There is no doubt that women find it hard to mix paid work in with their mothering. Women who decide not to go back to their jobs suffer patronising smiles at parties. Women who choose full time work are constantly reminded that “you miss so much and you never get the time back”. Artists and poets lose their creative momentum. Casual retail assistants have to match their uncertain hours with the inflexibility of childcare caused by shortages of supply. Lawyers work 40 hours in their alleged 3 day weeks and keep their mobiles switched on in the days between.
Later on, when parenting becomes less intense and they can look around again, professional women in their 40s must look at their male counterparts in leadership and management roles and think “that could be me if…”. If I hadn’t had that baby, if I’d stopped at two children, if I hadn’t insisted on coming back part time, if they didn’t schedule so many meetings for 8am.
But as Julia Gillard’s experience shows, things wouldn’t necessarily be different if we’d decided not to have children. Because here is a woman who has decided not to have children, and while that means she can forge a career without the guilts that I would probably suffer, it seems it also makes her completely unsuitable for the highest post any Labour leader is likely to hold in the foreseeable future. It’s not the number crunchers they’re telling us, but the electorate wouldn’t have it.
If Julia Gillard is deemed unsuitable because of her childless state, then perhaps those of us with children should take heart. Could it really be that society reckons we will be better at our jobs after we have our children? Is that what this all means? If it is, then someone should tell that to our employers. And to our potential employers. And to the employers who won’t even look our way. My friends and I are battling to find interesting, meaningful work where our children are not viewed as an inconvenience. We’ll compromise on the interesting and meaningful if can we find something flexible - an employer who understands that conjunctivitis isn’t life-threatening, but does exclude your child from child-care would be a fine find. And we’ll forgo the flexible if the hours are at least predictable, because that gives us a chance of finding childcare. And there are heaps of women who just take the job, as uninteresting and inflexible as it is, because a job’s a job and there aren’t a lot of them around. Then they cobble their children’s care together as best they can with a friend here, a grandmother there, a bit of childcare if they can get it.
And anyway, while some people probably do bring another dimension to their work after they have children, there are just as many who don’t. I have sometimes wondered, for example, whether Amanda Vanstone might have a different attitude to her portfolio if she’d ever had children. But John Howard and Philip Ruddock both have children and they seem pretty comfortable with the government’s policies.
If Julia Gillard did have children, would she have more chance of the Labor Party caucus voting her in? She probably knew that she was up against it when she got off the plane from Vietnam. In an article in The Age in October 2003 exploring the experiences of women politicians she is quoted as saying: “You can imagine a time, it’s probably ten years away, where it’s so routine for women to be in politics; for women to be ministers; even for women to be leaders, that people won’t report (that) through the prism of gender…but we’re not there yet”.
Of course, there’s more to it than just a woman can’t win. Kevin Rudd’s a man and he doesn’t have the numbers either. The Labor Party just isn’t in the mood for offering real alternatives. But it is pretty clear that this is also a good old-fashioned example of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Damned if you’re ambitious, damned if you’re not. Damned if you stay at home with your kids, damned if you don’t. Damned if you rely on your parents to help with childcare, damned if you don’t. Damned if you have children, damned if you don’t.
As the mother of two young children I follow the work-life balance debates closely and I wonder how we’re going to resolve it all, because it isn’t as simple as available, affordable childcare and paid parental leave. More than that we need a culture which doesn’t pretend there’s a work-life balance that is going to suit us all. As the discussion around Julia Gillard highlights, we have a complex range of life experiences. Some of us like being home with children when we did not think that we would. Some of us have partners who want to stay at home. Some of us are desperate for children, but never conceive. Parents get sick, relationships collapse, we get pregnant even though we thought we’d used precautions. Some of us have choices and some of us do not. Still, the childcare and leave would be a good start.
In the meantime my career, such as it ever was, is marking time and with a few years of the craft box and gingerbread men in front of me it won’t be taking off anytime soon. I’ve got a few years yet to ask myself should I work more, should I work less, should I apply for this job, why didn’t I apply for that. But I’ll always know it wasn’t my decision to have children which stopped me from becoming leader of the ALP.
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