Work life tightrope etc

Someone I know posted on Facebook a very old photo of a rally for the 8 hour day, a man holding a placard saying “8 hours work, 8 hours leisure,  8 hours rest”. Makes me wanna cry with frustration. In a time of unprecedented prosperity, why are we working such long hours? 8 hours leisure! 8 hours rest! What paradise!

I always write blogs like these when my husband is going through a patch of particularly rough hours. His standard hours are about 45 – 50 a week, and that’s manageable because we live close to town and he can do some of his work in the evenings after the little dude goes to bed. When it starts to creep up past 50 a week, and especially whenever there’s a stretch of 55 plus, we end up both feeling like we’re walking on a tightrope that is falling away behind us.

I used to feel like I had plenty of leisure time, after I left big law and moved to a public sector job. Now, in the same job, I work 0.7 FTE, or basically 9 – 3, but I feel like I have almost no leisure time and barely enough time to do everything that needs to be done at home and also sleep. After I pick the little dude up in the afternoons, we have a small window for play before it’s time to give him his dinner. Often there are errands to run, and sometimes I’m late to get him, but I really try to make sure that the afternoons are his time. He’s in creche for most of the day and I think he deserves to have some time one-on-one with me. But he’s full on, and keeping up with him is tiring, so while it’s nice time in the afternoons it’s not very restful time. Then there’s getting him dinner and helping him eat it, and then finally my husband gets home at 6.45pm. That starts a tightly timed routine – quick play with dad, bath, pajamas, stories, lullabies, and bedtime for the little dude. I do chores while the little dude is in the bath with his dad. The bedtime stories are usually the highlight of the day for me and my husband. We consciously make space for that to be relaxed. Once the little dude is in bed, we have to make our dinner and clean up and do the other chores in the never-ending mound of chores. And my husband usually has an hour or so of work to do from home. Except tonight, when he has to pull an all-nighter and has gone back into the office. That happens sometimes. So basically we don’t get any time to ourselves in the evening – by the time everything is done that needs to be done, it’s almost 9pm, which is pretty close to my bedtime, because the little dude wakes up around 6.30am and I’ve always needed a lot of sleep and even more so being pregnant.

What the hell?

Part of me knows that we’re lucky: my husband’s long hours come with a good salary and that’s how we can afford for me to take time out of paid work when we have the newbie and still pay a mortgage. I know that puts us in a very very privileged position. And I know that in another few years, with older kids, the time spent with them won’t be as draining or as all-consuming. And I know that single parents have to do this alone. And I know lots of people work long hours but don’t get high salaries in return. I know, I know, we’re lucky.

On an individual level, we have options, and we have chosen this set-up as the best available in our circumstances. We’re privileged to be able to trade-off money vs time. We’ve chosen this particular point in the trade-off and we shouldn’t really complain about it. We’re fortunate that my job gives us a bit of slack – I can vary my hours day-to-day and no-one minds at the office as long as I get the work done. We’re fortunate to be able to use money to solve problems created by having less time. We have a carpark in town. We buy our lunches too often. I don’t want to over-emphasise the daily grind element. But. But.

That’s on the individual level. Us compared to other kiwis. On the level of our whole society, I don’t get it! In modern capitalist economies, almost everyone is pressed for either money or time, and way too many people are pressed for both. Why?! There is plenty of both to go around!

I’m took a day off work a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure whether I was actually sick or just tired and pregnant. Either way, I stayed in my pajamas until it was time to get the little dude from creche, and just lay in bed basically all day. Generally I think that “imposter syndrome” is a load of bollocks (can we talk instead about “not as good as you think you are syndrome” whereby mediocre men think they’re awesome and end up in positions of power because they ride on the waves of sexist assumptions that give them the benefit of the doubt?). But there’s one respect in which I totally think imposter syndrome applies to me – I have this constant and completely unfounded niggling idea that people will think I’m slacking off. I think this is somewhat gendered, but also the result of societal messages that apply regardless of gender. Like how at my school, kids were given a certificate of commitment if they had a whole year without sick days. Pretty fucked up message to send! I have to really remind myself that no-one at my work thinks I’m slacking off if I take a few extra sick days while pregnant.

In New Zealand, we get 5 sick days a year at full pay and also 12 days unpaid during pregnancy. That’s the law. That’s what every employee gets as of right. Also by law, employers have to hold a job open for a year for an employee who has a baby, if the employee has worked at the place for a year or more. And we get 16 weeks paid parental leave (capped at $500 a week but it’s still something). And we get 20 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds.

I mention this because to a reader from the USA, that would sound pretty awesome!

To a reader from Europe it would sound a bit sub-par.

Which I reckon demonstrates that counting our blessings compared to other people in our own country is a double-edged sword. All the ways that my husband and I are fortunate are true in the context of a country which, on the whole, has a long way to go both in financial support targeted to families (particularly in the first few years) and working conditions that accommodate caregiving responsibilities.

My parents have both always worked fairly long hours themselves. Not long hours compared to some of the couples I knew in corporate law firms, where both parents work a 50 or 60 hour week, but long hours compared to literally everyone else I knew as a child. I remember once going to a friend’s house after school and staying for dinner, I would have been maybe 8 or so, and the friend’s mum had made apple crumble for dessert and I was so taken aback that this could be a normal weeknight thing. Our weeknight dinners were whatever mum or dad could rustle up while we watched the Simpsons. I had another friend whose mother was amazing at crafty stuff, and I loved visiting her house on the weekend because there would be some sort of activity planned out for us, like making a shoebox puppet theatre, or making tiny books and binding them with a needle and thread, or making mosaic photo-frames, or that awesome Halloween party where we made tiny jack-o-lanterns out of oranges. 

My grandmother, who was only 50 when I was born but didn’t have a paid job while I was young, was also fantastic at thinking up cool things to do with kids. She still is. Recently we went up to Auckland and I took the little dude round to visit her, and she went into the wardrobe and brought out 8 tissue boxes she had been saving for him to play with. Isn’t that just adorable?! I appreciate all those things even more now because it’s given me a model of how to do some of the stuff that my mother (awesome in other ways) didn’t really do so much. She is not crafty. She won’t mind me saying that because it’s as incontrovertible as if I were to say that she is not an astronaut. 

(Aside, here’s another super cute thing my grandmother is doing: when I was 11, we moved house and I was really sad to leave the house. My grandmother took a cutting of one of the roses in the garden and said that when I bought a house of my own, she would take a cutting of the cutting and I could plant it in my house. She has remembered this all these years later and we spoke on the phone this morning and she was telling me she’s getting my rose cutting ready for the new place. I’m blown away by this and so so touched, having completely forgotten myself about the rose cutting, but remembering now how nice she was when I was a sad little kid who didn’t want to move house.)

My parents had my grandmother as a back-up third caregiver who was always available. We won’t have that until my parents retire; but to be honest it’s not the norm now anyway, as so many people live in different cities to their parents. And as people both work later and have kids older, it’s also going to become less common to have retired grandparents available who are nonetheless still able to do the physical running around that little kids require. It’s a crucial generational shift. If we lived in Auckland, my grandmother would be around, but she’s 78 now and I wouldn’t really feel comfortable leaving the little dude with her alone. My brother had just got back from overseas when I was in the worst patch of morning sickness and early pregnancy fatigue, and he had his days wide open, yet to start a new job. One day I was taking a day off work sick and the creche called to say that the little dude was sick and needed to be picked up. So I dragged myself out of bed to get him, and then I went round to my parents’ place where my brother was hanging out. I basically said “I’m going to bed, play with him, supervise him on the rocking horse”, and did. It’s been so great these past few months having a close family member in the same city who isn’t working, even if it’s only a very short period of our lives. It makes me realise in a whole different way how valuable it is to our communities to have people who don’t have full-time paid work, and are available to contribute in other ways, including being “on call” for family members who might need them to do some childcare. 

It takes a village, etc. Those women who had me round to their houses after school or before school while my parents worked, or who had me round on the weekend, they were part of my village. The fact that they had time to do more home stuff because they did less paid work was a key part of my upbringing, and really very valuable not just to their children but to their whole communities (my grandmother came on almost all my primary school trips for example). Shout out to all the mothers of my childhood friends, I remember how cool it was that you looked after me before and after school and I remember the things you did! I appreciated it then, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to say it. 

Like me and my husband, my parents didn’t ever really intend to prioritise paid work quite so much. It happened like that for several reasons. My dad’s work was at a non-profit, and while it was fairly high-stress and required fairly long hours it was never going to be super highly paid because of the nature of the work. Like many women of her generation, my mum had ambitious plans at the start of her career, which gradually got scaled back thanks to the likes of us kids, but she wouldn’t have wanted to scale them back even further than she did. Both of them were faced with the same tension that my husband and I are faced with now: where are those jobs that offer generous sick leave, interesting work, holiday leave, a short working day, a good salary, job security, and career progression? Um, Sweden. I think those jobs are all in Sweden.

My parents were both lucky, and my husband and I are both lucky, to get jobs that tick many of the boxes – because I can’t think of any job that would tick all the boxes.

And we’re faced with this quandary, how to combine a career and parenting, and it’s a similar quandary to that faced by my parents’ generation. But not quite the same, because when my parents were kids, their mothers were at home and their fathers were not all that involved in day-to-day care, and that was the norm, and that has shaped their expectations. For both my husband and myself, our mothers have careers and our fathers were somewhat involved in the day to day care (though not so much the day to day vacuuming). We have a different point of view. Different expectations about the societal progress we expect over our lifetimes. When I left big law, I said in my exit interview that I couldn’t see how we could both stay in a corporate firm and still have time to be the parents we wanted to be. The HR manager sort of nodded like she was thinking about it, then said that most couples in that situation hire nannies.  

When I was about 8 or 9, my family was featured in a newspaper article about two-income families. I remember being strongly of the view that the photo should include the cat, because she was part of the family. In the ensuing two decades years, the two-income family has become wholly unremarkable – not something to be featured in the paper. But, paradoxically, the number of hours expected to be worked by a full-time employee has not reduced.

My parents’ generation are still in full force in the labour market – boomers! – so I’ve worked with many people their age, and obviously I’ve seen my parents and their friends, and the parents of my friends, and some of the lessons drawn are heartening and some are depressing.

  • It’s abundantly obvious that there are large numbers of extremely talented women who never reached high positions because they also devoted a large chunk of time to being caregivers, and either left paid work or sacrificed career progression.
  • It’s just as obvious that there are large numbers of men, still in positions of power, who don’t fully appreciate this fact.
  • It is depressing but true that women who take long periods out of the workforce have to start their careers basically from scratch.
  • A lot of people get separated or divorced. People who were at-home parents before a divorce are in a fairly vulnerable position after the divorce.
  • Men with partners at home often don’t appreciate how much this has helped their career (I can think of some exceptions, and without fail they have been great men to work with).
  • No-one has figured out how to combine work and family, and life generally, to their full satisfaction. Hundreds of thousands of people over the past several decades have struggled with the same issues. It can’t be solved by individuals.

And I think we don’t talk about this enough, because of that niggle that says “if you complain about how much you work, people will think you want to slack off”.

This is where I reckon it’s important to remind ourselves of the value of downtime for kids. The value of “just being in the same place together with mum and dad” time. My afternoons with the little dude are important because they are unhurried and unscheduled. Time where we can do more or less what he wants, at his pace. One day a few weeks back for example we went to the beach, except after I took him out of his carseat I realised he wasn’t wearing his shoes, so I put him down on the back seat while I found the shoes on the floor of the car, and in that time he climbed through to the passenger seat and started playing with things on the dashboard. So then we did that for 45 minutes. Beach trip canceled, let’s just open and shut the glove box over and over. I think this stuff is actually important. Making space for them to be able to do something without ushering them on to the next thing. Even on the weekend, we don’t usually have much time for this. Time as a family is generally scarce and there are always things to do, swimming lessons, a trip to the fruit and vege market, visiting my parents, maybe some social activity, there’s not a lot of time in which to just hang out. Of course he gets time at creche to just hang out; but we’re not there, that’s different. I don’t want him to see time with mum and dad as constantly busy. I don’t want him to feel like he’s an item on our tightly controlled schedule.  

Long hours are obviously shite for people who work them. It goes without saying that my husband would like to be able to spend more time with the little dude.

Crucially, they are also shite for everyone else.

After he eats his dinner and gets all cleaned up, the little dude often loses interest in his toys and starts hovering by the door saying “daddy? daddy?”. It’s not subtle. He clearly wants to spend more time with his dad. He also often asks for his nana, who sometimes visits in the evenings, but not often, because she also works fairly long hours.

When full-time work with long hours is the norm, more of the other stuff falls on the people who don’t work full-time. Whenever I have a day off work sick, I think – ah, lucky me that I’m not an at-home parent! They don’t get sick leave! Someone else would have to take a day off paid work to give them a break, and that’s unlikely to happen unless they’re really really sick. 

Anyway I should go to bed. It’s just all the same old point, no neat conclusion. Constantly frustrating to me. Standard working hours should be set at a level where it is possible for two people to both work those hours and also be fully involved parents and well-rounded members of society, and then having set the hours at that level, they should be strictly adhered to. This used to be called “overtime”, even the word sounds quaint.

The employment.govt.nz website has a handy guide for employers who want to create employment agreements. It includes a “contract builder” where you can select standard clauses.

Here’s a standard clause:

The Employee’s normal hours of work shall be [insert number] hours per week, between the hours of [insert start and finish times] on [insert days]. The Employee may also be required to perform such overtime as may be reasonably required by the Employer in order for the Employee to properly perform their duties. The Employee’s salary fully compensates them for all hours worked.

In other words “work at least these hours plus whatever extra we tell you to work, but if you work extra hours, you don’t get extra money”.

*skulks off to bed in despair*

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