I am looking at three baskets of unfolded laundry, a sink full of dirty baby bottles, dirty floors, dirty bathrooms…well, dirty most things. The kids are yelling for food, attention or both. I am surrounded by domestic chaos and I don’t know where to begin to get my house into some semblance of order. This is the difference 7.5 hours makes. This chaos is because I’ve increased my working hours from three to four days a week.
I always smile wryly when someone says ‘oh you choose to work.’ Well, kinda. Depends how you define ‘choose.’ Yes, if we lived in a one bedroom abode out ‘whoop whoop’ where the nearest hospital was three hours away and I kept both kids home with me full time, then yes, I could ‘choose’ not to work.
I’d also be miserable. As much as I love my kids more than life itself, I need adult company and conversation. I need to be intellectually challenged and stimulated. I worked hard at my studies (mostly!) to get a career, and work was a main part of my life before children. And although I loved being on maternity leave both times and found it hard to return to work, I did want to return. I think it’s still difficult for Mums to admit that they may need to return to work-for themselves. But after two children, and despite the household chaos, I’ve realised that I am a better Mum when I work. I call it Mummy’s part-time paradox.
The early weeks of returning to work and being separated from my children felt like torture. It physically hurt. I didn’t feel productive in the workplace either, my children occupied my every waking thought and the guilt was crushing. But I knew I’d have to work through that with time and patient colleagues. You learn that while your children will always be your first priority, it is ok to focus elsewhere occasionally. You may even start to enjoy finishing a cup of coffee while it is still hot and going to the toilet solo.
Just when I was starting to settle into the three days working a week routine, my daughter was offered a place in a private school, six years earlier than we had budgeted for. She had been having some long term issues with one of the carers at her current childcare centre…and it was taking its toll. I had considered pulling her out and taking leave, but I also was fully aware I could not meet her physical or creative needs at home and that we’d both be miserable. So when the offer was made, we didn’t hesitate in accepting. I increased my working days to meet the increase in fees. And since I needed to work four days a week, my son’s childcare days also had to increase. The budget cringed at the cost of putting my children in care. And then I remembered my daughter screaming with nightmares almost every night. Did I have a choice? Not in my mind. Or my heart.
There is an assumption that the more days you work the more money you bring into the household. Yeah…nope. Going from three to four days meant I was also pushed up a tax bracket. Add in the extra schooling and childcare cost… and I’m only clearing an extra $200 a fortnight.
So is it worth it?
For me – yes. On multiple levels.
It may not make fiscal sense in the short term, but I’m playing a for long term gain. I’m in my 40s, I’m in the middle..middle aged…in the middle of my working life. I’ve been employed for 20 years and still have over 20 plus years to go. (Argh!)
While I’m working, I’m also accumulating long service leave, sick leave, carers leave and recreation leave. Paid time off that I can have with my kids when they are sick or on school holidays when Peppa Pig won’t cut it anymore.
I’m also accumulating super, which will hopefully mean that one day I can have a shoe allowance again. I’m sure they’ll be orthopaedics by the time that allowance happens… but damn it, one day my shoes will be Spanish or Italian again. And unfortunately super is where us Mums get hit the hardest. According to financial research firm Canstar, on average, one year out of the workforce will cost you $34,000 in super. Three years amounts to a $95,000 loss. And if you take 10 years out of the workforce from 30? That can amount to a whopping $290,000 loss.
Yep-if you spend over a decade out of the workforce we are talking about over a quarter of a million dollar loss. My mind reels at that – especially since Stay At Home Parents never really get to sit down for more than 10 minutes… maybe during a nap time. Maybe. SAHP. Work. Damn. Hard. And there are no leave or super entitlements. Let’s face it, the government could never afford to pay for the work SAHPs do for love.
And here’s something else SAHPs know well… the less days in childcare and more days at home… the more mess is made. You spend the entire day picking up after them, tidying as you go, and that loveable little tornado just follows you around pulling toys out of toy boxes just as quickly as you put them away.
Being a SAHP and a working one are equally tough some days. I know, I’ve done both. Some days I craved returning to work. Other days I ached to stay home. Sometimes knowing what still needs to be done when I come home from work is enough to make me want to stay for just a few more hours where the coffee is hot and I don’t have to share my lunch. And at the same time I ached to cuddle my children and find out how their days were. Welcome to the paradox.
The ‘perfect’ part-time balance is hard to find and distinctly personal. Three days is what I call the childcare ‘sweet spot’, where the childcare rebate will last all year. Four days childcare and the rebate will run out approximately in April. Full time it’s roughly in February. After which my daughter’s private school fees are actually cheaper by comparison. But there are other reasons three days can be a good for parents returning to work. You are finally at work more than home, you may start to see yourself beyond being a parent. You can also have the odd coffee with colleagues with not-as-much part-time guilt. And it gives your eyes a two day break from staring at a computer screen under fluorescent lights and minimises those return to work migraines. Trust me, they’re a thing.
But four days is working for me and my family. Four days means my daughter is at pre-prep aka kinder full time and can do crafts with sequins, pipe cleaners, coloured matchsticks, glitter and coloured crepe paper, all the things I’d never buy due to them being a potential choking hazard for my son. She’s even learning to cook Thai. So now the self-imposed pressure is off me to be something I’m not – crafty and skilled at baking. I’m delighted to see her at the end of each day and to spend time with her at the weekend and she can see that. My heart bursts when she calls me her best friend.
Four days also means I have one day with her brother, just the two of us, where I can give him a rest to keep him well. In the early days of my maternity leave my son was sick, often very sick, which also meant there was less time I could spend with my daughter. She wasn’t jealous or resentful. Just sad. And that only added to my guilt. And then I got cross at the world that I was a bad Stay at Home Mum. And my daughter knew I was sad and angry and didn’t know why, so she thought it was her.
Working four days means I also feel like I belong again, so as a result I’m a more patient Mum and I feel I’m a more productive staff member. Some days it’s exhausting working on such interrupted sleep, but I’m doing work I enjoy and I have a supportive husband who helps us all. I know by working the extra day I’m happier too, and so is my family. The house is still in a state of absolute domestic chaos, but I’ve accepted it will probably be chaos for the next 15 years, and with that acceptance I feel quite liberated. My children won’t remember clean floors, but they will remember the laughing Mummy crawling through tunnels with them or the smiling Mummy enjoying the quiet reading time with cuddles.
For me-the key to the Mummy part-time paradox is accepting that sometimes the more you work, the happier you may feel. That wanting to return to work doesn’t make you an ‘absent’ parent or under value the very important role of SAHPs. Like most parental decisions, returning to work and for how many days is a personal preference, it’s governed by who you are and your family circumstances. And that’s how it should be.