An alternative to the work and parenting dilemma
1500 WORD ARTICLE- published in JUNO
“The future is not inevitable. We can influence it, if we know what we want it to be…We can and should be in charge of our own destinies in a time of change.”
Charles Handy, 1989
The road to parenthood is often littered with tough decisions, compromises and abandoned dreams. One common stumbling block is the eternal tug of war between paid work and parenting. It is a clash of well-made intentions and hard realities, with few alternatives offered by our working culture. Evolving a life where we can balance our children’s needs for breastfeeding, love and plenty of hands-on parenting, with our own adult needs for recognition and engagement with the outside world, whilst meeting our financial needs, is a quandary that many families can face.
As a society, we are improving in our provision of parental leave; maternity allowance and child care options. But we are still putting the economic role of parents in the workforce before the very real needs of children for parental carers. There is a great pressure in our culture right now, both socially and financially, for both parents to hold full time paid careers outside the home. Something has to give and it is usually our energy and sanity as we get busier and more money rich but time poor. As house prices and child care costs rise, and our material expectations increase, it can feel as though there are fewer choices open to us.
This article is about creating alternatives to the either/or boundary so commonly laid down in our culture between the career women and stay-at-home mums. Making your own way requires some redefinitions: of our roles and titles, of financial needs and wants, of concepts of work, of success and achievement, of possible jobs and of how daily life can look. It requires a greater degree of self reliance, adaptability and the courage to live out your values and take risks. There is no blueprint, no how-to manual; we each must find our own way that works best for our families and us. This is challenge enough for two parent families and twice as much so for lone parents who have already had to learn to be creative and flexible in their roles. My hope is to inspire you towards a way of living which complements, not compromises, you and your family’s ever-changing needs, allowing you and your loved ones flexibility, togetherness, autonomy and creativity in your lives.
Before having a child, I used to know clearly which side of the fence I would be: the divide clearly laid down in our culture between the career women and stay-at-home mums. My own mother was a stay-at-home mum: she had a hundred interests but her role did not include paid work. And I thought that I would be the same. I was outraged when asked, whilst I was still pregnant, when I would restart work. I was committed to being a stay-at-home mum, with all that it entailed. This was my baby and I didn’t want to pay someone else to bring it up for me so I could have a career.
And yet, when the time came, I felt very clearly that I wanted to be able to contribute something financially to our family in addition to being my son’s main caretaker. I had no interest in being a career woman, but I also did not want to be confined to the domestic sphere. I had a strong desire to continue to contribute to society in a broader sense and continue finding avenues for expressing my creativity as I always had done. My devotion to caring for my son was absolute, and yet I was not prepared to put being me on hold for ten years or more, neither was I willing to try “having it all” as has been so popularised recently. And so we have evolved a new way of living and working, making and finding our own work from lots of part time jobs and self-employment, whilst parenting in partnership. Practically speaking this has meant me taking the majority of the child-care and my husband the majority of the earning for most of the first year, and into the second year the pendulum has started to swing the other way. However, at times when I have had a glut of work he has the flexibility to shift into stay-at-home father role. Generally I work outside the home one-and-a-half days a week and he cares for our son just as I do when he works. We both also take on work that we can do from home in the evenings. Many people envy us, and say that we’re lucky to spend so much time at home with our son and not “go to work” at full time jobs like they “have to”. But this is all about choices, we have chosen not to have careers in organisations which organise our lives for us, we have chosen not to have a big mortgage which stretches us to breaking point. We have chosen to put one of us being home with our son first, and with those priorities in place, our need to earn our living falls in around that. We have chosen to think creatively about our working lives. As I see it you can hand over your time or money for security or live more self sufficiently, taking responsibility for this yourself.
Charles Handy, an influential and visionary business writer (author of The Age of Unreason and The Empty Raincoat amongst other books), talks of new ways of working, which will become more commonplace as our economy moves away from providing nine to five jobs for organisations. He talks of your portfolio of work, a far broader definition of work than we currently hold. There are five categories; the paid work consists of wage work (money paid for time given) and fee work (money paid for results delivered, e.g. professional freelance or artistic work). There are three “free work” categories, which are just as important but undervalued in our society and therefore omitted from peoples’ current portfolios: Homework encompassing caring, family responsibilities and domestic work, gift or voluntary work and study/ hobby work:
“If, rather than think of life as work and leisure, we think of it as a portfolio of activities – some of which we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause – that way, we do not have to look for the occupation that miraculously combines job satisfaction, financial reward and pleasant friends all in one package. As with any portfolio we get different returns from different parts and if one fails the whole is not ruined.”
In this model our lives and our work are not seen as two distinct and separate things but rather intertwined and each allotted equal significance in maintaining our lives as individuals and society. Rather than having your ‘job’ to which you go to for eight hours a day, your portfolio of work may consist of both paid and unpaid work, maybe in many different roles or capacities over the week or year and certainly over a lifetime. Work can be a far broader, more diverse and fulfilling prospect than we might imagine!
We have found that this approach has worked well for us. We are certainly not rich in financial terms, but neither are we poor in any sense. We have a far wider range of experiences, locations, activities, co-workers and roles on a weekly basis than if we were going to work every day at the same job or only staying home doing childcare. We are in charge of our time to a far greater degree, and so more flexible. We feel in control of our own lives: they are full and satisfying. For paid work we mark exam papers, edit and proof read, teach yoga, creative writing and drama, do hours in a shop and office when needed, sell bio-mass boilers, tutor secondary school kids and make Christmas wreaths for sale. Our other time is spent parenting, gardening, volunteering at La Leche League and on a local arts festival committee and on hobbies and learning. There is never a dull moment! We are rich in time some days and over-worked on others. There is always seasonal work, always times when someone or other needs an extra hand. Living and working this way doesn’t give you the company car, the fast track promotion or the pension policy- but it gives you priceless things such as time – to care for your child yourself, to breastfeed in an extended manner, to build or renovate you own house, to integrate yourself far more into your community and the seasons, and crucially, to develop a sense of trust and surrender to the world. Working in this way makes you more realistic about your abilities and skills and far broader in categorising yourself. It also means you have to learn to name your price and to label your worth, which is often a real challenge. Rather than the never-ending fear of ‘what if’, you face it day after day and learn to live with constantly being open to opportunities and trusting that where one door closes another opens.
My guiding mantra and starting point on this journey is Theodore Roosevelt’s wise words: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” My yardstick for success is based on the words attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”
Take a big sheet of paper and brainstorm what the good life looks like for you. Try to steer clear of infinite money and desert islands! Maybe it is being able to pick up your kids from school, being self-employed, working with horses, cooking professionally, growing your own organic vegetables, being less reliant on the car, using your creativity to earn money.
Redefine the concept of a job
Keep your old job but go part time, job share, flexi time or temp. Take advantage of technology to make the place of your work more adaptable and e-commute. Revive cottage industry and work from home. Choose your business and co-workers and work with or for partner or friends. Or go out on your own and be self-employed. Or go with the seasons and temp or do contract work. Or combine lots of bit part job roles.
Create paid work
Really take into account ALL of your skills, not just qualifications when thinking how you might create paid work in your portfolio.
What skills do you enjoy using most? What activities use these? (See Bolles, What Color is Your Parachute?) What work is there a need for in your community or region? Can you provide this? What are you good at? What do you do already that you could turn into a profession? What was your dream job before you started to compromise? What paid work could you do from home which complements or is an extension of stay-home parenting? What hobbies or interests could you turn into earning potential by teaching to others or selling the product of your hobby?
Reassess your markers of success
Are they monetary, to do with career prestige, or are they more in line with sustainable happiness? Money cannot replace time with your partner, time in nature, your babies’ smiles and seeing first steps. What really makes you rich? What has value for it? List all the things other than money that work provides you: self-esteem, using your creativity, spending time with like minded people, challenge… make sure that between your various types of work you meet all of these needs.
Off-load unnecessary expenses
Downsize, barter skills or products with friends and neighbours, reuse, recycle, share, start a LETS economy in your community or an unofficial skills swap. By doing this we swap babysitting time, baby stuff, clothes, handy-manning, professional services, garden produce and preserves between our support network. We share lifts, grocery shopping, club memberships and various media amongst our friends. Our society is pitched towards private ownership, but it has large financial costs and excess material clutter. Maybe you don’t need to own but can share, borrow or rent your house, holiday house, book, laptop…
The Empty Raincoat: Making Sense of the Future by Charles Handy, Random House Business Books, £8.99
The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, Random House Business Books, £8.99
What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Guide for Job-Hunters and Career Changers by Richard Bolles, Ten Speed Press, £12.99