Working hard, hardly working

As I write this, it’s 4.30pm, and bubs is asleep in bed next to me. My mission is to keep him asleep til 5ish at least. If he wakes now, he’ll need a 7.30pm bed time or he’ll be overtired, but my husband doesn’t get home til 7.15pm. Bubs stirs every few minutes, and I shhhhhhshhhhshh him. We’re not super strict on day sleeps, but in the evening everything turns to custard if we try and keep him up for longer than three hours.

And I’m thinking, we can probably all agree that this picture is ridiculous. 

We’ve just entered a new phase of babyhood, and everything is easier, but also less flexible. In phase one – which lasts about six weeks – life is overwhelming, it seems unreal that it can be this hard and yet you still function, the memories of the birth are raw, the physical recovery is brutal, you are bleary all the time, you can’t get your head around the fact that so many people have done this before! In phase two – the next three months or so – you’re coming into your identity as a parent, the baby is starting to smile and laugh and vocalise, you’re beginning to know the ropes, it’s getting better, you look back on the first six weeks and feel tender towards your new-parent self. In phase three – the next three months – you have a rough sort of a system and you’re trying new things, experimenting with sleep rituals, starting solids, baby is rolling over, baby is playing peek-a-boo, baby knows you and loves you and that’s such a thrill, and you become conscious of what sort of parenting relationship you’re developing. The fourth phase (starting at around seven months), you realise you’re comfortable with this set up, it feels like your real life. And the baby is so much more grownup! The baby now only has two naps! The baby sits up and plays with toys! The baby is interested in the world and can come with you to the supermarket without screeching like a banshee the whole time! The baby is no longer “the baby”, the baby is a fullsize person on the inside, the baby is your little buddy. This is starting to get actually fun. It’s still exhausting, it’s work that gotta be done, and you wish you had more backup, but it’s enjoyable too: you go to the park, you hang out with other mums, you sit at home wishing your husband got in from work sooner so he could hang out too…

When we first started as law clerks, the long hours took our breath away. I left for the public sector after only a couple of years – early opt-out mummy track. My husband stuck with it, and now he’s out of the house for 11 hours of the day, and sometimes needs to work from home after we’ve put the little dude to bed, and a few nights a month he stays later than 8pm at the office, and he travels out of town one or two nights every couple of months, and sometimes works from home on the weekends, and this is considered pretty good for corporate law, and we put up with it because whaddaya gonna do? If you’re a young-ish professional with outstanding student debt, you can chose two of three: good working conditions, job security, salary sufficient to support a family. Most people of our education level have kids much later, when they can “afford to step back”, but then there is fertility to think about, and less working life ahead to bank on for paying down the mortgage and saving to help the kids get financially set up themselves. I know many people who become parents at our age have low wages, very little prospect of ever owning a house, bad working conditions, insecure work, long hours without the financial pay-off of a good job, etc etc. And around 10% of babies are born to teen parents, which is just a crazy high proportion that leaves me reeling. So adding it up, I come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t moan. This makes me feel worse. Our current economic model doesn’t work for even the most privileged of parents. It really sucks that my husband sees so little of his son, it really sucks that I’m by myself such a lot. We are luckier than some financially, but it comes at a steep price. Life should be better than this. 

Which brings me to the post-election pontification going on in the blogzone. There’s some great stuff (LewDanyl), but there is also some less good stuff, and these paragraphs from Josie Pagani warrant special mention for inspiring me to start thrashing the keyboard:

1. If your principles are popular but you are not, then you are not being true to your principles. 

So much debate runs along the lines of ‘we are here, but the voters are over there, so we need to work out how much we compromise.’ 

That analysis is intellectually flabby. It is the main reason Labour is so often flat-footed, talking about trivia or seen as cynical. It’s not about compromising to win the baubles of office. It’s about being true to Labour principles. 

Here’s an example: At the last election I made myself a heretic when I wrote a column mentioning how unpopular the policy of paying Working For Families to beneficiaries had been on the campaign trail. Labour voters on low incomes clearly didn’t think it was fair to use an in-work tax credit to increase benefits. 

Yet Labour, under David Cunliffe, dropped that policy. Except that he didn’t highlight the change, so Labour ended up in the worst of both worlds: Reckoned by many to have a policy that it couldn’t defend, and also setting itself up to disappoint the remaining supporters who expected the policy would be delivered. It should have gone back to the principle of Labour’s Working For Families: that we are the party of work. That’s why we’re called the Labour Party. We represent the aspirations of people who work hard for a wage and want the same opportunity to get ahead as someone who was born luckier. 

Only when we do that job properly do we win the trust of people to increase benefit levels; because another Labour principle is compassion. We will be there for you when you’re down on your luck and lose a job. And we’ll make sure you are treated with dignity by having a high enough benefit to live on. 

David Cunliffe should have owned that policy change as a sign of robust intellectual strength.

Brian Easton talks about “pre-1972 nostalgia“ and a failure to engage with young voters, and the two are connected in the post-play thoughts. Josie Pagani seems nostalgic for the battles that were fought and won in the 1940s. If only Labour could go back to those same battles, they could win again! But the battles have changed, and changed again.The aspirations of people who work hard for a wage and want the same opportunity to get ahead as someone who was born luckier. My grandparents would nod at that, yes, of course, that’s what we’re about, evening the playing field, we want all the kids to have the same opportunity to improve their circumstances.  I read that line and think “opportunity for what?” Opportunity to work fifty, sixty hour weeks so you can saddle up to a $400,000 mortgage? Talk to anyone under 40, and we’re in maintenance mode: we want our children not to have worse lives than we had. And a lot of us are banking on financial support from our own parents in order to achieve this modest goal

When I see the phrase “we are the party of work”, it makes me want to yell loudly. What about being the party of PEOPLE? Paid work is already overvalued, unpaid work is (obviously) undervalued; and, heartbreakingly, we neglect time spent just hanging out with those whose company we enjoy. Hanging out with children is particularly discounted, because children are often seen as not-yet-people, unworthy of our precious time, which could be spent growing the economy. Awesome. Just put the kids in afterschool care or something, gotta hold down a job that takes up more than half of my waking hours. (Hey, how screwed is the concept of “fulltime work” anyway, right?)

I’d prefer to see focus on enabling people to work less – on representing the aspirations of people who want to support themselves, absolutely, but also want to be able to take their children to the park after school, or spend time with their aging relatives, or any other activity that has a social value rather than a monetary one. This applies across all incomes. And I suspect there’d be less resentment of beneficiaries if paid work was a smaller part of our lives, and social connections a bigger part.

(If you’re looking for concrete policy suggestions, I can do that too – more paid parental leave, including leave earmarked as concurrent leave that both parents have to take at the same time; more annual leave; everything I suggested way  back here; and getting serious about reducing housing costs so that people don’t have to work so many hours to afford a place to live.)