Saturday, November 28, 2009

Something's gotta give

There is a story in the Good Weekend by David Sedaris (I admit, I'm a fan) about him being in Australia and seeing a Kookaburra. Of course, it is about more than that, but anyway, his hostess talks about the idea of our lives having four burners like a stove top, and if you want to be successful (meaning at work), you need to let one or two of the other burners, labelled Family, Friends, Health, go out. They talk about what aspects of their lives are neglected, or consciously dropped, in order to be successful.

In the context of the current public discussion about mothers and work, this is timely. I'm referring to Alexandra Shulman, the editor of UK Vogue, who says that as an employer she believes the legislation is too much in favour of mothers, and not enough for the employer. She is also a mother (has one child, went back to work when he was 12 weeks, has a live-in nanny). She wants full time employees to work full time, and understands the consequences in the office when women take extended maternity leave, stay home with sick children, pop off to the school play or leave early to pick up the kids from school.

The controversial article is here.

We know how the conversation usually goes. If you want women in the workplace, we need to account for care responsibilities. Some women say they are happy to step down from their careers and work at a less satisfying job after having children - ambition fades as being with children is more important. Child-free adults say that having children is a lifestyle choice - why should they pay for other people to have kids? It is a personal and private matter - each family works out their own solutions. Then parents say that their children will be paying taxes for the child-free people's aged care and looking after them when they are old. Some say we need work flexibility for everyone, because we could all have care responsibilities - disabled siblings or aged parents. Some say it is a feminist issue - we were promised we could HAVE IT ALL and the feminists lied. Some say we need to change social policies and expectations - that this is the unfinished work of the women's movement. And so it goes.

I say we need women in all kinds of positions of power. That is in government, in business, and that we need to hear from the stay-at-home mums as well. I say, lets look at what the most socially progressive countries in the world do (um, that would be Scandinavian countries, and a few other European countries), and if that is working well, in terms of representation and the wellbeing of men, women and children, then lets do that. Lets look after everyone. Let the women have real power, do the work they are good at, and still, as a society, look after the children, and involve men in the workplace and in their own lives that includes being with family, with friends, and their health (and I mean all kinds of health - physical, emotional, spiritual, mental). When we apply the old feminist measure of asking would this conversation be applied to men, we see how far we have to go. The fact I just said 'let women have real power' makes me shudder. We should be way beyond that sentence. We still live in a patriarchy, and change is happening way too slowly.

So, back to the stove top. Does the same apply if you want success at Family? At Health? At Friendships? Perhaps we could look at work being turned down a little so that all burners can stay aglow. Because really, if you spend seventy hours a week at work, the only relationship you have is with your boss and workmates. And this is true for everyone, not just mothers.

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