When Mark Latham resigned suddenly from politics, wanting to be left alone with his family, there was many a laugh at his expense. All of a sudden, cartoons appeared with him wearing an apron with toddlers underfoot. He was disparagingly called “Mr Mom”. Commentators appearing to know it all (as they do) said Latham’s decision was transitional - only until he found “something”. Whatever that something was, we knew it couldn’t be being a dad, because - hey that’s not what ex-politicians do, let alone male ex-politicians. Besides, for men, that elusive offer of “something“ is always anything as long as it’s not being at home with the kids. In the world of blokes, that working “something” is always defined by what it can never be.
The thread from these commentators was that a big boofy bloke, let alone a former political leader, couldn’t chuck it in. Or worse still, wouldn’t last at it. Men work and that’s how they arrive at their identity. Simple. But instead we find ourselves with a bloke, sick and just as sick of his miserable workplace, leaving it all behind for his family. Instead of cheering “good on you Mark”, the national pastime becomes Latham spotting. Unbelievable.
Just imagine a leading female politician leaving politics to get well and spend more time with her family? Would she be subjected to gossip and rumour as to her whereabouts? Or would she be left alone or converted as a martyr to the cause of achieving a work-family balance? Whatever the answer, Latham’s own personal decision is a defining moment in the work-family debate.
The reality is men suffer from the “daddy track” as well. Sure, it doesn’t get as much coverage, but the signs are there. Stressed dads, battling a crumbling train system or rushing in city traffic as they try to collect their children by 6pm (why are our cities just so difficult to get around?) Dads turning up to work exhausted after another bender attending to a sick child. Dads faced with a lack of sympathy and more than a little annoyance from their colleagues as they leave the office “early” to collect their kids from after school care. (Ever wondered why school hours haven’t kept pace with modern life?)
Toxic workplaces are just that - toxic workplaces. It’s not a gender thing. Both men and women work in them. And they have both men and women in control making the decisions. It’s impossible to imagine, but in a recent interview a managing partner of a large city law firm took pride in announcing to the world that his employees were always available regardless and were not entitled to weekends. So, in the city even the weekend kids’ sport (or coaching) has been brushed aside in the interests of commerce.
Even more astonishing than the statement from this managing partner, gobsmacking as it was, was the reward and praise he was given. A magazine gave this so-called leader a gong for excellence in customer service. I don’t happen to work at this place but I can honestly say these sorts of workplace relations aren’t just a problem for women, they are just a problem.
Addiction to the office is not a disease that afflicts men only. Women do it too. Men do not have a monopoly on being seen at their desks or hanging about with work colleagues, irrespective of whether they add value (though it is well known that some men “work back” so as to avoid the witching hours between 5pm and 8pm). Men who try to leave early to pick up the kids from childcare (and a lot now do) are just as likely to have colleagues (and quite often women) peer over their computer screens in annoyance. Or men who ring in sick wanting to care for their sick child are met with questions (again, often from women) about why their spouse (or parents) aren’t able to help. No, it’s not a gender thing happening here, it’s a culture thing. And quite often the impediments to changing workplace culture itself are women themselves.
The truth is it’s not just the “mommy track”, it’s the "parental track". There is the constant negotiation of time and commitments with your partner or spouse; the military precision of managing time and care; the knowledge that because you’re on an early train or in the car to collect the kids there is someone back in the office putting you to shame. It’s a rut. Sure, as a bloke you know you can work longer but you also know the price: less time with your family and unfairly prejudicing your partner’s own career. Work more and be accused of ignoring your family. Work less, in the interests of your family and your partner’s job, and you risk your career suffering. It’s relentless. Let alone waiting for that sensitive, caring boss who says it’s OK to take time off for your kids because he or she understands your partner needs to work too. No, we’ll be waiting a long time for that.
So instead of bagging the likes of Mark Latham, let’s congratulate him for leaving a toxic workplace and getting back to basics with his family. There is something to be said for men like Latham, who can afford to chuck it in and do so. When he was in politics, Latham spoke relentlessly of work and family. Then he had a chance to do something and did. Good one.
As for the rest of us, let’s start by acknowledging there is a daddy track too. Doing the right thing by putting kids first carries an opportunity cost and someone has to bear the brunt of it, male or female. Let’s face it, when balancing work and family, no gender has the monopoly on sacrifice.
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