How to make home life more even

Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.

Jackie* is married with a boy and a girl, aged 5 and 6. She works full time in finance, and shared vulnerably about the frustrations of the uneven division of labour at home, and who gets what time off.

Quote: “That’s why we’re such great employees. We will move heaven and earth to get stuff delivered by a deadline.”

Making the transition

For Jackie, the impact of being a working mother starts when you get married or are thinking of building a family.

“At that point, you’re a lot more conscious of maternity benefits where you work, and it’s probably not the best time to be changing jobs or careers. Your mindset changes to go for safety.”

But she also shares how much she likes work, and although she was focused on security, she remained ambitious.

“I feel fulfilled and appreciated in my job. I get a sense of achievement. I also enjoy the social side of work. I think it’s important to have something that’s YOU – you’re working hard, hitting goals, It’s something you’re in control of.”

Working mothers remain ambitious and committed, despite what the motherhood penalty leads people to think.

“That’s why we’re such great employees. We will move heaven and earth to get stuff delivered by a deadline.”

Work boundaries and having a life

Jackie initially returned to work three days a week, but with incredibly strong performance her boss suggested she work full time and manage her hours how she liked. However, once she was being paid full time, Jackie felt increased guilt and pressure to perform. She says she’s “reasonably firm” in protecting her Fridays off with her son before he starts school next year but work encroaches on her evenings.

“Before, I would have [them] to myself after work. Now I work, I come home and am 100% present with the kids, and then I log back on once they go to bed. It’s great because our kids get more of us, but we get less for ourselves.”

Because she performs, Jackie finds that more non-promotable tasks get sent her way. In fact, women generally volunteer more, get asked more, and are more likely to say yes to those tasks that keep you busy but don’t necessarily advance your career.

“The boys will push back more but [women] will just do it, even on top of our daily job. If you think your boss is giving you something that wouldn’t be expected of other people, think strategically about whether this is going to be better for your career.”

Saying no can be hard, but when her life is so full, Jackie doesn’t want to focus where it won’t count. 

The frustrations of unfair home division

In the home, Jackie’s quick to point out that her husband helps, but shares her frustrations with the unequal distribution of domestic labour.

“He will be happy to help, but I don’t want to have to tell him to do it. We wash clothes every week, the whites and the colours are always separate!”

Jackie points out that men used to be the breadwinners but many of her female friends are the primary earners now. And the domestic load isn’t evenly split.

In The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb documented that as women’s earnings increase to more than two thirds of household income, their domestic contribution also increases. So, women really are doing it all.

“There’s still this expectation that women can have a career and do everything, but it’s really unfair! I manage to do it, but if one extra thing piles on top it’s just crushing.”

Gender-coded leisure time

That unevenness also shows up in how Jackie and her husband take time out for themselves.

“On holidays I was chatting with the girls. The boys go fishing and play golf, and the girls were thinking, ‘what are our hobbies?’ We go to pilates together. We have nothing!”

Jackie’s frustration around who gets time to enjoy their hobbies is also well documented. Men more often take part in activities that require long periods out of the home – fishing, golfing, bike riding (there’s no such thing as a MAWIL*!) whereas women tend to do activities around their children.

But Jackie feels guilty pulling her husband up on it. No one wants to be put into the position of being the fun police.

“I feel guilty when I put my foot down and say, ‘Can you look at this situation and realise it’s not fair?’. I don’t have hobbies. Obviously, golf was invented by a man.”

“It’s a big deal for a woman to have time away [from the family], but it’s not for a guy. Even if I travel for work, every single person is like poor him. If he goes on a golfing trip no one says a thing.”

When and how to balance the load

For Jackie, one of the toughest things about working motherhood is the sheer volume of it all.

“Mental load gets thrown around, domestic duties get thrown around, but if you put it all on paper, it is huge.”

She and her husband made an agreement that he would get the first four years post-children to push in his business, and then things would revert to equal. The theory is great, but in reality, once a family norm is set up with the woman at home caregiving, it is incredibly difficult to redress that in later years. Jackie’s husband’s work was busy, and now years later she still does most of the domestic labour.

“Clawing that [equality] back is really hard, almost impossible. I don’t know how you do it. [Maybe] by keeping the housework a bit more even and forcing them to make decisions to do with the baby even if you’re at home.”

“My husband will say, I just don’t think the same as you. I don’t buy that. You’re a human and you have a brain; it’s actually really not rocket science.”

*a MAMIL is a middle-aged man in lycra, and they can often be found in groups in coffee shops after their rides. But there’s no such thing as middle-aged women in lycra. Women generally don’t feel like they can leave the house for 4 hours for a ride

*Not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the fact that the state of women’s relationships directly affects the state of their lives and careers, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.

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