A working week

Thursday 17 April, 12.05am

I wish I had one of those tiny cameras on the bridge of my glasses to take a picture of my view right now. Bubs is asleep, his cheek is resting on my breast while one hand props up his forehead and the other one clutches my singlet. It’s past midnight, so I should put him in his crib and flop down into bed next to the snoring Mr Daddy. Can’t bear to disturb this peaceful scene just yet though.

We’re a month into the stay at home mum / breadwinner dad dynamic. It’s a bit lonely, for both of us. My husband misses us, and I miss him too but more to the point, I miss adult daytime company. I wonder whether mothers and babies have ever been more socially isolated than we are now. Last week, three friends came round after work and goodness gracious, how amazing that was. I have all this time alone with my baby boy, and it’s difficult to get much else done beyond meeting his basic needs – but one thing you can easily do while caring for a wee bubba is chat with people. If they were around. But they are all at their offices.

I could go into town, meet up with friends in the thin slice of a corporate lunch break, but so far we’re still at the stage where any plan that involves leaving the house requires a margin of error that isn’t really compatible with the office job schedule. Yesterday was our regular catch up with the other mums and bubs from the antenatal group, a sanity preserver if ever there was one, so there are new social connections to be made –  it’s just not the same, though, as interacting on a daily basis with colleagues and friends you know well.

10am

It is miserable outside. I’ve got the pellet burner going in the kitchen, and I’m walking around and around the table with bubs in the baby wrap to get him to sleep. He is just starting to doze off. On a sunny day, I’d walk to the shops. Alas.

10.15am

(He’s asleep now, and in his crib)

There’s a very simple solution to the social isolation of young children and their caregivers: a shorter working week, with flexible office hours. Nothing else can answer the problem. We need to integrate caregiving into the wider world, and that requires children and the childless to cross paths, to be in the same spaces at the same time. Which means working less.

When second wave feminists fought to enable women to enter the paid workforce, I don’t think many expected that the combined parental paid workload could easily exceed 90 hours a week, or that a lower combined load would usually mean one fulltime and one part-time worker, rather than a more equal split. A 30 hour working week is a moderately progressive add-on to modern capitalism, it’s not revolutionary – but it could have a radical effect on the lives of caregivers and children. If 30 hours were the standard working week, several adults could share the caring job. Sounds ideal. Sounds like the sort of arrangement that would currently require several extremely accommodating employers.

A 40+ hour week, set office hours, these things are arbitrary. We all know that it reflects a Mad Men era social structure in which paid work and childcare operated in completely separate spheres. They still do, yet the widespread entry of women into the workforce has left the childcare sphere not only separate, but hollowed out. In my great-grandmother’s day, women were mostly at home, not just for the first year, but generally. You had a continuous community. Pre-baby social interactions were not completely divorced from post-baby interactions. Things would have been much harder in so many ways, but less lonesome.

12.45pm

He’s back in the wrap. Yawning and grizzling, fussy, unhappy. Nappy is clean, and he’s refusing more food. Must be tired. I have music on and I’m walking around in circles again. Cursing the rain. Thankful for: Spotify, tablet computers. Listing to this.

6.45pm

He’s asleep, after a long period of wakeful fussing. I’m still home alone, it’s the evening before a long weekend so Mr Daddy is tidying up loose ends at work, but should be leaving about now.

I just watched this annoying video that kept popping up on my Facebook feed. Motherhood is hard, blah blah. You get to the end and the punchline is send your Mum a card?! Damn you, the patriarchy.

Mothers need appreciation. Mothers need support. No, stop. Back it up. People need communities. The whole “support” shtick entrenches the idea that it is fundamentally OK to place the entire burden of raising a baby on one set of shoulders, so long as someone else gives that person a shoulder massage once in a while. Wrong. Babies need love and tender care from more than one or two adults. Kids need whanau.

Imagine a society in which new mothers are sent into exile with their babies, and family and friends allowed to visit only for a few hours in the evening. Fathers are allowed to sleep over. When you put it like that, it sounds bizarre, inhumane. And it’s surely obvious that the social isolation of carers and kiddies is harmful. I wince at our child abuse statistics, ten children killed every year by a family member. One imagines this usually occurs when the killer is alone with the child, in moments of unthinking desperation, when the child becomes the enemy.

In moments alone with an unsettled baby, I feel like I’m being tested. I feel an adrenaline-fueled part of my brain trying to come up with some sort of everybody-stay-calm plan. The best the Plunket book has to offer is “put your baby in a safe space and walk away”, yep, but you come back to a crying baby, so… Every interaction with a healthcare worker includes some friendly inquiry aimed at identifying post-natal depression. I’m fine, the world is wrong.

A shorter working week would not completely solve this problem, but it would be an excellent start. I don’t think we’ll be transitioning back to a communal lifestyle any time soon, but when it comes to children, we need to do something different. Solitary caregiving creates an antagonism between the mother’s needs and the baby’s needs. Do I finish my pasta and leave him crying, or do I skip lunch and go pick him up? My mothering instincts say go get him; my self-preservation instincts say mummy needs to eat, too!

Sunday 27 April

In the past week, we haven’t left bub to cry even for a minute, and looking after him has felt easy breezy. We’ve just got back from visiting family and friends in Auckland over the Easter-Anzac break – everyone is off work/school/uni and available for baby cuddles, and I’ve not been alone with a crying baby the whole time. Bliss. This is how raising kids is meant to be. My older sister rocking him to sleep; my teenage sister-in-law cuddling him while he has a nap; my grandmother helping give him a bath; my mother-in-law keeping an eye on sleeping bubs while my husband and I go for an afternoon walk.

At the moment, paid work and home life are diametrically opposed, setting up a situation where a week like that is a rare event and can only happen during holidays. For mothers who want to maintain a career, combining the best of both worlds is very difficult. The same is true for other figures in the lives of small children. My mother has just cut down to 30 hours a week, so that she can spend two afternoons with me and play with her grandson; this is awesome, but rare – how wonderful would it be for primary caregivers if it were the norm?

A shorter working week is also the best thing we can do to enable women to reach positions of power. There are six women in a Cabinet of twenty. That’s shameful. No, seriously, wtf?! Within the National Party, there are as many men in Cabinet as there are women in Parliament. The share of women in the High Court is similar: roughly a third. It’s not hard to find women who are more competent*  than the men in power, but it is hard to find mothers who have CVs with the same cache – because “2000 – 2005, worked really hard looking after three small children” is not given the same kudos as “2000 – 2005, worked really hard making lots of money”. Lots of feminists have argued that we need to value caregiving more highly, and it’s true, it really is – but it won’t happen just because we keep banging on about it. You can’t value something properly if you have no experience of it and it’s always been invisible in your adult life. If fewer hours were the working norm, it would be easier to combine childcare with a career, and more caregivers would be able to make it to the top of their chosen field, creating a virtuous cycle in which they value caring experience in employees, because they know what it signifies (multitasking, patience, focus, planning, flexibility, etc etc etc). Then we’d take over the world! Or whatever.

The real question is, how do we get there?

1) Institute mandatory overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 45 per week. This could be on the same basis as we currently have for working on public holidays – time and a half, plus time in lieu. Employers would have an incentive to hire more staff rather than work existing staff harder, which would be good for unemployment. I think this would be a fairly popular policy. New Zealand is one of a small handful of developed countries without mandatory overtime or a maximum working week. This is a weird gap in our employment law, a strange laissez-faire lacuna that is great for employers, but bad for employees. If long hours were addressed, fewer women would step back from alpha-track careers. Eventually, the upper limit can be lowered and 30 hours could become the norm.

2) Institute a maximum working week of 55 hours. No-one should be working more than this anyway, it’s a health and safety risk. As with the overtime trigger, this limit can be lowered once expectations change over time.

3) Introduce more annual leave. An additional week or two would enable parents and other caregivers to go on more school trips and be around more during school holidays. It would also help create a culture of shorter hours, and free up friends and family of caregivers a bit more.

4) Increase availability of reduced working hours for parents of small children. This could be done by updating the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 to provide that employers must offer an alteration of existing terms of employment to employees returning from parental leave, reducing weekly working hours to no more than 30 (unless the returnee requests longer hours).

5) Better parental leave. To start with, we need an additional six weeks of parental leave for both parents from the date of the child’s birth on a “use it or lose it” basis. This should be funded using the same model as ACC, including the employment prerequisites, income ratios, and income cap (the current cap for paid parental leave is insultingly low). It is important that this be taken by both parents concurrently, right at the start of parenthood. To bring power to caregivers, we need to take caregiving to the powerful. Getting men involved at the outset will better integrate parenthood and working life.

All of these policies are free to a good home this election year. Can be taken as a package or individually.

* Not just as competent – better. If the sexes are equally competent and there is a gender imbalance, some of the men in power are presumably less good than some of the women who are not in power.

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