Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Labor proposes two year break from work to care for your child

ABC News Online reports that the "The Federal Opposition is considering a new policy to allow parents to ask for two years of leave after the birth of a child."

Currently, most workers can
request up to 12 months of unpaid leave – whether their employers grant them that much time is another thing, but most do get the full 12 months – on top of the 12 or so weeks of paid maternity leave that they may be eligible for.

My partner is currently on 12 months unpaid leave from her job, as she stays at home to be the primary care giver to our second child, who turned 8 months at the start of this month. I know that given the option, she would take two years. As it is now, she has to consider resigning from her job if she believes that our baby is too young to be placed in child care five days a week – or if she feels that she's not ready to leave him to return to work.

The ABC also reports that "Labor is also considering allowing parents to ask for part-time employment when they return to work." Personally, think that is a good idea too. Labor's policy coordinator Lindsay Tanner insists that the policy is still in its early stages, saying:
"This, along with everything else that's in the raw draft of our platform proposal, is yet to go through a variety of consultation processes, including with the party leadership and senior shadow ministers".

"So we don't know what the outcome of this will be, but I think this proposition will drive the debate forward."

What this probably indicates is that some in the ALP that think this is a very good idea, while others are afraid they will be painted as anti-business because of this. Positioning this as a policy 'idea' or plan in development allows them to backpeddle later if the flack gets too much.

As it is, the conservative Howard government is
already claiming the proposal will 'cripple' small businesss! Not unexpected from a government that prefers mothers just stay out of the workplace, and stay home to look after the kids – thus helping it to wash its hands of the crisis in child care availability and affordability! (In typical scaremongering, the government is also trying to link this policy with the threat of increasing unemployment and rising interest rates! sheesh!)

Alternatively, Labor could push it harder if the policy resonates with their core constituency: working families who are concerned with the 'work-balance' and how their working lives may hurt their family lives. Perhaps increase its popularity with working women/mothers who've abandoned the ALP for the Greens.

I think the key to making this policy gain traction with the community is to not just focus on how this will alleviate the child care crisis, or resolve the quandaries faced by parents who feel they aren't ready to return to work or that
their babies aren't ready for them to do so, but to focus on how this will allow all people to better balance their working lives with their parental responsibilities – and importantly to ensure this issue or policy isn't seen as just a women's issue but is acknowledged as one concerning men too.

I know there are many men – including friends of mine whom I've spoken with at length about this – who enjoy the time they take off from work to help raise their children – to the extent of becoming the primary care giver for their young child while their partner returns to work. Some take a year off, others decide to make it a permanent change, others return to work part time so they can continue actively raising their kids – each often feels it the best thing (though still the hardest or most challenging) they've done with their lives.

Let's have these men's stories come out in this debate, and let's make this a conversation about how each of us (whether male or female parents) can take the opportunity to raise our children more directly and continuously by taking time off from work to be with them – or at least know the option was there if we wanted to do it. And let's push it further: we should ask to be paid to do it!

[Image: famiglia, by

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At January 17, 2007 7:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bronwyn Bishop tried something like this from within the conservative government over summer, but Howard pretty much told her to get back into the kitchen.

It is worth remebering that several North European nations already have two years paid maternity leave. These are nations who have used times of economic prosperity (like Australia enjoys now) to make important advances in their national culture. Australia, on the other hand, gets new anti-family IR laws!

At January 18, 2007 11:51 am, Blogger unique_stephen said...

I am all for it.

At January 19, 2007 10:22 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Many a time I've wished I were Dutch or Scandinavian – so that I could enjoy a year (or more) off on paid leave to help look after each of our babies when they were born. As it is, I'm back at work to support the family as my partner only got about 14 weeks paid maternity leave, and is on unpaid leave now.

unintegrated, the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Prue Goward had also been pushing Howard to support paid maternity leave (at least 12 months, I think) for a long time – but we knew she was pushing s*#@t uphill.

It will be interesting to see if her supporters in the Liberal Party will fall in line with their conservative colleagues and also condemn this Labor plan, or support it. Or just remain quiet.

By the way, unintegrated, welcome to the blogosphere!

At January 19, 2007 12:06 pm, Blogger Armagnac Esq. said...

I'm more for the part-time option than the 2 years- not that I'm against the 2 years in principle but I do see it, in modern workplaces, starting to become a bit untenable. Not the least because of the skill loss... modern workplaces can change substantially over a 2 year period.

It would be better if, rather than giving the right to ask for 2 years, they embedded the right to a year for everybody and the right to come back part time for at least another year.

Btw thanks for the comment at Armagnac'd, good to meet a fellow melbourne comrade & dad...

At January 19, 2007 1:06 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

I've just re-read Cristy's (of Two Peas, No Pod) reflections on her pregnancy and motherhood, which has been republished at Online Opinion as part of its 'Best Blogs of 2006' feature. Something she said there has got me thinking, of course:

"Because breeding is defined as a natural act (which it is, but bare with me here), women are expected to blossom in pregnancy, or to at least be stoic when they don’t. Their sacrifices - physical, emotional, career - are also continually undervalued. Men who take time off work to care for their young children are glorified as heroes, while women are placed in a no-win situation where we will be criticised by some for returning too early and by others for neglecting our careers for too long."

Cristy has a point – many men are lionised for taking time out to raise their kids, or for being active fathers. For many women, taking parental time from their jobs can mean career death.

I wonder, is this what we're doing here in this conversation? But they are lionised precisely because these men are still rare. Our conversation about men taking parenting leave should start from it being absolutely natural or normal for men to
1) wish to do so
2) choose to do so
3) whinge about it and celebrate it, as men are want to do all things

… and push the idea that parental leave should be normal and open to anyone to take up if they wish.

At January 19, 2007 1:24 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

I think it's odd that I said 'lionise' in my previous comment, especially as Jeffrey Masson, in his book on animal fathers (The Emperor's Embrace) points out that lions make crappy fathers!

Hi armagnac, thanks for your comment. I take your point about how skills changes in the workplaces could make taking two years off difficult for some industries, but I think that's one of the very reasons why we should allow people the right to take more time off. If someone is forced to resign from their job after one year maternity leave because they're not ready to leave their baby in child care, then imagine how impossible it becomes for them to re-enter the workforce when they've decided it's time (or when they're forced to financially). – their skills are considered out of date, or their work experience too old.

I have witnessed the struggles of men trying to re-enter the workforce after time out to raise their kids, and it is long, hard and very demoralising. Some have been forced to make career changes and retrain – which could explain why you'll find men in their late-30s to early 40s re-training as teachers!

Holding the job open to them for two years provides that foot in the door (the security to come back to a job, rather than start hunting for one) and update their skills in the workplace – something the employer can, and should, help them to do!

And we're not even covering here the amazing skills one learns raising children and organising a family home that add to one's skill set and contribution to the workplace.

At January 22, 2007 3:29 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its Not Just Time

After a trip to the doctor this week (for bronchitis) I find that this debate has a less political but perhaps a more disturbing angle.

The doctor prescribed me my poison (some antibiotics for which I am grateful) without any interest in how I spend my time or how I may have gotten myself into that state. But while I was there I did learn that:
1. the Australian Alcohol Guidelines (on the back of my script) indicate that its “ok” for Australian men to consume 32 (yes thirty two) standard drinks each week; and
2. from the surprise on the faces of the doctor and later the pharmacist (are you sure????) it must be unusual not to be taking something to keep your heart/nerves/brain in check.

So this society that we have created for ourselves seems to have accepted that “if you’re a dad working 50 hours a week and knocking back your antidepressants with just one bottle of brandy per week, then your doing just fine”.

I’m no wowser, and I do accept that many will have a genuine need for medication , but accepting the above message as the norm is to me quite frightening.

So how much time we spend at work is just the start - it seems to me that we need a less toxic work culture.

At January 22, 2007 3:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A quick recalculation - "no more than 4 standard drinks a day on average" would of course get you to 28 standard drinks, not 32 (my head is still foggy).

At January 22, 2007 5:13 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Unintegrated, have you read Steve Biddulph on men and fathering? He argues that to be good fathers, men must limit their working time to 40 hours a week, max. Any more than that, he argues, and men aren't being available enough to their children and families.

And I don't believe he means just the hours and minutes, but what long working hours and the related work stress can do to grind us down physically, emotionally and intellectually, and reduce our capacity to live fully, and take active part in our families.

You're right that drugging (TV, the internet, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, shopping, etc) ourselves – to get through the grind and toil – does nothing for our state of mind for ourselves or our families. You're right too about the toxic work culture.

At January 22, 2007 9:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just to be clear, when I said that I was scared of a society that accepts “if you’re a dad working 50 hours a week and knocking back your antidepressants with just one bottle of brandy per week, then your doing just fine”, I meant that I was scared of the whole toxic package.

At January 28, 2007 10:51 am, Blogger Helen said...

It would be better if, rather than giving the right to ask for 2 years, they embedded the right to a year for everybody and the right to come back part time for at least another year.

I agree, being a pragmatist I feel 2 years paid would never get up (being pessimistic today). but it's the loss of career and going backwards that's the problem for me. For instance, from being a supervisor in a white collar job, I had to go back to doing telemarketing (for a Dodgey Bros which of course self destructed after I'd, luckily, gone).

It's one thing to be impoverished by taking time to look after kids, but to be actually punished by demotion...

Employers looked at me as if I was roadkill with that gap. I might as well have been in jail.


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