Paid maternity leave: time for a rethink

There are so many things wrong with Tony Abbott’s ‘Women of Calibre’ maternity leave proposition that it’s difficult to know where to start. In one preposterous idea he has managed to offend many groups, starting with women in general, then women (like most of us) in the lower income bracket, then women who have already had children and battled through building careers simultaneously, and then, on top of that, an increasing number of men who wish to take on the duties of primary carer (or even part time carer) following the birth of a child. And that wouldn’t even cover everyone. Abbott is a man obsessed with power, and from this perspective I view the ill-conceived policy he proposes with a degree of despondent acceptance that this is the sort of thing we should expect. Nonetheless, there is something more unsettling at play here, and although it may be contentious to say so, my feelings are this: that paid maternity leave is a toxic and potentially harmful idea and it’s high time we spoke about it in an inclusive, thoughtful and intelligent manner.

I grew up in a family business. As a young child, I spent a huge amount of time in the workplace, rumbling around a massive four-storey warehouse filled with all manner of strange, interesting characters who were always marching purposefully from one part of the building to another. Wildly roaming the vast space with my sister and my cousin, no one seemed to care one way or the other about the three children who were constantly emptying out the chocolate drink powder from the staff kitchen ‘Café-bar’ or locking themselves in the compactus. Both my parents worked there, in my grandfather’s business, and then later on they started their own business – another massive warehouse, filled with tables and machinery and sawdust. I don’t remember a time of home-based existence with Mum and laundry and baking and visits with other mothers, and I know from talking to her about it that such a time never occurred.

Two years after starting my own business (Sleepers Publishing) I became pregnant with my first boy. Running Sleepers part time and working in my parents’ business the rest of the time (both on the same premises), I was in the fortunate position of knowing that when the baby came I would be able to continue working with no problem at all. Two weeks after he was born I was back at work, Griffon wedged between the computer keyboard and me, and a cast of colleagues to take him for a walk around the building when he got a bit grizzly. I was earning a pittance, but the experience served a far greater purpose than ensuring I continued to earn money. When my second boy, Inigo, came along two years later, I was back at work in three days.

I was never going to be a stay-at-home mum. I felt lonely and slightly disingenuous in ‘Mother’s groups’. I bristled at the suggestion that I should be enjoying this extraordinary time of early motherhood, of extended sleeplessness and mind-numbingly painful breastfeeding. I was told by people who genuinely thought they knew me well enough to assume this, that I was ‘a natural’. Then there is the other popular assumption about motherhood that I found difficult to digest: that this was some natural extension of womanhood (whatever that is), and something I should revel in, unaccompanied, and self-contained.

All of these things can be emphatically true for some women and I don’t mean to imply for a second that they are invalid or wrong. But they were not true for me, and I believe that if I didn’t have a working environment to be in in those first twelve months (and beyond) I would not have coped with the immense identity crisis that can occur when motherhood begins. The additional benefit that is unfolding for both myself and my children now, almost eight years after Griffon was born, is that my two sons know that they are not the centre of my universe, and that it is wise and healthy to distinguish between one’s own personal priorities and purpose, and those of the people you care most about.

For me, paid maternity leave is perpetuating an idea that women should be ‘paid off’ to go and have children away from the lives they have invested years in nurturing at work. It sends a message: ‘Go away, do the having-kids thing and get it out of the way, then come back and we’ll take up where we left off.’ That Abbott’s proposition has the undercurrent inference that this is some kind of bribe is even more unsettling. Perhaps most distressing though is the impact this would have on the so-called increase in women coming to positions of leadership and senior management. What employer wouldn’t be nervous by the idea of employing women who hadn’t yet had children, with the risk that they may end up costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Eva Cox’s argument that ‘Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave is Better’ is likewise potentially damaging in its contribution to the debate. She believes that ‘we need to normalise women’s relationship to paid work and money’. I would argue that we need to normalise women’s relationship to work and parenthood. They are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

How much more thoughtful, intelligent, and progressive would it be for Abbott, or anyone else, to suggest that for $150,000 a year, employers could turn the old boardroom on level 5 into a nursery and employ some ‘high calibre’ childcare workers. Stressed-out executives could go and visit the babies whenever they got caught in a passive-aggressive standoff with one another. Children make great pacifiers for self-indulging grown ups.

I sit on the board for the Small Press Network, where five of the members have become parents in the last two years. One of them in particular committed to the regular monthly meeting dates even though it clashes with the night in the week when he has primary care of his son. What does he do? He brings his two-year-old with him. It’s not always ideal for us to have our children with us in these sorts of things, but it does allow us to be present where we want to be, and it is invaluable for the child later on in life.

I am prone to invoking the notion that in bygone eras our children were raised by the tribe, and as adults we grew with the guidance of elders. I’ve never been very good at asking for help, and many parents I know are more than capable of surrounding their children with additional carers, in-laws, neighbours and best-friends. This was something I struggled to do (and many parents do not in fact have this community of support at their disposal). The workplace has the wonderful opportunity to be that tribe, and it is my belief that employers, parents, work colleagues and children can all benefit from it immensely. It is also my belief that cases of post-natal depression would drastically reduce if women who wanted to were invited and encouraged to stay in the workplace, along with their child, instead of being paid to stay at home. Abbott’s suggested new tier of paid maternity leave pushes the child-rearers away from our society even further, and while there is a bigger discussion for us to have on this subject, there is absolutely nothing natural about that.

Zoe Dattner

Zoe Dattner is creative director and co-founder of Sleepers Publishing and the President of the Small Press Network. She also works as a publishing consultant and lectures in digital publishing at NMIT.

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  1. I don’t quite understand how this argument would be relevant for the many women with children (present or on the way) who do not run small businesses, who do not work in jobs that they need to fulfil themselves somehow, and who work because it is necessary to their survival. Work for many people is not a thing done for love of it. This seems narrow in its scope, and yes, there should be better childcare facilities in all workplaces, but in addition to paid parental leave. Why should it be one or the other?

    ‘For me, paid maternity leave is perpetuating an idea that women should be ‘paid off’ to go and have children away from the lives they have invested years in nurturing at work.’ So it doesn’t have the potential to send a message of ‘as long as we are all forced to work to survive, we might still have children, should we choose to, and be able to pay rent and eat’ instead?

    1. Hi e,
      This is absolutely not a case of it being one way or the other, and I hope I didn’t come across as suggesting as much. You’re right, we are all in vastly different working situations, and I would never presume to know how it is for everybody.

      As for your other comment, I’m not sure I entirely understand it. I’m merely challenging businesses and employers to provide an environment for their staff where – god forbid – they didn’t feel forced to do it for survival, that there was something more rewarding going on. I’m well aware this isn’t available in all workplaces. But imagine if there were workplaces where it was? Just because that’s not the paradigm we currently operate in doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

      1. The line that for $150,000 a year, a boardroom could be turned into an in-office childcare facility, suggested to me that the parental leave funding should go there instead, but perhaps I misread that.

        On the second point, there is a larger, more destructive and permeating wage labour relations system (i.e. capitalism) that to me at least makes the question of whether work is rewarding or not a secondary concern to workers’ rights. (sorry i am putting this very crudely)

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