There’s no Rule Book for Families

“I was upset by what happened. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever felt so humiliated in my life. I understand that the president made a ruling based on the current rules. But as any mother knows, sometimes families don’t play by the rule book … I hope this allows us to have a discussion about how we balance these things and respect the work of working families regardless of whether it’s mothers or fathers …”

These are the words of freshman Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, describing Thursday’s decision by Senate president John Hogg to evict her two-year-old daughter, Kora, from the chamber. The baby was a “stranger in the house” and, by Hogg’s interpretation of ancient standing orders, not allowed to be present during voting.

Hanson-Young was still upset when she made her comments, which may account for their rawness and revelatory nature. I was intrigued by her use of the word humiliation to describe how she felt, and gratified by her recognition of fathers as among the parents wanting a reasonable balance between work and life.

Humiliation is the loss of pride that brings one low or compels one to submit. It can be brought about through bullying, intimidation, physical or mental mistreatment, or by embarrassment if a person is presented as having committed a socially or legally unacceptable act.

Humiliation, and its kissing cousin shame, play significant roles in shaping women’s experience of reproduction and motherhood.

I was reminded of this recently by a friend who supported her 18-year-old daughter through a second trimester abortion. For my friend, both her daughter’s denial of the reality of her pregnancy and the postures adopted by all the young women at the clinic, were portraits in female humiliation and shame.

I wasn’t sure I understood. “Had the doctors said anything to the women? Or the medicos they’d encountered before getting to the clinic?”

“No, Leslie,” my friend replied. “The shame was about being female. They weren’t supposed to be pregnant when they didn’t want to be, and then they were cramped and bleeding and leaking milk.

“They feel out of control and vulnerable and dependent and that’s not how anyone likes to feel, but these are modern girls, and so the whole thing made them feel like failures in the feminist sense, too. They were (she fished around for the right word) humiliated.”

Hanson-Young’s humiliation had a similar texture. At the mercy of motherhood’s vagaries, she was exposed before her peers as not being entirely in control and in charge of her fate. This would have undermined her claim to professionalism, a standard clearly not modelled on anyone with family responsibilities, yet critical for anyone looking for respect and new on the job.

There are two ways such humiliation can be managed. The first is for parents like Hanson-Young to cop it sweet. To see humiliation as just deserts for their failure to, at all times and in all places, get the balance between work and family right and, when it gets hard, to keep their struggles far from public view.

The second is to resist, to insist that the failure isn’t with the hard-working, well-meaning and right-thinking young men and women who seek to combine paid work and active parenting, but with the rules that make this so hard.

And, having done this, to demand clearer and more flexible regulations that account for the needs of parental parliamentarians.

On Monday, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown intends to do just this. Brown will pursue a motion of dissent with regard to Hogg’s ruling, and advance what he calls some “post-horse-and-buggy” standing orders for the Senate.

In Australia today, both the joys and humiliations of raising young children are largely the province of women. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By correcting her initial characterisation of the problem she faced as that of a working mother to that of a working parent, Hanson-Young contributed to the articulation of the work-life balance issue as one for both men and women who are parents now, or wish to be in the future.

Men who share the work of earning and caring for children are the solution to the work-family imbalance problem within Parliament and beyond its hallowed halls. They ensure that the work-family imbalance is seen as a concern for everyone, and not just a humiliation that women must endure and everyone else can ignore.

Publication history

There's no Rule Book for Families  The Age