I used to get impatient when I read articles questioning whether women can match their male counterparts in earning ability and career prospects. Of course they can, I used to think irritably. Is it possible to strike a balance between career commitments and motherhood? Well, obviously it has to be. No just didn’t seem to be a palatable answer, so I refused to contemplate it. I’m less certain these days.
Having a baby knocked almost a year out of my earning life. I am self-employed, which means no paid maternity leave, so in the early months I simply covered my expenses out of my savings. I was living in the UK at the time and realised quickly that for me to return to work would require daycare during working hours. Last time I looked, childcare costs in London were pitched at around £200 pounds per week. Although my earnings are fairly passable by South African standards, they are less so in the UK, particularly in London. Around 50 to 70% of my salary would be eaten by childcare costs alone just to allow me to work. That was ok; my then-partner and I figured it would be better for the child to have a stay-at-home mom anyway, and he reckoned he could afford to support us as a family.
When my situation changed and I returned to South Africa a single mum with baby, the circumstances did an about-turn. I could rely heavily on my family for assistance in various ways – we live with my parents, who now play a significant role in Kolya’s life. Childcare here is readily available and affordable (well, more so than it is in the UK), so I’m fortunate enough to balance a work-from-home career with a full-time nanny – something which in the UK would sound like serious luxury, but in South Africa is not far from the norm.
My professional friends, however, face different challenges. Those in corporate positions would inevitably fall behind in their sector by missing four to six months (if they took the minimal approach to maternity leave); more so if they took (as I did) nine to twelve months before getting back to work. In many cases, new mothers simply don’t have the energy for more than part-time work – that means a cut in income, and that’s still assuming that their employers can accommodate them in part-time or flexitime positions.
And what of those who wish to eschew the career-vs-motherhood question? I’d like to think there’s a third way – a way of somehow integrating children with the world of work. Working in a way that accommodates children, and raising children in a way that accommodates work. The modern workplace is singularly child-unfriendly; it’s pretty much taken for granted that the appropriate place for kids is a schoolroom or a nursery, but certainly nowhere near the adult universe of the office, studio or business. There’s not much tolerance for a kid on a hip in offices and board rooms; perhaps it’s more feasible on conference calls, but even so, children seem to fall under the banner of Things Unprofessional.
Is there a future where the boundaries between work and home soften up, where it’s not unheard of to have people of different ages at a presentation or a meeting, where workplaces have kid-friendly areas. Where instead of Workshadow Programmes occurring on a single week (or in many cases, a single day) in a kid’s school career, there are options for kids to learn by being around working adults, engaging, participating, learning by doing? Obviously there’s the old model of the apprenticeship for some trades, and it doesn’t work as well for, say, lawyers and stockbrokers as it might for butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Is there a middle ground?
This week, I was offered a big piece of work that comes attached to a trip to Australia (and possibly another to the Middle East). I don’t think I am ready to leave my one-year-old boy for the week of travel Down Under. Left, right and centre, people are dishing out advice: Take him with you, say the attachment parenting camp. (What about the stress of long-haul flights and 8-hour time changes, and an entirely unfamiliar environment, and the inevitable knock his immunity will take from so much time on planes?) He needs to Get Used To separation, say my parents and their friends. (Why? How will a week of panic and feeling abandoned help him? What if it just hurts him and knocks his sense of security?) Don’t go, say others. (Can it be that bad?) It’s got to happen sometime; how much harm can it do? (I don’t know, but probably more than not going…) In my own mind, I’m torn between the attraction of travel to a place I’ve never visited before, and the thought of missing my boy for a week. I know very few people whose childhoods never exposed them to the terrors of feeling abandoned. I cannot know that’s how he’ll feel, but I also cannot know that it’s not. There is no easy way to figure it out.
Oh, and to all of you that are walking this motherhood road… Happy Mother’s Day.