It’s up to our female leaders to advocate for greater flexibility in the workforce, and to acknowledge the real work of caring for children, which continues way beyond the 18 weeks of paid parental leave.

It’s up to our female leaders to advocate for greater flexibility in the workforce, and to acknowledge the real work of caring for children, which continues way beyond the 18 weeks of paid parental leave.

The landscape of motherhood has changed significantly since the 1970s. Feminism and contraceptives have given us greater choice over when and how many children we will have (if at all), and yet the dilemma of what to do with those children once they are here is still firmly rooted in dated ideals of what constitutes good caring.

One of the key election issues this year will be the current national childcare crisis. A staggering 180 staff leave the sector each week due to low wages, while at the other end, parents have faced fee increases of up to 17% since August 2010. While the Gillard government has introduced initiatives to raise the quality of care delivered, they have not yet determined how (or if) they will pay for the improved care. Child carers are paid as little as $18.58 per hour. The guy who stacks the baked bean cans at your local supermarket earns more than the person caring for your child.

If Australia is to increase the female work participation rate, the government needs to remove the boundaries that stop women from going back to work. While sorting out the childcare industry is vital, so too is the need to change our society’s expectations of who will deliver this care, in particular this idea that a woman is ‘supposed to be the carer’. Perhaps in real life it’s not stated in such obvious terms, it’s more of an assumption that has largely escaped public query. Stay-at-home-mothering is convenient for everyone really, except where the woman has a life or ambitions outside of the home. If she does, her situation is articulated as an ugly choice between her own needs vs. her children’s. If we could stretch our minds a little wider, perhaps we could imagine a world where women can have a life outside of the home, the kids can be attended to by a loving carer (relative or professional) and through everyone’s needs being met, we all feel valued.

It’s illegal in most Australian states to leave a child aged under 12 alone, even in the car while you pop into the supermarket to grab some milk. Putting this into perspective, someone is going to be responsible for that child for 12 years – if not caring for them directly, then arranging their care, monitoring their care, and finding a way to pay for it all. This someone is virtually by default, the mum. Even once children reach school age, every 10 weeks school holiday care has to be arranged, not to mention the 6 to 8 weeks children spend on summer holidays. It’s a wonder many women return to work at all because the gulf between working hours and school hours is so wide.

In many families the stay-at-home-mum arrangement is a by-product of the breastfeeding relationship. Maternal bonds might have greater opportunity to develop in the first year, but this should neither tie women to the role of primary carer forever more, nor should it absolve men of caring duties.

Jessica Valenti raises the idea that men are still largely regarded as ‘babysitters’, who step in and step out in order to ‘help out’ around the house, a view legitimised by the 2010 US Census which noted that any parenting performed by a father was ‘care’, whereas the mother’s parenting contribution (the ‘designated parent’) was not counted at all.

This gendered division of care is a disservice to men, who are capable of caring for children just as adequately as women. It also preserves this idea that kids need their mothers on tap; beyond the period of early infancy and breastfeeding, I would argue anyone with loving regard for that child could attend to their needs.

In her book Why Have Kids? Valenti notes that even progressive young men go into partnerships with the expectation that when they have children, their partner will shoulder the weight of the caring duties. Woman are literally left holding the baby, right up until that baby is 12 years old.

A girlfriend recently asked her husband what he thought they should do about their youngest child’s care (at age 2, the child is 2 years away from preschool). His answer was “Whatever you think is best”. Childcare is a topic on which men are barely expected to have an opinion; this mindset is as antiquated as the idea that a woman would defer all financial decisions to her husband.

This notion of what we’re ‘supposed to do’ keeps women at home long after the baby has been weaned. ‘Supposed to’ keeps us home when we want to return to work, and it muddies our future prospects because we risk losing our currency in the employment market, either by taking us out of the workforce altogether or putting our career ‘on the bench’ as a part-time worker.

Scandinavian countries lead the way in women’s workplace participation (in Denmark, 86% of mothers return to work, and in Sweden, more than 70%), I daresay because their care systems are built for this new parenting landscape where both sexes are acknowledged as having caring responsibilities and the boundaries of work, home and care are marked out with this in mind.

It’s up to our female leaders to advocate for greater flexibility in the workforce, and to acknowledge the real work of caring for children, which continues way beyond the 18 weeks of paid parental leave. We’re very grateful for the leave, but there is so much more that needs addressing.

If we all begin to publicly acknowledge the cost of caring to families, perhaps it will do more to raise the value of the caring previously and currently provided by (mostly) woman and (some) men across the country. The stay-at-home mum is virtually extinct in Sweden because there are no barriers preventing women from returning to work. Let’s hope that if Australia ever reaches their levels of female workplace participation, the stay-at-home mum’s memory is not erased for all those woman hours were not contributed in vain.