Follow-Up to the Paid Maternity Leave Post
Since my last post, I’ve been reading the 2005 discussion paper, Striking the Balance: Women, Men, Work, and Family, by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission headed by Pru Goward. I’ve actually been reading it for something that I’m writing on work in Australian culture rather than as a deliberate follow-up to the discussion on this blog. Nevertheless, the findings of that report are interesting and so I will share and quote some of them here.
Despite most men and women stating that they believe that housework and caring responsibilities should be equally shared when both parents are working, in reality the bulk of these duties still fall to women. The studies related in the discussion paper found that having children, of whatever age, increased the amount of unpaid labour that was required just to keep the house running and that almost invariably women took on this extra load. Men, on average, actually reduced the time that they spent on housework with the arrival of children. They did spend more time on caring for children, but usually it was on the “fun” parts such as talking and playing with children while women carried out the less fun aspects such as physical care. Not only could this be considered unfair, but the tasks undertaken by women had to be done at particular times so that it constrained what paid work they could engage in. Men actually tended to increase their hours of paid work when children arrived and fitted their time with the children in around this.
While many women expressed a preference for part-time work, the paper points out that their choices are constrained considerably by the availability of work with child-friendly working hours and conditions, the accessibility of appropriate and affordable quality alternative care arrangements, and the attitudes of partners and other family members. Some days, as my daughter says, it’s just not worth chewing through the restraints.
The report also noted that much of the part-time work available was of a lower quality than women could get if they were able to work full-time. Yet because women’s pay is often lower than men’s, when it comes to the crunch in a society with ever-increasing housing costs, families ‘choose’ to retain the higher income as the full-time one. This leads to something of a vicious circle where the existing circumstances lead to women more often decreasing their paid working hours when children arrive, thus reinforcing perceptions that this is both appropriate and what women want.
One of the most important points made by the discussion paper, and the one that relates most closely to my previous post, is that the increased demands on parents, but particularly on mothers, leads to time-pressure stress and poorer health. The extra time for extra work has to come from somewhere, and it not only comes from a reduction in paid working hours but also from a reduction in the time spent on leisure and personal care. While fathers usually manage to maintain some leisure time, for mothers it often disappears completely and leisure is when we recharge the human batteries for both our paid and our unpaid work.
The following quote relates to older children, but is still relevant:
This study also notes that an important issue for young people is how the paid work of both parents affects their mothers and fathers. The negative effects on parents of a discrepancy between their preferences for work hours and intensity and their actual job characteristics affects children, for example by making parents bad tempered and tired. In some instances, it appears children protect themselves by withdrawing from the overworked parent.
When parents are satisfied with their paid work and life balance, and return home from paid work in a positive frame of mind, children enjoy the experience of a happier parent and home environment.
If older children, who have some understanding of their world and ability to apply reason are sensitive to such things, how much more so young children and babies who are totally dependent on their parents’ ability to provide strong and consistent physical and emotional care?
The paper also mentioned a Canadian study that linked emotional and behavioural difficulties in children to non-standard parental working hours (evenings, nights, and weekends). But isn’t this when a lot of part-time and casual work occurs?
I maintain the point that I made in my original post: we need to do as much as we can to reduce the stress on parents associated with balancing work and family life so that they have the best chance possible of raising happy, healthy, well-balanced future citizens.