Families And Work

I am always up for a real talk – whether it be ‘gritty’ or ‘feel good’.

And I think it is wonderful you shared your depth of emotion, Georgie Dent, in this post – I appreciated it greatly. I also wish to express gratitude for you working so hard to gain progress for families which the expanded parental leave [announced in the Australian Federal Budget on 25 October 2022] undoubtedly is.

In my writing I regularly express my vulnerability over what my family has faced, also, but for good reasons I cannot be as open as I want to be. Not at present, anyhow.

Let me just say, in total and complete honesty and sincerity, I don’t think we (all) would have survived what we have been through these past 3 years (totally unrelated to the pandemic) somewhat ‘intact’ if I were not a fulltime home parent and able to give all of my support and energy to keeping our ‘pieces together’ at home.

If I were carrying my own work stress on top of what we have faced, I am certain the impacts of what we confronted (and still do as recovery remains uncertain) would have been even more devastating, especially to our sons.

Yesterday I wrote in an email that when I think of what happened to Aishwarya Venkatachalam I am just grateful we are all still together. It then struck me what a profound statement that is to make.

What we faced, perhaps, was extreme, but the very high rates of burnout occurring globally show very many are struggling with contemporary work-life imbalance.

However, this discussion needs to be much broader than just about burnout and work-life balance.

While facing these extreme challenges I also contributed to society through blogging about and impacting policy around the COVID-19 response due to my highly relevant prior professional experience.

And before that I volunteered extensively at our sons’ primary school where they are increasingly dependent on the shrinking pool of school hours volunteers to give the children special and rich experiences from excursions to swimming lessons to sports carnival food stands to classroom learning in reading, maths, crafts, etc.

These are critical contributions which are necessary for these opportunities to go ahead for the students since regulations are necessitating increased adult participation and/or oversight while at the same time parent volunteering is decreasing.

Hand on heart, on behalf of my family, as a fulltime parent I have contributed fully to society and to the next generation.

Where are the voices to support those of us who make these contributions?

Where is the support, including from two-income families whose children have benefitted greatly from these voluntary contributions, to reduce precarity and reduce the financial impacts on families that make these sacrifices forgoing income?

It seems there is a delusion that time spent in paid employment earning for the individual, including individual families, is more valuable than time spent contributing to all.

Why is work + family always about both parents working more hours, meaning more hours disengaged from family and community?

Ultimately that is what the extra parental leave aims to achieve, also.

Why do we not give greater support to investment in families and community in the form of greater engagement, and not just for their early years but for the whole of a child’s schooling?

If I wanted to be extra ‘gritty’ I would say that it seems to me that contemporary feminism has been subverted by this virulent form of Extreme capitalism that says everything is about money and winning.

We cannot lose sight of the truth that a mother does not need to work to prove they are a ‘real’ feminist any more than a father must work to prove he is a ‘real’ man.*

I consider both views equally toxic and derivatives of toxic masculinity since the system remains an “imperialist white-supremacist patriarchy based on domination” as bell hooks told us in “The Will To Change: Men, masculinity, and love”.

I have considerable sympathy for single parent families, and I know there are a lot of sad stories out there that mean that working long hours in paid employment is necessary and was not a choice for many.

But a lot of Australians with two new(ish) cars in the garage of million dollar plus homes will tell you they have no choice but for both parents to work long hours in paid employment.

The truth is there was a choice, and it was made based on parents’ priorities.

Moreover, plenty of parents say that they would go ‘around the bend’ staying home fulltime with kids; that for themselves they require the extra stimulation from working.

That’s an admission that fulltime parenting is a challenging sacrifice to make.

I agree. I have found it extremely difficult at times.

I just wonder why it is that that sacrifice is no longer respected or valued in our society?

And, perhaps most importantly, I do note that worker-led phenomena in this new era, including the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, and the Great Breakup, suggests that many have serious concerns that they were indeed heading ‘around the bend’ in any case trying to balance a ‘normal’ life with the demands of working in Extreme capitalism.

Please note that this post is not directed at any individual – I just hope that we can be open-minded enough for a real conversation to emerge.

And please take extra careful note Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers, if you do not broaden your approach on this you leave yourself (and all of us) susceptible to a culture war over family values led by the conservatives, and that would be a very unfortunate circumstance…

* As a Caucasian, heteronormative, middle-aged man I probably would not have had the courage to make such a statement if I did not have the words of bell hooks in “The Will To Change: men, masculinity, and love” to support my views.

In truth, I agreed almost entirely with this work even before I knew it existed – before I had even heard of bell hooks (which was at her recent passing).

On page 55 (first paragraph of “Chapter 4: Stopping male violence”) bell hooks says “As women have gained the right to be men in drag, women are engaging in acts of violence similar to those of their male counterparts. This serves to remind us that the will to use violence is really not linked to biology but to a set of expectations about the nature of power in a dominator culture”.

With another 2 decades of Extreme capitalism since these words were first written, many of hooks’ points of criticism have worsened in an increasingly dominator culture.

Her “Chapter 6: Work: What’s love got to do with it” is incredibly valuable to the reader. I thought to include large swathes of it here but will suffice to pull out a few key passages and implore all readers to buy the book or reread it.

“Work stands in the way of love for most men then because the long hours they work often drain their energies; there is little or no time left for emotional labor, for doing the work of love. The conflict between finding time for work and finding time for love and loved ones is rarely talked about in our nation. It is simply assumed in patriarchal culture that men should be willing to sacrifice meaningful emotional connections to get the job done.”

I would suggest that final sentence now stands accurately gender-neutral.

Later in the same discourse: “Most women who work long hours come home and work a second shift taking care of household chores. They feel, like their male counterparts, that there is no time to do the emotional work, to share feelings and nurture others. Like their male counterparts, they may simply want to rest. Working women are far more likely than other women to be irritable; they are less open to graciously catering to someone else’s needs than the rare woman who stays home all day, who may or may not caretake children.”

I truly wonder at how many contemporary parents working fulltime – irrespective of gender – this passage resonates with. Answers are always looked for in terms of the other parent working more in the home, or to access more and better childcare, and while I have little doubt that these are important considerations, I do wonder how many people are truly capable of assessing the real and full causes of these feelings.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the answer lies in working less hours in paid employment by one or both parents…

Finally, I cannot leave this without acknowledging one of the few areas where I think bell hooks is not so much wrong, but missed an opportunity to be more expansive in her views. Then again we all have the benefit of hindsight of viewing in the intervening 2 decades how Extreme capitalism has worsened these trends.

Further in this discourse bell hooks points out:

“Sexist men and women believe that the way to solve this dilemma [of mother exhaustion from working in paid employment and at home] is not to encourage men to share the work of emotional caretaking but rather to return to more sexist gender roles”.

So she is highlighting the point that I make to our left wing Government, that they failing to be more open-minded on this issue invites a culture war from the conservatives.

She goes on “Of course they do not critique the economy that makes it necessary for all adults to work outside the home”.

I have done “the work of homemaking and child rearing” – and yes, I have had to put up with stigma that it “is still viewed as ‘unnatural’ by most observers”. From some it stung, like from my father, but I mostly ignore it because I am so confident in my choices knowing how my family benefits from these decisions.

However, I have never suggested that I am doing any more than anybody should do in a loving, caring relationship.

In fact, I am critiquing not just the economy but the society that has led people to believe that it is necessary for all parents to work outside the home.

And I will say this: I say proudly but with humility that I believe that if bell hooks knew us she would think that we are a good, well-functioning family that lives a life close to that which she describes as the way forward for society.

I share our experiences not to boast or to lecture but to help when I see that many are struggling, not just day to day, but to understand why they feel tired and discontent when by all appearances they have so much.

Published first on LinkedIn on 24 October 2022

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2022

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