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paid versus unpaid work: welcome to the world of a working mum


Sitting at my desk after a week off work. Sleepless nights from sick children feel never ending. The big black circles that surround my eyes cannot be covered with make up. The phone rings. The day care mum’s name flashes across the screen. My stomach drops. ‘What now?’ is the question that crosses my mind. ‘Hi, Johnny is sick with a fever. Can you come and get him?’ ‘Yes’ is the only response there is.

I turn to tell my boss and she responds with an understanding nod of the head. The flash of pity is evident in her eyes. I pack up my things and head out the door again.

Welcome to the world of a working mum with small children.

I’m not the only one. The working mum is on the rise. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has reported that mothers in paid work with dependent children have increased from 43 percent in 1981 to 63 percent in 2009.

I am one of the lucky ones to have an understanding employer with flexible work arrangements. I have access to paid leave. I have access to unpaid leave too when all the paid leave runs out! I can work part-time or full-time. The choice is mine.

This choice when returning to the workforce after children is being facilitated by the rise of adaptable working environments. There has been an increase in part-time work with more opportunities being available in flexible working arrangements. Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that in 2011, 86 percent of mothers returning to work after the birth of their child were involved in at least one flexible working arrangement. The most common was part-time work (76 percent), using flexible working hours (40 percent) and working from home (30 percent).

My motivation as a working mum is my own mum. Working full-time from when I was in school, she inspires me to take advantage of any flexible working conditions available. Her absences at my school assemblies and dance concerts have made their mark. While recounting the story of the past weeks to her, I am startled by her question, ‘Do you ever work?’ On reflection, I am sure the well-meaning question should actually have been ‘Are you ever at work?’ Either way, this was not the question to ask a sleep deprived mum. It got me thinking about the different perception of paid work versus unpaid work.

After all, the constant nature of children including multiple changes of clothes, meal preparation, cleaning, nappy changes and the list goes on, does not feel like I am never working. I may not be physically in an office where I am paid to work, but the work component never ends. So really my answer should have been ‘Yes. I am always at work’.

In the same week on my day off from my paid work, I am asked, ‘What are you up to today? Putting your feet up?’ I did want to respond, ‘Yes of course. I’m at home so my feet will be up. I’ll be eating chocolate, reading magazines and watching television. My multitasking skills are amazing. Of course, also letting the children roam free so they do not disturb my relaxation.’ The reality is not so exciting.

It started to make me realise that there is still a misconception that because I am not in the office undertaking paid work, I am at home doing nothing. Just relaxing. Swanning around as a lady of leisure. After all, unpaid work means I’m not working, right?

So I end up asking myself, is it in fact a misconception that women don’t work while at home? Is it the belief that only paid work can occur in an office? Or is it just that the people asking me the questions have forgotten the challenges of small children?

The main lesson from all of this was a different view though. Be really careful what you ask a sleep deprived mum. She may take your comment the wrong way and be inclined to snap back. Either that or she may just start crying. You were warned!


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