A man comes home from a long day at work to find his children, still in their pyjamas, playing in a pool of mud. They’re filthy and barefoot. There is a roll of toilet paper leading from the front door. He stumbles over a carton of broken eggs as he opens the door, and is met with utter chaos. There is breakfast cereal all over the carpet, milk dripping from an overturned bottle on the kitchen table. Washing up is stacked in the sink, on the drainboard and all along the counter. Books and toys are piled up everywhere, and dirty washing is strewn along the length of the hallway.
On the couch sits his significant other in her dressing gown, holding a mug of tea.
The man is almost speechless. He gasps for a few minutes and then is able to stutter, ‘But… what on earth happened?’
His significant other smiles sweetly and takes a sip of tea.
‘You know how you always come home and ask me what I did all day? Well, today I didn’t do it.’
I know, it’s an old joke, and of course there is hyperbole for humour’s sake. There are plenty of partners who come home and not only don’t ask that question, but who jump right into the fray to cook dinner or bathe children. But at the heart of the story is the issue of work: that working out of the home constitutes ‘real’ work, whereas the unpaid work that a person does in the home is not as worthwhile.
Someone asked me recently, when I would be ‘going back to work’. I muttered something about waiting until Fourth Offspring was in full-time school, which seemed acceptable. But what about the work I’m doing now? Even when all four children are at school full-time, I can imagine that making all their meals, cleaning the house, doing the washing, keeping on top of their homework, ensuring that library books were returned on appropriate days and excursions were paid for… would keep me fairly busy, even if I weren’t ‘working.’
There is such pressure from society to go back to work outside the home, and I struggle to resist that. Because even though I believe it’s really valuable that I am home to care for my children, I’m almost convinced that this is somehow an easy option. That I should be out earning money, supporting the economy, contributing to society.
Let’s take a look at how that would really function, though. For me to work even part-time, Third and Fourth Offspring would need to be in daycare. My work hours would need to be between the hours of 9 am and 2.30 pm, unless I could arrange for the Handsome Sidekick or my parents to collect First and Second Offspring from school, which would involve them having to alter their work or study commitments to do so. Leaving that aside, I would need to buy new clothes and maintain an appropriate wardrobe. I would need to drive my car every day that I were working, rather than the two or three days I drive it now, and that would bump up the amount of fuel we would use per week. I would need to be far more organised in preparing, cooking and baking food, which in reality means I would buy more convenience food. I would be (more) tired in the evenings and in the mornings, meaning the time I did get to spend with the children, I would be more irritable and less accommodating. I would get fewer opportunities to go running. My children would miss out on walking to and from school with me everyday, or blowing bubbles in the backyard with me, or going to playgroup with me. I would miss those things.
I would be paying someone else to look after and bring up my children so that I could go out to work, rather than being at home and looking after them myself. All so that I could pay more tax, have less leisure time, be away from home more, and ‘contribute’ to society? Who’s winning, here? Not me, not the childcare worker (who, by the way, earns pittance), not my children.
Recently, a report showed that mothers who returned to work and put their children into daycare were losing up to 60% of their income in childcare related fees. This means that for a working parent on the minimum wage who would otherwise be home looking after the children, the take-home amount would be between $3.50-$4.50 per hour. If I were doing the job I have trained for (teaching), I would earn more than minimum wage, but I would still lose a lot in childcare fees, tax and university debt repayments. Financially, we might be slightly better off, but whether it would contribute to a better life for me and for the rest of my family, I doubt it.
Of course, that’s not to say that everyone should stay home full-time and care for their children. I’m the first to admit that being at home with them is shockingly exhausting. Going out to work for one’s own sanity is a very valid reason, and if it also contributes some income to the family, all the better. However—and I doubt I’m on my own here—if I am going to spend several hours working outside the home, then I would like to be properly financially compensated for it. I wouldn’t call $4.50 per hour much financial compensation. That’s like working for two bottles of milk per hour. Surely we’re worth more than that?
Streamlining the childcare system would be one way to help those parents who want to go back to work and have their children cared for in quality placements. But another way is to celebrate and value work, wherever it happens. While I think my time at the moment is best spent taking care of my children myself, I’m also grateful that I live in a society where I can receive some assistance to do so. And when I choose to undertake paid work again, I’ll gladly pay tax so that others can do the same.