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Not so much a choice as a daily dilemma

By Maggie Walter - posted Monday, 16 May 2005

For Australian mothers, the conundrum of achieving work-life balance extends beyond surviving the day-to-day difficulties. Achieving a work-life balance poses a lifecourse as well as a daily dilemma. The unprecedented level of labour market participation among Australian women is a key factor in the work-life balance dilemma faced by many families. In around 60 per cent of couple families with dependent children both parents are now employed and nearly half of all women with children aged less than 5-years are in paid work (ABS 2003).

Increased market work, however, does not result in significantly less demands with family labour. Instead, as Australian research has clearly established, many women now hold down paid jobs in addition to their primary family responsibilities. The result is a significant time squeeze.

At the core of the daily work-life balance quandary is the basic, but often unacknowledged, fact that parenting is real, time-consuming work. Parenting is much more than an extension of household labour. A dependent child certainly adds to the domestic workload, but being an active parent encompasses a different set of tasks entirely.


Physical tasks include: delivering and collecting children; listening; answering questions; teaching manners and eating habits; showing children things; negotiating between warring siblings; reading and responding to the many school notices, raffle tickets and cakes for school fetes; and the monitoring, supervising and adjudicating of homework, TV programs and bed times.

And the list goes on. Add to these the organisational role for making sure all the things that need to happen, happen, with activities such as planning and arranging child care, or making sure there are enough $2 coins for school bus fares, excursion, lunches and so on. All this is a daily part of parenting work.

As unpaid labour, active parenting is economically invisible. Additionally, the fragmentary nature of much parenting work makes it hard to quantify just how much time and labour is expended in “just being a parent”. More insidiously, the current major family discourses effectively obscure the amount of work that goes into a family’s maintenance.

By speaking of parenting in terms of a natural expression of (especially women’s) nurturing and caring, such discourses emotionalise away the actual demands of parent work. Parenting does indeed involve loving and nurturing, but these are not just emotional states. Rather they, along with the other demands of active parenting, require purposeful, time consuming, unpaid and frequently physically tiring activity.

More importantly, parenting work is mostly non-optional. Childcare, while effectively outsourcing a portion of parenting time requirements, is not a substitute for parenting work. Children are supervised, fed and kept active, but they are not parented. Active parenting, as an integral part of doing family, is real work that forms a non-voluntary component of having children. It is also a consistent workload. A lack of parenting work for anything but the shortest period quickly impacts on family functioning.

At the core of the work-life balance dilemma is the basic fact that the decisions mothers make to accommodate this workload reverberate throughout their lifecourse. To be active parents Australian women need to select from three basic work-family life options. Each entails major lifecourse ramifications.

  • Option one: Withdraw completely from the labour market to concentrate on the family work role.
  • Option two: Remain in, or return to, the labour market but reduce workforce activity to part-time or casual employment to allow primacy of the family work role.
  • Option Three: Remain in the labour market in a full-time capacity through accessing whatever family work supports are available, such as childcare.

In purely financial terms, options one and two come at a considerable cost. Conservative estimates suggest that a woman’s lifetime earnings are reduced by around 34 per cent for one child and more for subsequent children. These costs are magnified by the less easily quantifiable wage penalties associated with reduced hours of paid work and or absence from the workforce during prime career building years. Women’s later financial security is directly affected by these costs. More than half of all women retiring over the next decade will have a “nest egg” of less than $20,000.

The financial costs of primary responsibility for family work are summed up by Anne Crittendon in her  book, The Price of Motherhood, when she explains that the huge gift of un-reimbursed time and labour incorporated into the concept of motherhood “explains in a nutshell” why women are so much poorer than men.

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About the Author

Dr Maggie Walter is Deputy Director of the National Indigenous Researcher and Knowledges Network and Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Maggie Walter

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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