Is maternity leave a ‘workplace entitlement’? Joe Hockey, the coalition’s Treasurer-in-waiting, has argued persuasively that it is. A woman earning $100,000 a year gets more holiday pay than a woman earning half that sum. She gets more sick pay too. Using this logic, it seems only fair that a well-paid woman should also be paid proportionally more for staying at home with a baby.
The problem with this argument is that having a baby is quite different to going on holiday or getting sick.
Take a holiday. Say you plan a break to Lorne, Byron Bay, Bali or somewhere further away. You request leave from work, book the trip and take your break. It’s lovely and relaxing. Then you return to work. The tan fades along with the relaxed attitude. The holiday is over.
Getting sick is similar. You start to cough, then your throat hurts, then you notice you are very hot and your muscles are aching. You go home early, sick. Perhaps you spend a few days in bed. After that, you are better. You return to work. The sickness is over.
But when a woman returns to her ‘workplace’ after ‘maternity leave’, her ‘maternity’ is not over and it never will be. The woman is a mother now and unlike being sick or going on holiday, motherhood is not a wee spell away from normal life (either pleasant or unpleasant). It is a totally new state of being, one that inverts the rules of the paid ‘workplace’.
The most obvious inversion is to do with expertise. In the paid workplace, we usually begin as juniors. A junior staff member might have bright ideas but few practical skills. A junior might be nervous, inept, overwhelmed, ignorant, or reckless.
Aside from babysitting and fruit-picking, my first real paid job was in a diary (the New Zealand equivalent of a milkbar). I was useless. The snow freeze ice-cream machine hummed in the corner, waiting to get me. I dreaded an ice-cream order. I would position the cone, flick the handle and the icy white goo would burst out in a malevolent torrent. Behind my back, children sniggered. ‘That’s stink! We’re not paying for that! That’s girl’s an egg, eh?’
It took two shifts for me to master the machine and then I was able to effortlessly make multiple snow freezes with an even twist of ice cream and sprinkles too. The same thing happened with the ham slicer. As I had an interest in keeping my left hand attached to my body, I quickly mastered that too.
The same story applies to every other kind of paid work I’ve taken on. The rule is that experience leads to improvement. I have not mastered every job but I have always, at the very least, become competent at the required tasks.
As a newspaper reporter: I progressed from being an unskilled novice who loved to over-write to an expert news reporter and feature writer. As a barmaid, I went from being a ditherer who spilt drinks and stuffed up change to a high-speed dispenser of Newcastle Brown Ale, snakebites and Cowboy Cocksuckers. As a university lecturer, I began as a terrified statue reading fast from a typed script and became someone who was confident enough to let the students interject and take over.
Motherhood does not follow these rules. Motherhood is the anti-workplace. In September 2001, I was overdue with my first child. I was an utter, total, complete and profound junior in the workplace of motherhood but I managed to give birth to my first baby and go through those first cataclysmic weeks of learning to breastfeed her and hold her and calm her and carry her and wash her and all of those other myriad new skills a mother must acquire.
In the next four years I got pregnant three more times. One pregnancy ended in miscarriage but the other two stuck. I became expert with babies, largely by accepting that the little buggers had minds of their own, but I couldn’t keep on having babies could I?
All my expertise was for nothing because my babies grew and suddenly I had toddlers, kindergarten kids and school children. Like every mother, I had to learn many new skills. I was a junior again, navigating the politics of the school gate, the curriculum, the play-date, the playground. I’m across all of that now but already this expertise is inadequate because my oldest is too big for most playgrounds. She is nearly a teenager and once again I am a novice.
Motherhood keeps on demanding more from me, skewering ideas about expertise, progress and ‘entitlement’ that I once held so dear. To quote one of my children’s favourite comments: ‘It’s not fair!’
More to come…