The choices I made when I entered the corporate workforce 15 years ago were mainly centred around three things:
- Location - I knew the importance of working close to home and the benefits on my mental health and future family
- An employer who provides quality benefits like flexibility and access to paid parental leave
- Breadth of interesting work to help build a solid foundation and expertise
When it came to planning my future family, I had to be strategic with my annual and long service leave. I wanted to have 12 months off with my child and, to do this, it meant sacrifices throughout the years leading up to falling pregnant and giving birth. I took minimal annual leave and to access long service leave, I sacrificed agile career moves. Not taking a break from work caused a huge strain on my wellbeing, but I thought in the long run it would mean more time with my child and more money to contribute financially.
My employer provides a number of options for paid parental leave for the primary carer. I chose ‘parental leave make-up pay’ where you receive the government’s ‘parental leave pay’ of 18 weeks at minimum wage and the employer ‘tops up’ the payment to your normal salary.
I wanted more time - 34 weeks more to be precise. So I stretched my annual leave and long service leave as far as I could take it at half-pay, knowing that I would continue to accrue leave and receive superannuation while on leave. I also made sure that I had some leave left over for the future. It was a strategic move, but a difficult one.
On reflection, and as I plan for future child number two, I realise that these are the decisions women are having to make time and time again. What is more important: family, wellbeing, career or money? Why was it up to me to make all of these sacrifices while my partner enjoyed a few weeks’ break here and there or didn’t have to sacrifice a career move?
What I also found challenging was access to quality early learning and care. My colleague who had gone through this before prepared me, and suggested I put my name down on a waitlist while I was pregnant. I didn’t listen. I started the journey when my child was about 7 months old and quickly learned that my colleague was right.
At first, I took two days, and thankfully my father minded my child for half a day so I could work from home two and a half days per week. I really wanted to go back more days. I worked unpaid hours so I could prove myself in a leadership role.
When I first approached my leader three years ago (pre-Covid) about working from home he said, “Working from home is not a substitute for caring”. The suggestion that I would be caring for my child rather than working hurt me deeply and is a stigma that many women face. I needed the flexibility; there was no point in me travelling 45+ minutes into the office for 3.5 hours when I could be more productive at home. When it comes to being a parent or a carer at any lifestage, you need flexibility from work and care, otherwise you can’t be productive at home and at work.
Eventually I was able to get the childcare days I needed and went back to work four days. As time went on, I increased my hours and did a compressed working week, working full time hours in four days. This gave me a 1:1 day with my child so I could fully engage with my child when not at work. The reality is that 50% of my mind was at work still as a leader and 30% was on my child and 20% was on all the other household things needing to get done.
I suffered mentally, as I was always “on”, and so did my relationship with my child. My child needed me to be more present at home, not on my laptop churning through work. Once I realised this, I set boundaries and reduced my full time hours to 0.90, which is basically three hours short of a full time job. As a frontline leader, I had to be really clear with my team about when to reach out to me on my non-work day. I had always respected their non-work day or leave day and not contacted them. I found it really interesting as a leader it somehow meant that went out the window.
Balance is tough. I literally asked my husband one hour ago to take my child grocery shopping with him so I could clean the house in peace. I remember my mum having to do the same on the weekend.
We have also discussed hiring a cleaner because I just can’t seem to get to it, but with inflation and cost of living I can’t justify the cost. My husband does a lot - he picks our child up every day from childcare, cooks dinner, does the grocery shopping, showers and prepares our child for bed and washes up. He does his fair share. So why am I struggling to clean the house?
These days, there is no option but to work and frankly I want to work. I love my job, I enjoy my career and I also love being a mum, a wife and having a family. I love to give everything 110% but this has become increasingly difficult when I feel stretched so thin that I’m not excelling at being mum or wife, nor at work. Covid helped put things into perspective for me and family comes first. Employers need to work harder on their flexibility policies and also not expect a full time job to be delivered in part time hours without compensation.
I work as a human resources professional for an employer who, among many other occupations, has early childhood educators. I empathise with the educators; I know all too well what goes on behind the scenes, the regulations, reporting requirements and the pressure. For a highly regulated sector, they are paid incredibly low. As a parent, I have seen the results of this: a lack of structured learning, engagement and supervision.
All in all, I’m grateful that I’m in a role that pays well and that I work for an employer that mostly provides good benefits and flexibility. Not all parents have that.