The excitement of your children finally starting school is quickly overshadowed by the realisation that the long longed for days of uninterrupted possibility are in reality very very short and leave little or no time for anything other than a rushed coffee (thankfully a skill you will have mastered years ago). And while the prospect of returning to the workforce may seem more exciting than winning a Luxury European holiday, the reality is that the needs of children and the demands of work are totally at odds with each other. The prospect of the school holidays can be filled with dread, extreme organisation and an unhealthy load of deception and guilt.
In order to combat the work/children dichotomy, many mothers search for flexible work conditions – in many many cases, they end up inventing their own job or business, or they freelance their pre-children skills. And while this may seem like an ideal solution, they are left juggling children, holidays, client expectation, and cash-flow.
The Family Beast spoke to two mothers about the inherent problems of work and school holidays.
Melinda Ham is a freelance journalist. She has two children in their mid-teens, so she has quite a few school holidays worth of experience. As an equal income earner in her family, Melinda has always balanced her responsibilities as a mother and the demands of work from day one. With an established career with regular (and predominantly female) clients, Melinda has been able to schedule her work around the school holidays leaving her free to spend the time with her children. While it may sound like the perfect arrangement, it does come at a cost. She says the 10 or so weeks of the school term are very intense as not only does she need to make deadlines around the routine of the school week, she also has to be ahead on any assignments due over the holidays and for the two weeks after the holidays finish. With the additional financial pressure and family needs, the holiday break is well earned. And needed.
Because her children are her main priority, Melinda’s choice to work this way has meant income potential and career advancement have been compromised but her commitment to parenting has been honoured. With her children now in high school, she has tentatively been able to incorporate some work into the holiday period, although she’s not looking to continue this.
Having the support and understanding from her clients, a very focused attitude to her job and a strong commitment to how she approaches her parenting means that Melinda – unlike many other women – does not feel torn or compromised.
Harriet Stacey runs her own workplace investigation business, Wise Workplace. She has three young children, two at primary school and one still at home. She started her business prior to having children and with both her children and her business growing at the same time, the juggle has been challenging to say the least. Harriet is also responsible for roughly half of the household income. Mostly working from home for much of the toddler years, Harriet is adept at holding phone meetings in wardrobes and running her business while she runs after (or away from) an errant toddler. When working from home, she masks the fact that there are children in the house.
I don’t know what proportion of the workforce have children at home but it’s got to be a lot. So everybody is dealing with the same issues and we’re pretending that we’re not. It’s ridiculous.
While she looks forward to the lack of routine and no packed lunches every morning, Harriet still finds the holidays frustrating. The nature of her business means that no matter how organised she is, she can still have a job arrive at 5pm on the Friday that school holidays start. She says “the best I can do is manage expectations without telling them I can’t do much over the holidays.” She tries to schedule activities for the children so that she gets 2 days per week over the holidays to keep tabs on the business, but with three different personalities to deal with, this doesn’t always go to plan.
Owning your own business and dictating your own work schedule seems to be the ultimate flexibility but it causes it’s own anxieties. Not everybody has the option to create their own flexible work environment and so the juggle, the cost of holiday care and the associated guilt rises exponentially. it seems that it’s not the willingness for mothers to return to the workforce that is the problem, rather the inherent inflexibility and expectation of what work should (and shouldn’t) be that needs to change in order for a true work/parenting balance to be made.
The Wilderness Years – a parents’ survival guide is out now – available online in paperback and ebook.
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