No one-size-fits-all for balancing work and family life

No one-size-fits-all for balancing work and family life

One of our supporters recently reached out to share her views about our perspective on the government’s new childcare subsidy and whether it goes far enough in providing support to women and parents when it comes to work and family life. We have obtained her permission to publish her thoughts in full:

By Catherine Hennessy 

I am grateful to Women’s Forum Australia for speaking out about the diversity of preferences and needs of women and families when it comes to childcare. I have three young children and have continued working part-time after considerable periods of maternity leave and time at home. I am lucky to have choice and flexibility. Most don’t. But even in my experience, I have found the childcare subsidy scheme a bit of a straight-jacket for how I am supposed to do motherhood and work while raising a young family.  

During Covid I was able to work more flexibly from home and began having babysitting in the home while I worked.  It was a revelation and I found my perfect balance - using my skills and intellect in a way that made me feel like a fuller version of myself, without having to give up being around my kids.  Help in the home has meant support with washing, meal preparation, and tidying. It’s meant my kids being able to stay at home longer with trusted caregivers and in a familiar environment, and in my case, it has allowed an immune-compromised child to stay away from continuous illness in those early years.  And living away from my family, it has meant having a village, albeit paid, to rely on.  It’s a financial cost and we sacrifice other things to fund this option.

Most parents ‘lean in’ and try to just get through the chaotic early years. The consequences are often obscured. In my observation, family life can quickly become draining and unfulfilling.  Instead of the juicy snuggles after a nap or enjoying milestones and connection - we get the nighttime exhaustion - somehow having to feed, bathe, and get them to sleep while also trying to maintain the parental connection.  Work becomes the easy respite from the drudgery of kids.  Homelife is constantly catching up on washing, cleaning and cooking. There’s no time to just be and we forget what it feels like to relax. No cup of tea lasts long enough, no bath or girls’ night out cuts it. We’re shattered.  From the expectation that we will work as though we don’t have kids, and parent as though we don’t work. 

Resentment between partners is another insidious consequence, fueled by the depletion that builds slowly and continuously. It has helped me to realise that this whole double-income family is a new phenomenon.  We can treat it as an experiment rather than a mandate.  We know that men are doing more in the home, but that women are often still doing much more despite working the same hours.  The general implication is that men should be doing more - but maybe women should be doing less - and we should be accessing more support as a family. 

Imagine if the mental load of raising a family was understood in our culture and support was available, even encouraged?  If being able to relax and spend time together every week, rather than constantly rushing, was acknowledged as critical to a functional family life over the long term.

It’s easy to feel like everyone else is doing it so I should too.  But under the surface families, especially mothers, are struggling.  Trying to figure out how this new world works.  I love to work and use my brain - I need it to feel like myself and be a great mother.  After a year or so at home with a baby, I find myself looking for intellectual engagement.  But I also get exhausted doing both in the conventional model.  In partnership with my husband and lots of experimentation, we are figuring out how we work best as a family. It’s not just about getting through the week - it’s about getting to the end of life with our family intact, our mental health in order and our marriage happy and strong.

I often imagine what it would look like if parents were given choice - if there was a voucher or market-based system that allowed parents to configure care around their family’s changing needs.  Parents who work night shifts or unconventional hours, or who have caring responsibilities that are slightly outside the box - perhaps a child who is neurodiverse or has special needs and doesn’t thrive in a daycare setting.  What if it wasn’t a daily rate that incentivises working as many hours as possible in a day?  What would we choose if we were allowed real choice?

Policy options like making care-related expenses tax-deductible, hourly or half-day childcare fee options, or allowing in-home help as part of the child care subsidy scheme would provide women and all parents with real choice.  To assess their own needs and the changing needs of their family and make the best choice as they see fit.  They are the only ones who can make an expert judgement on what fits for them.  And the answer is never going to be the same for everyone.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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