This series of posts has really resonated for me. Like Leonie, I've shared them with my husband and they have been a great basis for discussions about how we can try to keep walking the high-wire of family life.
Thanks!