Support for working mums - is there enough?

The biggest decision facing today's new generation of mothers is not necessarily whether to work - but rather what work, how to do it and when.

Whatever your choice for paid work at whatever stage of your children's lives - be prepared for what feels like, the road less travelled.

Despite the overwhelming number of Australian mums returning to work, changes to the psyche of the workplace, attitudes and Government support are still well behind us.

21st Century women are creating sweeping changes in how we work and raise the next generation in Australia today. As the online magazine for modern mothers, motherinc.com.au continues to champion change as well as provide practical information and research to help us, a new breed of women enjoy parenting and a current or future working life in the paid workforce.

Mercedes Maguire talks the talk to working mums across the nation.

MOTHER of three and freelance journalist Elizabeth van Ratingen has lost track of the number of times she has taken toddler Dashiell along to work meetings. The northern beaches mother of five-year-old twins Luke and Joshua and 20-month-old Dash has run her own business from her loungeroom "office" for several years. And while she admits to bouncing a baby on her knee while working, she makes no appologies for combining her work and family in this manner.

"Once a male client queried why I was working when I had three young children," she recalls. "I was forced to explain that we had a huge mortgage and it was impossible to cope on one salary."

An inability to live on one income and career fulfillment are the main reasons women give for returning to the workforce after starting a family. But the obstacles in their way seem daunting: access to affordable child care; flexible working hours; family-friendly employers and the availability of meaningful positions.

As many as 36 per cent of mothers return to the workforce before their baby has turned one and 54 per cent are working by the time their child is two, according to the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women.

Senior Lecturer in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at UTS and leading women's rights campaigner, Eva Cox, says there is very little support for mothers who either want to, or need to work in Australia.

"The working attitudes in this country are not ones which say we value a community that cares for little kids," Ms Cox says. "The environment for working mothers has barely moved in the last decade despite the rise in the number of mums in the workforce. The Government are dragging their heals and not providing any leadership on the issues."

Australia is one of only two countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD) which does not have a universal paid maternity leave scheme. The other is the United States.

A report released last month by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission titled It's About Time: Women, Men, Work and Family targeted the big issues in helping restore the balance to modern families. The report, which was released after a two-year inquiry, made 45 recommendations including new anti-discrimination legislation to allow parents the right to ask for flexible working hours, a 14-week government-funded paid maternity scheme and a phasing in of paid paternity leave.

Magazine editor Kayte Nunn of Manly returned to the workforce before her almost three-year-old daughter Charlotte turned one because she needed to contribute to the family income and she truly enjoyed her work. But her choice has not been easy. Four days a week Kayte rushes out the door to drop Charlotte at day care before arriving at her office for a full day's work.

"I do nearly all of Charlottes pick-ups and drop-offs which means my husband Andy is often able to work later. Meantime I get lumbered with after-work childcare, feeding and bathing and story-reading, even when I may have done a nine-hour day in the office. I am also responsible for food shopping, cleaning and all laundry.

"Often men would love to have more of a role in their children's care and upbringing, but until companies recognise that flexible working hours are necessary for fathers as well as mothers, then it's always going to be working mothers that bear the brunt of the workload at home. It would be fantastic if more companies were outcome-focussed rather than time-focussed."

PR consultant Alexandra Campbell is often asked to attend meetings which are cancelled only an hour before they were scheduled, despite having already organised paid care for her 21-month-old son Noah. She says employers are often oblivious to the dual role a working mother has.

"I had one client continually calling me - every day, no matter what time, on my mobile, my home number - asking me to go home ASAP and basically forget what I was doing to go and do some work for her."

Peter Watt started a recruitment company, MUMS (Managing Un-Utilised Mothers Services www.mums.net.au) aimed specifically at finding work for mothers returning to the workforce. He says there are many myths in the workforce about working mums being unreliable and too distracted by home issues.

"I am trying to pass the message to employers that mothers are amongst the best workers around because they are great multi-taskers and through sheer necessity have learnt to be great at time-management also," he says.

"The main problems I see is that women don't prepare and they may have dropped the ball in their professional development. They need to find ways to maintain their skills through refresher courses etc."

The Council of Adult Education (CAE) run a range of courses Australia-wide or you can contact your industry association for refresher programs more specific to your job.

www.careermums.com.au is another business created to connect mums to employers who understand the balance of work and family.

Director Kate Sykes whose former career was entirely at the top end of the corporate world, realized that many jobs at her level would not suit the needs of modern working mothers. Rather than go back to her old job after having 2 children, she launched Career Mums.

Author and mother-of-three Kirsten Lees wrote her successful book Let Go Of My Leg: A Guide To Returning To Work After Children (Hardie Grant $29.95) which was influenced by her own experiences returning to the workforce after the birth of her first child.

"It's so easy to get caught in the 'mummy track' which is the slow lane, the easy option where you go to work part time in an un-challenging, low-responsibility job regardless of your level of skill," she explains. "I remember being at the park pushing my daughter on the swing and I looked around me at all the late-30's mums thinking 'how many are doctors or bankers?'

"Our generation have spent more time and effort than any other on their education and as they are having children later, they are leaving the workforce on a high. They should be able to return to the workforce and use their skills after having children too."

 
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