Being real about mothers at work

Officially there are 352,700 New Zealand mothers of under 14-year-olds in paid work.
This, Kate Kearins says, means more than a quarter of all working women are juggling work and parenthood, albeit some of them with more help and support than others. 

 

Working mothers might well relate to the ‘trying to look like we can do it all’ sentiment in the opening scene of the novel and film, I Don’t Know How She Does It. The main character resorts to denting a store-bought pie so it might pass for home-made at her child’s school cake sale. 

A good colleague of mine at AUT, Professor Candice Harris, recently delivered an address to a full house on the working mother conundrum. 

Candice had lots of women in the audience nodding at some of her own stories about the ‘juggle’ of being a working mother.  

Candice recalled squeezing an extra 28 cents worth of petrol into an already full fuel tank in order to reach the magic $40 mark needed to secure a Smurf. She was on route to a presentation via before-school care with her child in the car. Candice didn’t care that she’d spend the rest of the day carrying the whiff of fuel spilt down her clothes from an overfull tank – it was a small price to pay for getting her daughter to school without a fuss. 

She also reminded us all – mothers work, and that mothering is work. 

As Candice pointed out, her remarks on working mothers might also resonate with dads, grandparents and others with care responsibilities. 

Few people have ever said to me that combining parenting and paid work responsibilities is a breeze. For a start Candice reminded us that the average total of 14 weeks’ school holidays does not line up with the limited amount of annual leave most workers have. And that schools and childcare centres rarely cover the demands of late night or early morning work either. 

When you consider the official statistic of 352,700 New Zealand mothers of under 14-year-olds in paid work, more than a quarter of all working women are doing this juggle, albeit some of them with more help and more support than others. 

Candice acknowledged the relative privilege of those who can afford to outsource household tasks and childcare. 

It’s a point made by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who, when visiting the UN recently, said that as someone who has the means to afford assistance she is “not the gold standard” for managing work alongside motherhood. 

“I have an incredible support network around me and I have the ability to take my child to work. There are not many places you can do that.” 

I can attest to the benefits of having someone at home looking after my children when they were very young, but also the problems and worry when that someone wasn’t quite the right someone. 

I remember rushing home to breastfeed. But my husband’s story of not putting the handbrake on and having the car roll down the drive before coming to a crashing halt on the side of the house after racing home to take over from the nanny is the more intriguing one. Why do we as parents feel so pressured? 

Part of the problem identified by Candice is the neoliberal myth of a superwoman who can do it all – “leaning in” to their career while managing motherhood – which raises the levels “good enough” mothering to something unattainable to most. 

Candice says research around working mothers and their experiences often problematises the issues they face, which can set them up to be solvable – with the unjustified view that women only have themselves to blame if they’re not getting ahead.  

Candice is a big fan of “leaving loudly” and acknowledging life outside work. “Pretending tensions don’t exist, I feel, has led mothers to downplay aspects of our identity at work and can make us feel overwhelmed as individuals which can impact on our wellbeing.” 

In amongst a raft of practical recommendations from Candice, a couple stood out for me. The role of line-managers in championing parents in the workplace. And the notion that being a parent, so often cited as important to individuals, can enrich the work and leadership space. 

On both a personal and professional note I value the connections that I can make with colleagues over the joys and the challenges of parenting, and indeed from wider acts of caring, that duly acknowledged, both transcend and inspire good workplace relations.  

 

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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