The working* mother’s lament

I had a huge amount to get through at work this week – study material that simply must be prepared and loaded onto websites and ready to go a week ahead of the second semester starting. The second semester doesn’t start until mid-Juiy, but there are two weeks of school holidays first, and my part-time job means that I don’t work then. As well as masses of work, I had two rehearsals for my choir, and a concert at my daughters’ school, and a meeting for a trust board that I am on. On top of all this, as is reasonably common, Mr Bee was away some nights, for work. I knew that the week would be frantic.

And then, on Monday morning, Miss Ten the younger came into our bedroom, looking very pale and droopy. She has a sore throat and sore ears, and really was quite miserable. She spent two days aawy from school, but by Tuesday evening, she was looking much better. Good, I thought. I can have three really good days in the office.

Except that by Tuesday evening, Miss Ten the younger was getting paler and paler, and clearly getting sicker and sicker. She was away from school on Wednesday and Thursday, and again today, ‘though by late afternoon, she had recovered.

I didn’t get a single day in the office all week.

There are some things that make managing sick children easier for me than for many parents. I have an office to myself, which is standard practice for academics in universities, and it’s large, so I have a sofa in there, which is ideal for sick children. I had meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday that I didn’t want to miss, so on those days, the girls came to campus with me, and languished on my sofa, with books and my iPad to keep themselves amused. My work can easily be done at home, although it’s a nuisance not having ready access to the resources in my office, and not being able to wander down the hallway to consult a colleague over a problem if necessary.

But working at home has its limitations, notably with respect to my laptop. By Thursday I had sore arms and hands thanks to the height of the dining table where I was working, and the clunkiness of my laptop’s mousepad. I could solve both those problems (mouse instead of a mousepad, swapping to a different table), but the ergonomics at home are not nearly has good as my desk in my office. And try as I might, I never get as much done at home as I do in the office.

It was been a tough week. But even then, for me, as a working mother, it has been comparatively easy. Academic jobs are one of the few jobs that are output oriented instead of input oriented. My employer doesn’t really count the hours I put in. Instead, I am measured by the number of students I teach, and the amount of research I do. If I happen to do my work in the middle of the night, that’s just fine. Obviously, I have to turn up for the classes I teach, and as a rule, I ought to be in my office and present in the department during normal work hours, but if I need to work from home, I can. And I am not a sole parent. Because Mr Bee has a Big Job, we have consciously decided that I will work part time, so that we can manage childcare.** However, even though I end up taking most of the childcare responsibilities, if the sky really fell down, I could call on Mr Bee for help.

But what say you have a job where being present is what matters? How many bosses are going to be happy with an employee taking a whole week off to care for sick children? And here’s the thing about children: they are little repositories of disease. They get sick, with winter bugs and illnesses, and sick childen cannot go to school or daycare. That means that you cannot go to work.

And if you are a sole parent, then by definition you do not have a partner with whom to share childcare. This is why the National party’s plan to make sure that all those sole parents are out working will fail. It’s not that that parents don’t want to work. All the evidence shows that the great majority of people who are on the DPB are only on it for a few years, and move off it when they are able too. Many of them find employment precarious and difficult to manage – witness Paula Bennett’s struggle – but they are willing to work. The problem is the lack of jobs where employers are happy for employees to take leave to care for sick children. Add to this the need to take leave for school holidays – 12 weeks school holidays each year, but most employees only get four weeks annual leave – and the minor detail of most jobs running for eight to nine hours each day, while school runs for only six, and trying to find work that enables a sole parent to work suddenly looks very difficult indeed.

It’s Saturday now, and at last, everyone is well. With a bit of luck, I will get a whole clear week in the office before the school term ends on Friday. Fingers crossed….


* Working in paid employment
** Yes, this might create issues in many careers. As it turns out, in an academic career, I should be able to go back to fulltime work fairly easily once my children are old enough. Also, I no longer have a career. I just have a series of jobs which do well enough for the time being.

Earlier posts on the National Party’s policies for sole parents:


4 comments on “The working* mother’s lament

  1. violet says:

    I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home if our daughter is too sick to go to school – but what usually happens is that she is not too sick to go to school but we end up catching her bug and ARE too sick to go to work!

  2. Rob says:

    Dead right- and what we’re not getting in this mantra of *work work work- it’s good for you* is that a growing proportion of the new jobs in this economy are part-time and/or casual. That might happen to fit in with the requirements of sole parenting- or it might not.
    But it seldom offers a decent wage and there’s little or no job security.
    Neo-liberalism- working really well for for the really well-off!

  3. Sandra says:

    Thank you Deborah. I was nodding my head a lot as I read your post. Another effect, I suspect, of the pressure for sole parents to work, is the added difficulty of taking on extended family when children are removed from their parent or other caregiver.

    This bit: “Also, I no longer have a career. I just have a series of jobs which do well enough for the time being.” I realise it may be outside the scope of what you are prepared to blog about, but I’d love to see these two sentences unpacked and questioned (probably not when you are especially crazily busy like now). There is still a dichotomy between ‘proper career’ where there are no breaks and a pure pursuit of intellectual and material progress, and – anything else. But do we have to accept and internalise this dichotomy?

  4. […] in higher-up positions. Deborah at A Bee of a Certain Age writes about working mothers, and how policies aimed only at making sure sole parents are working do nothing to actually address working m…. And you know how we’re always talking about having it all? Blue Milk reviews an article […]

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