Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's hard to be a parent to a child who's never there.

Last night was a difficult night to sleep. Steamy, sticky. I was overtired and stressed by a challenging work situation. Miss Three-Going-On-Thirty decided she wanted to sleep with me, then not with me, then with me again, until Beloved lurched under his own personal thundercloud to the couch to sleep.

We all finally, gratefully, slid into something approaching restful sleep when I was suddenly jolted back to uncomfortable consciousness. Slap, slap, slap. Drip, drip, drip. Light was streaming in through the door. I moaned and looked at the clock - 12.30am. What the?

I staggered down the hall way, and bashed on the bathroom door.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"I'm having a shower, mum." I swear, I could hear her eyes roll from the other side of the door.

Greta Garbo, almost eighteen, is her own woman now. She's left school, she's got a job, she's looking forward to university, and she can come and go as she pleases. Completely obligation free, mind you, and any attempt to assert boundaries at this tricky phase (ie, the one where we don't actually have to put up with crap if we don't want to) result in accusations of emotional blackmail and hoisting "the sword of Damocles over my head". I swear she said that. Or maybe I'm trying to make myself feel better that she may be intensely irritating at times but at least she's literate.

What we don't seem to be able to come to an agreement on is what are reasonable boundaries, and how much she should be able to exert her independence at the expense of other people.

"You won't let me have a shower in the morning, so I'm having one now!" she shouted at me, each syllable waking an extra individual. Calculations of how many minutes I would have to spend settling each child, and how many minutes that would leave before I'd have to get up for work flew in a panic through my mind, as the taps poured on.

We don't allow the two big girls to have showers early in the morning. That may sound draconian, but we have seven people living in a house and one bathroom, and two parents needing to get three children ready for school and to get themselves ready for work in the morning, leisurely teenage showers are not a luxury we can afford. For those two, oh woe, the shower is off limits from 10.30pm until 8.30am. There are many, many hours within which to ablute.

I want to explain this to Greta Garbo, but unfortunately she's not here. She's never here, or when she is, I'm not. My only mode of communication is via unanswered text messages (she never takes my calls) or hastily written notes on the back of Miss Three-Going-On-Thirty's artwork from daycare. There is no chance to repair to the rhythms of a relationship of give and take - the nitty gritty necessary to making the household run must be thrashed out in the ten minutes or so our paths cross. The less we see each other, the bigger the barriers become. And it's frustrating.

At the moment, it's also impossible to take her out for a coffee and talk about things like adults. Becuause any attempt to put my case is met with the sarcasm, raised eyebrow and ever-escalating hyperbole as she demonstrates that for her, being adult means never having to sit and listen to something you might find vaguely challenging.

I love her to bits. But something's going to have to give. I look forward to writing a serene and self-congratulatory post about how I managed to completely solve the dilemma in between making school lunches and breakfast on a Wednesday morning whilst simultaneously signing readers, filling in excursion forms and approving homework.

I'm a superwoman, after all. Shower schedules shouldn't be beyond me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Not it all, at all

I was tempted to join a conversation on a message board about women "having it all". Can women "have it all"? After giving some responses, I decided it was worthy of a blog post.

The posing of the question itself is interesting. The idea of women wanting to "have it all" has been a bit of a strawman argument. Few women expect to be able to have "it all". Most women know that if you make decision A, it might have some negative implications about decision B. If you choose to have a baby, you're going to need to take some time off work, for a little bit, or a longer bit, depending. Most women know that if they go back to work, they aren't going to have as much time with their kids, and they are going to have to forego some of their income in childcare costs if they don't have a partner who can be at home to care for the child. The question is loaded - it implies selfishness, a desire to have something more than the average common-sense filled individual might aspire to. It speaks of unattainable acquisitiveness, a greed-is-good mentality.

So what is this "all" that women want? I don't think that women want it "all" if "all" means being able to stay at home with their children and simultaneously work. What human being realistically expects that? By "having it all", when you look at it a little bit deeper, what we are actually saying is, "the opportunity to make a choice to partition one's life between work and raising children in a way that doesn't disproportionately discriminate against me just because I'm the person who birthed them." Why is it asking such a huge thing, why is it asking to "have it all" to expect a reasonable opportunity to raise children and maintain a career? Women are stereotypically lauded for being great multi-taskers - surely we're more than fit for that?

To a certain extent I see men being victimised by the idea that parenting falls rightly to the woman. Beloved has been actively discriminated against in his workplace because he puts a great emphasis on being a parent as well as being a worker. Were he to buy into the stereotype of being a workaholic, he would bypass that, of course and no-one would raise an eyebrow, apart fro his wife and children. I don't get that luxury. I have encountered negative attitudes in the workplace from both sides: both from sides. I have encountered negativity on the instances where I have tried to accommodate the needs of my family, perhaps working from home while a child is sick or leaving early for a school appointment. I have also encountered negative attitudes that I am at work at all - that my children are in daycare, that Beloved and I take turns in caring for the children when they are ill. My virtue as a human being is somehow suspect because I want "it all" - that is, I want only to not have roadblocks put in my way of doing what I do quite well already, working at a job whilst raising children.

These are the roadblocks I want removed:

  • Being overlooked for projects or assignments because it "wouldn't be fair on your family".
  • Being asked in job interviews whether I'd be able to manage balancing my family and work life.
  • The lack of paid parental leave for whichever parent wishes to spend some time with a very young child.
  • Having eyebrows raised at "unrealistic" expectations of "having it all" by people in senior positions who will make decisions about your employment.
  • The assumption that making a workplace friendly for working parents who might need flexibility or space for expressing breastmilk is a huge imposition on that workplace.

  • Much of the developed world has caught up with this, of course. Australia and America remain the two countries in the developed world who have failed to come to grips with paid parental leave. Most Australians at least support the idea, but it isn't likely to happen any time soon. To some extent the market will take care of some of the needs of parents, particularly for highly skilled employees, but this is small comfort for those in jobs where there is little bargaining power and they are more or less easily replaced. Given the preponderance of women in roles that are typically casual - hospitality, retail - the provision of these opportunities will remain slim.

    When all women are asking for is the opportunity to determine how they will run their families while they decide to continue a career (or not), it seems like wanting to have "it all" isn't asking for very much at all, really.