When Cassandra Thorburn opened up about her decision to stay at home with her children while her husband, Karl Stefanovic, pursued his glittering career, vociferous public debate ensued.
Strangers took sides, with one team arguing that women should not give up their careers for fear of later regret and another team purporting that a carer’s work is undervalued and stay-at-home mothers are often stigmatized.
Why do the subjects of returning to work, staying at home, flexible work and parental leave rankle strangers, and why does such a personal, family decision give life to such a public debate?
Following are three interviews with four office-based professionals who have kindly shared their personal experiences.
Sally Poulton stays home with her three young boys after deciding not to return to a stressful audit role in a Big Four accounting firm.
Prior to having children, Sally worked five days a week during the ‘audit season’, often until the early hours of the morning. When she had her first son, she returned to work after seven months, two days a week.
“I found working two days to be a bit more difficult, probably because I had worked my way up to a more senior position and there was an expectation that I manage people, so I was expected to be available,” said Sally.
“Other staff and the partners were amazing,” she said. “I would flip my days all the time trying to find something that worked better for me.
“I’d work Monday and Tuesday and then I’d work Monday and Friday.”
Sally said that while the company tried their best, she found it difficult.
“I felt like I wasn’t doing my job properly and I felt like I wasn’t looking after my kids properly,” she said.
“I don’t know how other people juggle it – hats off to them – but my husband works away and my family would have to come first, always.”
Like many people adjusting to life with children, there is much guilt and uncertainty about what the best decision is for the individual and the family. Add to this the monumental shift in one’s identity, it makes the decision all the more complex and emotional.
“Since I had worked so hard to do my CA (to become a Chartered Accountant) and build up this career, I’ve found it really difficult to let go of the fact that I’m a chartered accountant,” Sally said.
“It took me a long time to be proud of the fact that it’s not a bad thing to be at home with the babies.
“I’ve worked part-time with children, I’ve worked at home with children, I’ve been at home full time with children (and) no matter what you do, it’s hard for everybody.
“Everybody has shit days, so just be nice and support each other, for god’s sake.”
SARAH AND DANIEL
Daniel McDonald* formerly worked in a FIFO role while his wife, Sarah*, works in a high-pressure, global mining role. After some time, the challenge proved too much with Daniel taking a city-based role and a pay cut to be close to his family.
“We knew it wasn’t working and from my perspective I was becoming a bit of a crazy woman,” Sarah said.
“It wasn’t working for our relationship or for the kids (and) you could tell the stress on the family.”
Central to making this dual career family hum is an even split of domestic and childrearing responsibilities, a lot of planning and juggling, and, fortunately, some support from grandparents and a casual nanny.
“We do a lot of pre-planning for meals and around schedules because at the moment a lot of Sarah’s work is not 9 to 5,” said Daniel.
“Most days Sarah will drop the kids at daycare and I will go off to work at about 7 a.m. until about 4:30 to 5 p.m. to pick up the kids.
“A lot of nights Sarah will have a work call for a couple of hours and before that she can go to the gym while I get everyone ready, making sure the lunches are packed for the next day.
“Then generally, Sarah will get back and we will switch and she will finish off the jobs that I hadn’t done and go on a work call, and I’ll go to the gym or do some exercise.”
Sarah has about three evening conference calls each week.
“When I first went back to work I always felt this pressure that I had to be there at 8 in the morning until 5 p.m. and then back on the conference calls at 7:30 p.m.,” she said.
“So now I’m of the opinion I’m better off having a balance and if I’m doing stuff at night, I’m better off starting late, and that works better for the family.”
While Daniel’s work has been wholly supportive of his flexible approach, Sarah admits to hearing the odd, negative comment from colleagues.
As an example, Sarah said on one evening phone call she picked up “a teleconference, forgetting to press mute” all the while yelling at her four year old to get into bed. She recalls hearing someone say ‘oh, that’s Sarah on the line’.
“I was in shock but someone said to me that it’s a good thing because people will realise that if they’re in Singapore or London or South Africa, that it’s actually 7:30 at night for you and you’re not actually doing it (the phone call) in your work hours.”
Peter Livesey, Regional Facilities Manager – Asia Pacific and North America for Travelex, appreciates the importance of the mute button when working from home.
“Working from home can prove challenging at times, particularly with a young family,” Peter said.
“There was one time I needed to be on an important one to one call with one of the executives and my wife was away at the time, then just as I dialed in my young son trapped his finger in the door.
“You can never find the mute button quick enough!”
Peter’s flexible work arrangement, with two days working from home, suits the business as it frees up desks in the CBD office (with more employees than dedicated work stations) and enables him to communicate with global colleagues during their business hours, instead of trying to get to the office at 5 or 6 a.m.
Both Peter and his wife Christina have enjoyed successful careers with roles that permit some flexibility.
“We both have regular calls at set times which we are both aware of and we generally discuss what our “out of hours” working week looks like,” he said.
Broaching the topic of flexible work with one’s manager can be tricky, and while increasing numbers of men are working flexibly, research suggests men are more likely to face adverse reactions and up to twice as likely to have the request rejected.
“When I first started working from home, I felt incredibly uncomfortable with the whole notion of not being at a place of work,” Peter said. “It was like I was cheating on the business and my fellow colleagues would ridicule me about it.
“But I have absolutely got over this and now manage my set tasks differently to suit,” he said.
“There is a real shift in how my working week looks and the expectation around my availability (which) is so far different to the old days of 9-5 ‘bundy clock’.”
Peter said that with flexibility comes personal responsibility and trust from his employer and he notes that flexible work is not possible for every role.
“Depending on your role in the company, Travelex supports Working From Home and the flexibility required to do this,” he said.
“There is an internal policy that defines the roles and the home office requirements needed to be effective when working from home.”
As flexible work is normalised for both men and women – parents or not – and employers routinely value people for their performance and not time spent in the office, more people can achieve the ‘work-life balance’ that’s right for them.
And in the meantime, let’s take heed of Sally’s advice and “just be nice and support each other, for god’s sake.”
*Daniel and Sarah requested that their actual names not be revealed.
(First published at http://www.thoughtplace.com.au)