In a day and age where family structure and roles are becoming increasingly fragmented, and where the cost of living is rapidly increasing, we can ask: How do we ‘have it all’ (a phrase now so overused it has been parodied)?
My younger sister, who is now 11, once wished to be a bikie, or, as she put it, “A ‘person who rides around with people on motorbikes’.”
“What will you do with your babies?” I inquired, she having also recently announced that she intended to have ‘10 babies’.
“I’ll put them on my motorbike,” she replied with careless ease.
If only we could all have this attitude!
How one actually creates an environment where women can ‘put their babies on motorbikes’ is the million-dollar question. Journalists, feminist thinkers and economists have all sought solutions, ranging from 9 – 5 school days to lactation rooms in corporate offices to prepping to the point that you’re packing your child’s first day of school bag on the day they’re born.
Government initiatives often end up including higher taxes (often removed from that very same woman’s wages) to fund free childcare for all, and the necessity of more expensive housing to be closer to job locations. After a while, one has to ask: why bother processing all that money at all?
If a woman genuinely prefers to undertake full-time paid work outside the home, all these sacrifices can be seen as necessary, even if they require considerable reworking.
But for many families, the ‘choice’ to work is no choice at all. Mothers’ Facebook groups are full of women asking: When did you go back to work? My baby is six months old, I would like to stay with her, but we are behind on our mortgage; Would you let an 11-year-old look after himself after school?; My baby won’t stop crying at night, I can hardly get through the work day — how can I get more energy?
Seeking solutions to the cries of these women, for many, the 1950’s housewife model comes to mind. A place where the ‘little woman’ stayed at home, embroidering baby clothes, waiting for her husband and cooking sumptuous three course meals (I have a cookbook from the era which suggests daily menus for a month — quite an exhausting enterprise, even with modern cooking appliances), content and fulfilled. It is thought by some sectors today that only if people ‘cut back’ and ‘do without luxuries’, such a model is achievable and will lead to long-term positive outcomes for all.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, the ‘cutting back’ required to live off one income is for many impossible. It seems that the only answer is for all adult members of the family to work, as much as possible.
But what actually is work? Perhaps it’s time for our society to have a wider view of what constitutes such a contribution to society and the economy.
I recall my grandmother, born in 1936, telling me about her middle-class family’s maiden aunt. Aunt Emmie never married, but throughout her lifetime cared for her elderly parents, followed by many years tending the family’s property, growing vegetables for their own consumption, growing an orchard and raising chickens.
Aunt Emmie never worked outside the home. Money was brought in by another aunt who went out to work daily as a secretary — her marriage having broken up, she returned to the family home to join her sister. (Again, another option that even if not always impossible, is today seen as a failure for anyone on the end of relationship breakdown.)
Perhaps Aunt Emmie did not earn a wage or a pay check, but she economically contributed by performing the labour of the household — cooking, cleaning, washing, not to mention the home-produced food goods mentioned above. Today, would we spend extra money on buying easy-cook meals, on installing a dryer, paying for dry cleaning? We would certainly spend more in a frantic after-work dash to Coles as we stress about dinner.
When Emmie’s niece and nephew were evacuated to the property during WW2, their parents remaining in London, she cared for them, thereby undertaking the role that, perhaps, a childcare centre propped up by government subsidies would perform today. The care of her elderly parents would most likely today also be farmed out to a nursing home, palliative care nurses (if they were lucky), the purchase of a unit at a retirement village.
And all this is without the contribution of the creation of a harmonious home, which can go a long way towards preserving healthy relationships and emotional security for children.
In today’s environment, would an Aunt Emmie feel as free to invest her skills and energy as she did?
Or would the only acceptable role for her would be to undertake full-time paid work, only to spend a large portion of that income on the buying of fruit, vegetables and eggs, the payment of childcare fees for the children, the hiring of a teacher to supervise Sunday School?
This case is not sex-specific; the same thing could be said of a man who undertakes unpaid duties. And there’s no saying that perhaps Aunt Emmie would not have enjoyed a career. But in today’s society where we hope she would have been able to make that choice had she wished to, we should also be able to afford to make the choices that work best for our lifestyle and families.
Families should be able to freely decide who works and when, without having to factor into the equation the potential loss of many thousands per year — not just from their wage, but from the various government subsidies that reward families who have both parents working full-time outside the home. Freeing up a parent to be the full- or part-time manager of their family would have a myriad of positive outcomes, many of which would actually add up to dollars and cents.
Fewer extra-curricular activities would need to be paid for, seeing as many parents book their children into after-school programmes so that they are supervised and safe while Mum and Dad finish work.
Perhaps, in families less stressed, the sheer amount of therapies and professional support needed to raise a healthy child could be cut back, thereby saving on private health insurance, out-of-pocket costs and Medicare.
And, in cases where such support is necessary, it would not lead to another crisis at work where time needs to be taken off for little Jackson’s appointment.
As stated in The Atlantic recently:
“Think of all the child-rearing labor affluent parents now buy that used to be done by extended kin: babysitting, professional childcare, tutoring, coaching, therapy, expensive after-school programs.”
We should seek a society that equally values unpaid labour, so that childcare performed by a parent is seen by the government as meaningful an economic contribution and consideration as a childcare worker’s wages. Where duties performed towards the betterment of the family by having their needs better met are counted towards healthcare and education budgets. For it’s in the family, the smallest unit of society, that we find all these things.
See the Australian Family’s Association’s campaign calling for income tax reform and fairer childcare subsidy and paid parental leave schemes.