While I do believe in the value of paid work and what it gives women and families, I am also 100% understanding of and supportive of anyone who takes a different path, because managing a paid job while meeting all the requirements of children and parenthood without going crazy is very, very difficult.
Most parents who "opt out" of paid work, or work part-time, have made a considered choice, are making considerable sacrifices to do so and work hard to manage their environment and expenses to enable them to do it. Most also are only able to do this for a short time, having to return to work or increase their hours once children are older or when circumstances change.
But. Without negating all that, I think it is important for parents making these choices to consider financial and career long views carefully, and not be ashamed to factor these into their decisions.
Our society rightly values childhood and the nurture of children - more in fact than it ever has. Overall society is gentler than it was even 10 or twenty years ago. Watch an old movie, read old news articles or books and it is clear that childhood was a much rougher experience at any time in our past. This is all good.
But on the flipside, we value the nurturing of young children to the extent that parents now probably feel pressured to stay home full time and forget that part of raising a family is financial stability, building a future and all the daily nurturing that is needed throughout the children's whole lives. Most families can't afford for one parent to stay home full-time forever. If the years from 0-5 are deemed critical, for example, and one parent stays home for those years, what happens after that?
Often at that point, that parent is "forced" to go back to work in a way that probably feels sudden and must be incredibly difficult and stressful, even if that parent might want to go back to work. And many many times, they must not want to. After all, do the kids stop needing you when they start school? When they start high school?
I returned to work part-time when my twins were 8 months old, building up over a few months from 3 days to 4 days to 5 days (which is a good way to do it by the way - each time I added another day was hard but it was helpful to "ease" into work over that period). While I would have preferred to stay home longer, I also had it in mind that I wanted to preserve the option of scaling back later when they started school, as I have always thought that "kids need you when they're in school".
Conversely a friend of a friend (who was the only person I have ever met who was openly judgemental to me), felt that the 0-5 years were "critical" and was planning to work full-time once her kids started school. I was stung that she said my working was "unusual" (it was not, but I still felt guilty so did not stand up to her to say so), but also felt vaguely smug myself - my little twins, happy and loving their 2, 3 or 5 days at daycare, and affectionate and well-adjusted at home, were "proof" that she was wrong - but I "knew" they would "need me" when they started school...
Of course the truth is that kids always need their parents, and no one time in their lives is more critical than any other. So most parents need to find ways to nurture their kids while also holding down the work that is necessary for building a life for the family.
With so much in the pop culture about "balancing" work and family, I often think of the majority of parents in this country and the world over who have no choice but to work. In countries like ours where it feels like you should have choices and control, I am sure that many waste a lot of time feeling anxiety, guilt, and anger that they cannot stay home, even while it is a minority who are able to do it these days.
Michelle Griffin in The Age wrote an article this week called The Working Mother Myth, about this issue, and highlighting some of the things we don't consider often enough about full-time work. Some quick quotes from the article:
"In the real world, very few women with children can afford to opt out of the rat race for the sake of their families...
And the brutal truth is that even fewer should consider it...
In our anxiety to support a mother's choice to stay at home, we haven't been frank about the consequences."
These include reduced long-term income (you never catch up), reduced employability in future, reduced superannuation, and the widening pay gap between men and women. Obviously this is not news, and obviously, raising kids involves sacrifices. Most parents are more than willing to sacrifice personal career achievements and higher salaries for the benefits of raising a family.
But these are not trivial or unimportant things either - neither is this a question of "making sacrifices" versus being "selfish" or "greedy". Protecting your family's income and employability is not about "money", it's about stability and security, both of which are helpful for kids. The fact is that these days both parents need to be nimble and employable throughout their lives, not only in the event of death or divorce of the breadwinning parent, but just to be able to change tack and cope as a family with whatever life, health and the economy sling at us over time.
For this reason too, you can't weigh up one parent's salary against the cost of childcare, and conclude that "it isn't worth it". The true equation when looking long-term and factoring in the whole family salary, superannuation, taxes and family payments, impact on mortgage repayments, and investment in future work choices, is far more complex than that. Of course there are times in our working lives, where the weekly struggle and the costs incurred in time, expense and mental health may leave us feeling like "it's not worth it". In some cases it may not be. Clearly taking a break is better than having a nervous breakdown for instance. But it is also worth remembering that the years where we are raising young children tend to coincide with maximum mortgage, financial and career pressure - "the decade of stress" as Berndard Salt calls it in his book The Big Tilt. It is hard, but the worst of it is temporary.
My comments here are not, in any way, "against" parents who stay home, work part-time, or take breaks from work. Hats off to all mums and dads, whether in paid work or not, all work hard, give their all for their kids, make sacrifices, and do great stuff every day. But we ought not automatically dismiss the benefits of full-time work, or assume it is the least best option.
Your thoughts? (Be kind!)