On paid work and social support

I’m on my phone in the car while bub is asleep in the back. It’s midday on a Monday. Crèche called at 11 and said bub was unwell, again. Ugh that first winter of crèche is an extreme immune system assault – BOOM here’s another virus, BOOM and another, BOOM and another. Winter eh. Bloody winter! It’s absolutely bucketing down with rain so I’m not going to attempt to take him inside. Just sitting in the front seat with cold sodden feet feeling glad my phone has full battery.

My manager is on leave, and my acting manager gets it, her kids are 6 and 8 and she’s been where I am now. Work has been ok with my patchy availablity the past few weeks – my team is very collaborative and we’ve been subbing in for each other to keep things afloat in the lurgy season.

There’s nothing exceptional about kids getting sick in winter and needing time at home to recuperate. It’s been over a month since my husband and I have both had a full week at the office. Our kids are generally healthy kids with no underlying conditions that make them extra susceptible to bugs. It’s just winter, and two kids under four, and winter.

Our employment contracts give us more than the minimum amount of sick leave, and between us we can accommodate the time off for the kids. If it was just one parent taking all this leave and holding down a job… that’d be bordering on impossible. 

People do it, and push come to shove I probably could if I had to, but it requires employment conditions that are well beyond the minimum employers have to provide. It helps if your skills are particularly valuable and the employer can cut you slack because you’re a good investment and they’re expecting you to stick with the organisation for a while. 

For sole parents without family around to look after sick kids, without an attractive CV, without a high enough salary to pay for good childcare, the barriers to employment would be enormous. Looking after small kids is already a full-time job, it really is. Last night my husband was in Auckland (for work today), and both kids ended up in bed with me – neither slept well, and I barely slept at all. 

It’s hard enough combining two kids and paid work with all the advantages I have – it requires a lot of organisation both at home and at the office, and I think the main thing that makes it viable for me is how much I enjoy my job and how much flexibility and autonomy it provides. I can take time for myself during lunch breaks, enjoy the contact with colleagues, and get paid a salary that provides us with enough money to pay for conveniences that reduce household labour needed. None of this would be achievable without the huge upfront investment in my education and career development before kids. A low wage job that you’re forced into is a totally different proposition for combining work and motherhood. So different it shouldn’t really be compared.

I’m excited to see the Greens policy announced yesterday and I think it’s a huge step in the right direction. We need to fundamentally change the way we think about work and single parents. It shouldn’t be seen as a problem if a single parent receives state assistance until her youngest child leaves home. It should be ok to be out of paid work at least through to school age for those who prefer, then have government funded part-time training for a few years, then continued income top-ups for several more years. These forms of support should all be readily available and given ungrudgingly, especially to those who have kids young and don’t have a career already established. 

No-one should have to choose between putting food on the table and being there when their young child is sick. And no-one should have to choose between putting food on the table and committing benefit fraud. 

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