A little bit of empathy and flexible working and the promise of sustainable jobs would go a long way.
I was listening to a mum the other day. She described the stress of being on call on her own with a vomiting baby while her partner was out. She talked about feeling guilty that she had done nothing to address her son’s tendency to wake up at 4am because, although it left her feeling exhausted, that was precious time together.
And I was transported back to when my kids were younger. I well remember similar episodes. My partner being away and being up all night with two children with the norovirus and having the norovirus myself, yet feeling guilty about work. I may even have made it in the morning. I know I did on at least one occasion after being up all night with the norovirus because, at the time, there was no 48-hour warnings and my sense was that I didn’t want to take any time off that I didn’t need to – what if I really needed it further down the line if everyone got chicken pox in succession? I was big on disaster planning and storing up all holiday and sick days in case of emergencies. Why? Because I was intensely worried about what people at work might think if I took any time off, really. I had to show I was not ‘a slacker’ just because I was a mum when the reality was that I was working overtime on all fronts.
When I was pregnant a manager asked me why I was overworking. I cried. I couldn’t express it properly, but it is that brand of perfectionism that is born from a lifetime of taking on board the huge tidal wave of judgement that comes with being a woman. Nothing is ever good enough. You are never enough. I look at it now and I think it is almost a pathological condition, but it is one that is a logical response in many ways to the world we live in where women are made to feel guilty for whatever they do and where, often, the infrastructure is not there to support families because having a family is seen as a private burden rather than a public good.
I remember too mixing formula and breastfeeding when I went back to work – in part this was because I thought it was good for the babies, but it was also about spending as much time as possible with them. They would wake up through the night, but that was my time to be close to them.
I’m not saying I did the right thing because I probably didn’t, but you can’t deny the emotional maelstrom of parenting. For many the solution is more quality jobs that are not all hours, full time positions, and the ability to flex your hours even for a few weeks or months after returning to work and to flex again according to changing demands.
One of the problems in the last few decades of rising globalisation and technological revolution is that full-time jobs are no longer just 9-5. They are all hours, all the time and often require hefty travel schedules…which is fine if you have no other life. We need a radical overhaul of what a sustainable job might look like. You shouldn’t have to squeeze family life into the middle of the night. You shouldn’t have to feel the need to go into work ill because your employer hasn’t taken sickness into account. You shouldn’t be made to feel you are a slacker if you don’t continuously overwork.
There have been a lot of pockets of progress since I had my first child, but listening to that mum I felt simply that it has not been enough. I know that employers are facing untold turbulence on every front and the woman did work for a particularly pressurised sector, but a little bit of flexibility, a little bit of empathy, doesn’t cost and the returns are so great.