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Stay-at-home mums face barriers returning to work

JACQUELINE MALEY
Last updated 05:00 11/08/2014
stay at home mum
Kate Geraghty

OPTING OUT: Natalie Harman with Arlo (left) and Harrison, has opted out of the workforce until the children are at least three years old.

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When Patti Bartholomew got her first ''real'' job at the local bank, she saved ''every single cent'' of her salary and bought herself and her husband a ticket to Paris and the south of France. Patti was turning 50, and she told friends she would spend her birthday dancing on the Pont d'Avignon.

''I organised it and I paid for it. It was beautiful,'' she says. 

Her husband, a farmer and a nervous flyer, was less enthusiastic. ''I said, 'Oh God, anyone would think I had bought you a ticket to your own funeral!' But once we got there, he enjoyed it and he did say thank you. That was nice,'' Bartholomew recounts.

She felt proud. ''On arrival at the Charles de Gaulle airport, after a red eye flight from Sydney, a very handsome chauffeur came towards us and said in a lovely accent, 'Mr and Mrs Bartholomew?' and waved us through the crowds. Talk about feeling important!'' But then, as though to check her outrageous hubris, Bartholomew plays down her achievement.  ''It probably sounds like nothing to a lot of women who work,'' she says. ''But I was at the tail-end of the generation of farm women who marry young, have kids and don't work and that was it. Maybe they join the Country Women's Association. I had stepped out of that and I think he was proud of me.''

Bartholomew, a mother of five, was married aged 20 in 1984 (''a child bride''), just two years before the term ''mummy wars'' entered the popular lexicon with the 1986 publication of a book by American author Leslie Morgan Steiner.

But these media-fuelled ''wars'', which pitch stay-at-home mothers (lazy, privileged, stupid) against working mothers (selfish, ball-breaking, neglectful), have never been particularly relevant to Bartholomew. Because she, like the vast and overwhelming majority of mothers, has spent some time in the workforce and some time out of it. These women experience the joys and frustrations of motherhood and then eschew those joys and frustrations (at least as a full-time gig), and go back to work in some capacity.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, one of the most significant social changes during the past few decades has been the ''considerable growth in maternal employment". Among families with children aged under 18, the proportion of employed mothers increased from 55 per cent in 1991 to 65 per cent in 2011.

In other words, in contemporary Australia, most mothers go back to work when their children are still young kids. But what is it like when they get there? Do they face discrimination as mothers? Have they been supplanted by younger workers or the childless? Is it possible that the struggle to get back to work has supplanted the mummy wars as the great feminist battle of the 21st century. Just how easy is it, in a world which tells us modern workplaces are flexible, for women who have opted out of the workforce to opt back in?

''It's horrific,'' says Jessica (not her real name), a mother and a former human resources manager for a private wealth firm, who has experienced both sides of the post-maternity coin.

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''At an organisational level, there was never a time when a woman was more vulnerable than when she was on maternity leave,'' she says of her former workplace. ''It was commonplace to change the head count when the woman was on maternity leave and make her redundant, which is really destabilising for the women's career,'' she says. ''If the role doesn't exist any more, she doesn't come back.''

Jessica's anecdotal experience is backed by data - an Australian Human Rights Commission review into discrimination related to ''pregnancy, parental leave and return to work'' found one in two mothers reported  workplace discrimination at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on their return to work. One in five mothers surveyed said they were ''made redundant/restructured/dismissed or their contract was not renewed'' at some point during the pregnancy or post-birth period.

This is despite legislation which enshrines a pregnant employee's legal right to return to the same job. But as Jessica says, there are ways around that. ''You phone your legal counsel and say, 'This is what we want to do, how do we do it?' I think we really pay lip service to equality in the workplace,'' she says.

The AHRC report also found 36 per cent of mothers experienced discrimination when they returned to work, in the form of negative comments from colleagues and managers, or discrimination related to pay and conditions. Again, this chimes with Jessica's experience. ''[The newly returned mothers] were always penalised at salary time and bonus time. The attitude was they should be happy just to have a job,'' she  says. 

Louise Owen, a 55-year-old divorced mother of two, has found it incredibly difficult to get back into her profession of teaching after taking seven years out of work to care for her daughters. She hasn't had a full-time job for 23 years.

''Once you resign from a position you are virtually back to square one,'' she says. ''I would apply for positions that came up but often I didn't get an interview. I believe it was because of my age and because I had had that time out from a permanent job, even though I had been bringing up kids. There was no real recognition of what I'd been doing.''

Her husband was supportive of her choice, despite the fact that for a long time Owen says she was ''unable to contribute significantly'' to household finances. But when her daughters had finished high school and were enrolled at university, the couple split up. Looking back, Owen thinks she might have done things differently. ''Perhaps I would have tried to negotiate to keep my position open. Perhaps I would have tried to get back in when the kids first went to school rather than waiting until they had finished primary school.''

Owen is not complaining. Her choices were made freely, she says, and she is proud of what her daughters have achieved (one is a primary school teacher, the other a dance teacher and DJ - ''she's very artistic'', says Owen). ''They are successful and they are well adjusted and I am pleased I didn't miss any milestones with them.'' And yet, she worries about her financial security. ''The only superannuation I have is from the 10 years of my teaching career and that doesn't amount to much. By now I should have had 33 years. I may have gone to deputy or head teacher positions, and that's all gone now.'' When her daughters become mothers themselves, she hopes ''there are more opportunities, and more legislation, to help them go in and out of the workforce if they want''.

For Jessica, it was the swimming carnivals. ''My daughter was in year six and I had never been to a swimming carnival, and I thought, 'This is not what it is all about'. I quit and took a job as HR director for a not-for-profit.''

Over the course of interviewing mothers for this article, swimming carnivals came up an awful lot - these wet, chaotic, sun-burnt affairs were the school event that working mothers seemed to feel most guilty about not attending.

But could it be that the social pressure to be a perfect mother is just make working women feel they're neglecting their children, when in fact they over-compensate by lavishing them with attention? According to a Multinational Time Use Study reported recently in The Economist, which amalgamated data from surveys in 20 countries, working mothers today spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home mothers did a generation ago.

The study found that in 1974, stay-at-home mothers spent 77 minutes with their young children every day, and employed mothers spent 25 minutes with their children. By 2000, the mothers' kid-time had risen to 161 minutes and 74 minutes respectively. So even if the children of stay-at-home mothers still get more ''mummy time'', the kids of working mothers are the object of far more maternal attention than previously.

Jessica still works, but only part-time now, and says she would  ''very happily'' opt out of the workforce altogether, if her family didn't need the money. Would she get bored if she wasn't working? I ask.

''Nuh!'' she says. ''I do think that is a key issue for a lot of women. I think that with women having kids older and having established careers in place, that has been a source of self esteem, and their identity.

''So I can appreciate for some women, walking away is not an option because, then, who are they? Are they just a mum? Society doesn't value that.''

In the mid-noughties, the mummy wars hit what might have been their zenith, when there emerged a widely reported trend of well-educated, high-powered women who quit work for full-time mothering. This, they argued, was the ultimate feminist act. They were choosing to opt out. In 2003, The New York Times magazine ran an article entitled The Opt Out Revolution, which opened on the scene of a women's book club. All eight of its members had degrees from Princeton and yet they had all dropped out of the workforce to mother. Worse, they seemed to be boasting about it. ''Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not. Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit,'' one woman, a Masters in English, rather smugly told the magazine.

Ten years and a global financial crisis later, the reality is that most women cannot afford not to work, at least part-time or on a casual basis. Governments have caught up - the workforce participation of women is now a major economic issue, which has led to public debate about maternity leave policy and the cost of childcare. In 2013, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was lambasted for defending his controversial Paid Parental Leave policy on the basis that we needed, as a society, to encourage ''women of calibre'' to have babies. (Which, incidentally, was quietly shelved last week for the rest of the year at least.) He was criticised for being snobbish, but during the same press conference he also made related comments few feminists, not to mention economists, could disagree with. These women, the Prime Minister said, were ''in the prime of life and they should be able not just to have kids, but to have careers''.

''We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career.'' But what if those women don't want the career? What if they choose domesticity instead?

Natalie Harman is a 38-year-old mother of two garrulous boys - Harrison, who is two and a half , and Arlo, who is one. Harman immigrated from Britain two and a half years ago where she had a successful career in pharmaceutical sales. Here, she is a fulltime mother.

''We made a decision that daycare wasn't for us. We wanted my children to be brought up by me,'' Harman says. ''We feel that until they're at least three, we want them to have extended breast-feeding and one-on-one attention.

''Every mother I know struggles from the lack of 'me time'. But it's still possible for them not to be in daycare at the moment. I don't feel any institution can offer the level of care I can.'' Harman is not sure she will return to her former career. She is thinking about perhaps re-training as a psycho-therapist. But there are some things she misses about work, like the peace and quiet.

Does she worry about her future financial security? ''I guess we will have to survive on my husband's super and I have to trust that it's our money and our income and our future.''

Shona Charleston is a 43-year-old mother of three who lives in Marrickville in Sydney's inner west. She has also re-located from Britain with her husband. She used to work in human resources but hasn't re-entered the workforce since arriving in Australia in 2004. ''I have been considering going back in,'' she says. ''It will definitely be an option when my youngest goes to school and I'm bored senseless.'' But, Charlestonsays, she is ''a little bit afraid''. ''Everything has changed. I am in a different country and I'll be 10 years out of date for all the IT systems. There is doubt and there is anxiety.'' Charleston is happy focusing on her family, she says, and her husband is supportive. But she wouldn't mind a little of her own money. ''I undervalue my input into the financial aspect of the household. I think the house is his because he paid for it,'' she says.

Does she worry about her superannuation and retirement savings? 

''Yes, very much so.''

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says on average, women retire with about half the amount of savings as men. And they live longer. ''It's an issue that a lot of us have fretted over for a long time,'' she says. The best thing they can do to boost retirement savings? Keep working, says Ryan.

But for many mothers it is not that easy - the pressures to stay at home are too great.  Over the course of interviewing multiple women for this article, the strength of the women's urge to work was the most surprising aspect of their stories. While some women opted out of work for a period to mother, and some romanticised the idea of opting out altogether, it never seemed to last long. The older women had come to the conclusion that work was necessary for their sanity as much as their security.

Weeks after we have spoken, Bartholomew emails me with some follow-up thoughts. ''The decision to get a job was really about defining myself as an individual, not as someone's daughter, someone's wife or someone's mother,'' she told me. ''I know it may not seem a reality for younger women, but that is how it was for me. It was a defining moment in my relatively sheltered life. Working gave me wings.'' And it gave her Paris.

-Dailylife.com.au

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