Please, don’t ask me how I juggle work and family.*
I know you mean well.
But it entrenches a 1950s view of a woman’s place in society.
I’m asked this question almost every day.
My husband? Never.
It makes both of us cranky. You see, he’s one of those 50/50 parents. (Credit where it’s due!)
Sure, we’re in the minority. But while the numbers are changing, the conversation isn’t.
According to the Wendy Wang from the Pew Research Centre in the United States, a woman is the primary breadwinner in one in four families but, “the public feels a mother should be the primary caregiver for children”. Case in point: An interview in theWeekend Australian magazine with the CEO of the CSIRO.
Dr. Megan Clarke is a trailblazer, working on a mining site in outback WA in the 1980s when women weren’t allowed underground.
The first question was, “How did you manage family life?”
Was that question ever asked of the previous head of Australia’s peak science body, Dr. Geoff Garrett?
(Incidentally, the current CEO was referred to as Megan Clark, while Geoff Garrett was always given his honorific. Really, it’s a miracle they didn’t call her “Mrs”…)
When Bob Hawke said Tanya Plibersek couldn’t contest the Labor leadership because she had a three-year-old child, he was decried as a dinosaur: Bill Shorten had a child the same age.
But to say it’s generational is simplistic. It’s deeper than that. It’s positively Pavlovian.
An anthology of feature stories in the ‘pink pages’ add up to a narrow equation: Working mother=Superwoman.
When my kids were little, I wondered about how other women, especially single parents or those with disabled kids, managed from day to day.
But this question is predicated upon the assumption it’s the woman’s job to do the juggle: Not her partner’s; not their families’; not the community’s.
We should be asking EVERYBODY this question. (Actually, in an ideal world we wouldn’t be discussing this in the public domain at all because it’s so BORING. In Utopia men and women would be working it out amongst themselves in equitable domestic arrangements, working as a team with supportive workplaces and government policy, and that when we talked to professional people about their profession that’s all we talked about… But I digress…)
I know men need to step up first. An awful lot don’t pull their weight (spending 172 minutes a week on cooking, cleaning, and caring compared with 311 for women). But some fellas are alright.
We’re never going to have true equality until society expects men to do their fair share.
That involves asking questions until we get there.
“So, John Citizen, how are you going to cope when you go back to work a week after the birth of your child?”
“Will you be turning down trips overseas? Conferences interstate? Long hours of overtime?”
“And how will you fit in all the vacuuming/ironing/washing to keep the house spick and span?”
For this is what is asked of women.
I’ve lost count of the number of times journalists asked how I was able to return to work so quickly after having babies; bosses refused work opportunities because I was a mother; and friends asked how I could keep the house so clean.
Men aren’t even part of this conversation.
Work-life balance is not a ‘women’s issue’ to be sorted out by the ladies in the corner.
The Diversity Council of Australia makes a clear business case for mainstreaming flexibility, by making it work for all employees: mothers, fathers, and those without children, who care for loved ones.
Sheryl Sandberg recognised this in her book, Lean In: “If we make it too easy for women to drop out of the career marathon, we also make it too hard for men. Just as women feel that they bear the primary responsibility of caring for their children, many men feel that they bear the primary responsibility of supporting their families financially. Their self-worth is tied mainly to their professional success, and they frequently believe that they have no choice but to finish that marathon.”
Of course it’s harder for women, because of structural discrimination surrounding pay scales, parental leave, and unconscious bias.
But (like Stalingrad) it’s a two-pronged battle: We need to change the words as well as the workplace.
So, the next time you see a working mother, take a (pardon the pun) pregnant pause before asking THAT question.
Instead, ask yourself THIS question: “Would I ask that of a man?”
*This article is a mea culpa for the many times I’ve asked – and been asked – “So, how do you do it….?”