A Pregnant Pause for Waiters and Watchers

The budget will encourage single working women to have children – but more needs to be done

Has the budget left the single and childless out in the cold? Speaking on our ABC this morning, Peter Costello said, “no.” According to the treasurer, the fact that most childless singles will one day form families means they will – and know they will – eventually be the beneficiaries of handouts to new mothers and couples with kids.

Costello is right, and his claim points to an important and often ignored cause of Australia’s plummeting fertility rate. According to my research, one of the reasons some women hesitate about having children is that they notice the tough time contemporary mothers are having balancing work and family, and don’t want to share their pain. To continue to behave as though government policy and workplace practices only affect today’s parents, instead of the potential parents of tomorrow, is both naive and dangerous.

Here’s how it works. A single women works alongside a number of women with children, some single mums, others married with partners. Or she’s got sisters, cousins or friends who have kids. During lunchbreaks, on the phone, at family events, over dinner, these mothers tell their tales of trying – and in modern-day Australia – failing to achieve their desire to be good parents in happy marriages and, at the same time, remain valued employees. Childless women listen to complaints mothers make about the costs of childcare, and their worries about its impact on their kids. They hear about the arguments mothers have with their blokes over who does the drop-offs, washes the clothes, feeds the dog and takes the day off when the child is sick. They guiltily observe, as childless commentator Sian Prior admitted, mothers being “punished for not staying back late in the office” and are aware that their own career advancement comes at the expense of these “exhausted but determined” women. Childless women hear and watch all this and they think: I want to mother, but not like this. And they delay a little longer.

Childless men are also paying attention to what’s going on around them. Despite the hype, growing numbers of them are committed, when they finally do become fathers, to being “accessible” and intimately involved in their child’s life. One survey found that many want to reduce their hours when their kids are young. But in a country where growing numbers of men are insecurely employed, maternity leave – little less paternity leave – remains pie-in-the-sky, and where workers who do less than 40 (and in some industries 60) hour weeks miss out on promotion and pay rises, they know these ambitions have little chance of being fulfilled. So they too delay.

How big a helping hand does the budget lend parents and, consequently, those considering becoming them? It’s a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, still far less than what is needed to considerably improve the capacity of parents to simultaneously fulfil their ambitions to be both good parents and successful workers. Unfortunately, this means it is insufficient to convince the deliberating and planning group of potential parents – those I call the Waiters and Watchers – to say “yes” to having kids.

What else will be necessary? Men are more likely to take paternity leave if it is offered beyond the first year of a child’s life, and a recent study from Brown University contends that in families where the father shoulders half the burden of the “second shift,” mothers say “yes” to more kids. This suggests that if parents were given enough money to fund one year of leave at nearly-full pay which they could use until the child went to school – the current situation in Norway – they would be able to divide the childcare burden between them, while each retained a firm foothold in the workplace. This sort of package would give parents the option of totally avoiding paid care in the first few years of the child’s life if this was their preference, or alternatively combining parental and paid childcare across a larger number of years. Of course, for such a plan to work, high quality childcare needs to be the norm and must become affordable which, at around $50 per day per child, it not now the case.

This should, as long as it was coupled with changed social attitudes about what “good” mothers and fathers do, new workplace attitudes about the “seriousness” of part-time workers, and government guarantees to parents that their job, or one at the same level and wages, will be waiting for them when they return, would decrease the economic and social costs currently born by those raising the next generation.

And, as a result, should lead many of those currently considering parenthood to finally take the plunge.

Publication history

A Pregnant Pause for Watchers and Waiters   The Sydney Morning Herald