Whose real world?

Posted by Helen.
Where I live, our kids have five weeks holidays from just before Christmas to the end of January. They have two weeks off in April, two in July, and two in September/October. I’ve run out of fingers, so that’s eleven weeks.

A full-time employed adult will have four weeks annual leave to play with. Note, I’m talking about someone who still has decent working conditions – plenty of people are now working in casualised industries where they don’t even get that much. Now, assume she has a partner who is working full-time too, with four weeks annual leave. That brings the total to… eight weeks.

That is, if they tag-team. That means they don’t get to take any of those holidays together as a family. And that still leaves three weeks.

Holiday care for children has never been taken seriously, that is, by anyone other than the YMCA, at least in our area. This means that holiday programs are few and far between. Our local holiday program is booked out within a day or two of them releasing the booking brochure, which means that getting any holiday program days is like a military operation. If you aren’t quick off the mark, or you forgot to put the reminder in your outlook to lie in wait for that booking form, yer stuffed.

The alternatives? Grandparents. Who may not live locally, or they may be too old, as parents themselves get older. Other parents – guilt trip. And, then, of course, there’s the cost factor (high) and the very real possibility that your kids will hate Holiday day programs. I know I would have.

While childcare for infants is thankfully now in the news, this problem is still pretty much off the MSM and government radar. The only person I’m aware of who has written about the problem is Leslie Cannold.

First, reschedule and otherwise shift as much work as possible away from the period in question. Then, ask my partner what days might be available at his office when the other directors won’t have their kids with them, clients won’t be visiting and he’ll be able to shift his workload around enough to send a few employees home so that he can park our kids in front of computer games and the world wide web for the day. Simultaneously SOS everyone on my “working parents” email contact list to discover if we can coordinate care swaps (of the “I’ll take your older one Friday if you’ll have mine on Monday but only if both of us can make similar arrangements for the younger ones on those days too” – type) or mutual activities (of the “mine will only go to sports camp if your child goes too” – type). Finally, ring up both sets of grandparents and plead for the odd day or three.
By the time that final Friday arvo bell rings (one hour earlier than usual, just to add insult to injury) my desktop resembles a war room. Phone ringing, palm pilot synching, incoming e-mail indicator bobbing like a jack in the box, and – as testament to my weeks of effort – a calendar hastily blu-tacked to the wall splattered with victorious blue tics and a measle-rash of red question marks.

Oh, yes, that calendar. I favoured different coloured highlighters, myself. Two years ago, I’d had enough. I’d had a gutful of the stress of the pre-school-holidays negotiations. I didn’t go part-time. Instead, I went to my HR person and requested, and, to my eternal surprise, got, a “48-52”.

Under this arrangement you’re only paid for 48 weeks of the year instead of 52, but the difference is spread over all your pay periods, so you’re not taking four weeks unpaid. Instead of four weeks annual leave a year, you have eight. In other words, with the drop in pay, you’ve purchased an additional four weeks leave to spend with your kids.

Mummy tracked? Yes, sometimes I feel mummy tracked. I don’t expect my career to soar, exactly, while I’m doing this. But in general it hasn’t changed much. Most people are in favour of it, and more than one person has said they’re interested in doing it. So that’s why I’m at home, on a tuesday, writing this blog post. (Hey, I never said I was a good mother.)

Shortly after I negotiated the new regime, I had to do some work with a highly qualified man from outside the organisation who’d been called in to work on a specific, one-off upgrade. He was one of these highly paid contractors who wears his family-unfriendly work conditions with pride, like a holster on his belt. When I told him I was off on school holidays the following week, he was surprised, and said, “Well, that’s a good arrangement. But I have to live in the real world.”

Que? When did we decide that school holidays aren’t part of the real world?

We need to tell the parallel universe of contractors and bosses and employer organisations that hello, these things called school holidays have been around for a long time now and they’re not likely to go away anytime soon. The “real world” where employees have to be available 24/7, all year round, is a recent fashion, even if it’s something of a revival of the Victorian world. These people need to get their heads around the fact that school holidays exist, so if they’re serious about the skills shortage and wanting to retain women in the workforce blah blah – that is, if that isn’t just feelgood window dressing – then they need to understand that school holidays are part of the real world.

Categories: education, gender & feminism

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16 replies

  1. Thank you for writing that, Helen. We (BQ and myself) face similar issues, and in academic research too, where family-unfriendliness is de rigeur. And it’s not just holidays either.
    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and must get off my arse and write something about it. We’re fortunate that BQ does not *want* to work full-time (she does 5 hour days) so can collect the Pawns direct from school, and there’s a very good vacation care programme at the girls’ school. They love it, actually – and complain when we take them out to do stuff together. I’m happy with that because I’d die if I thought they hated it.
    We were similarly fortunate back in the UK: we found ourselves living next door to a freelance child minder with very reasonable rates who did pre-school care and loved having the Pawns in the school holidays too. But it must be really difficult for those whose timing as not been as providential as ours.

  2. Thanks for not getting stuck into school teachers on this one, Guest Hoyden. 3AW’s 8:30-12:00 Neil Mitchell weighs into this at every opportunity. The 4.5hr workaholic never mentions that he’s on hols for the entire non-ratings period, which I estimate to be about 8 weeks pa. End of rant.
    Schools Councils and YMCAs run holiday care programs that are expensive but (I think) claimable on Private Health Insurance.

  3. He was one of these highly paid contractors who wears his family-unfriendly work conditions with pride, like a holster on his belt.

    Ugh, yes. This. What the hell is wrong with these people? They were trapped in the macho hazing initiation rituals of their profession, so they’re teeth-grittedly determined to ensure that everyone else down the line is subjected to the full extent of the “consequences of their choices”.
    I’ve just been reading a thread at mothering.com – Mothering.com of all places! – discussing whether a doctor taking her board exams should have any right to ask for an extra 20 minutes’ break so that she might express milk for her baby.
    All the bingo squares are hit (maybe I should make that card too?) – “special treatment just because you have ovaries/a uterus/breasts”, “she’s been hired do a job”, “What’s she going to do when she’s on call in the real world?” “her baby shouldn’t take priority over her patients”, “the test is SUPPOSED to be gruelling”, “asking for lactation breaks is bad for feminism”, “she already has an advantage from her disability accommodations, she can’t expect any more”, “it’s to haaaaard”, “she has a case of extreme entitlement”, “she should just delay the test for a year”, “no one else should subsidise her life choices”, “she should just pump in the given breaks instead of eating/drinking/toileting”, “I’m a lawyer and I never got no special treatment, so neither should she”, “the entire medical and criminal justice systems would crumble around our ears if doctors and lawyers were allowed time to lactate”, “her co-workers will have to pick up the slack”, “breastfeeding isn’t a disability, therefore it shouldn’t be accommodated”, and even “what if she’s sneaking cheat sheets in her pump bag?”
    The earth is doomed.

  4. BK – there has recently been a very depressing thread on 11D, to do with breaks of more than a year to care for children and infants (therefore somewhat OT for this thread) but it appears that in the US, if you work in academia and you take time off to be a SAHM, you WILL NEVER get a job in one of the “ivy league” universities. Ever. No matter how talented you are. I keep meaning to blog this but haven’t had the time.
    My Dad, an academic, is still chugging along at 85. Given the radically improved life span, do you think we could manage to GET OVER this “if you take two years off you’re not serious about Life” bizzo?
    Lad, it never occurred to me to make this a “teachers have all those holidays” topic. It’s not really what it’s about. But I wouldn’t anyway. Of course the timing and duration of the holidays could be looked at, but that is a policy matter for the higher-ups in the department of Ed.
    Lauredhel – the earth is surely doomed if people keep on with this “this is the way we’ve always done things, and the world will crumble if we try another way” mindset.

  5. BK, here’s the 11D post. Bloody depressing, although not directly relevant to you and BQ. I’d be interested to know if it’s as bad as this in Australia.

  6. Good article. It raises some interesting points.

  7. Great post. I’m just about to take the 48/52 option(although I’m starting gently) but I’m doing it mostly for selfish personal reasons (I’m finding my work too intense not to have more breaks).
    Where I work, quite a lot of the contractors are doing it in intensity bursts these days. I’ve been reluctantly impressed by how many men have told me that they are happy to work intensely for six months and then take a few months off to spend with the children. Of course, that still only works if someone else is looking after them during the school holidays in that intense six months, but the “real world” (whatever that means is changing a bit, I think).
    I can add another technical childcare thing that makes it hard. In the summer break before the first year of school there is no such thing as vacation care. Childcare centres won’t take them, because their year starts in January, and vacation care won’t take them because they take children who have already been to school.
    So parents have to figure out five weeks of non institutionalised childcare in a row, knowing that they will then have to deal with 11 weeks a year of school holidays. Most of my friends have found that intensely challenging – even those working part time.

  8. My mother survived the holidays by being best mates with a primary school teacher, who didn’t mind having a couple of extras. They are still friends, so I assume the one-sidedness didn’t bug anyone. We also spent a lot of time with our grandparents. Of course, my parents had us in their twenties, so our grandparents were in their 50s and 60s.
    One of my aunts, who has no children and a pretty good career, took 48/52 for several years to care for her parents. She reasoned that both of her siblings had children to care for as well, so she could do more of the driving to doctors etc. I’m not sure, but I think she’s still doing it (both parents have since died) for the extra time to get through all those jobs one has to do in life and to fit in extra short holidays.
    My point, anyway, is that although not everyone has children, most of us have commitments outside the workplace. Those commitments sometimes require that we take time out during the normal 9-5 period, because if you have to drive your partner/parent/neighbour to the doctor you can’t do it at 11pm. Flexible workplace conditions (genuinely flexible, not the WorkChoices we can make you do anything we feel like type) make life easier for all of us.

  9. Actually Kate you have raised a very interesting point which I suspect will become a hot topic in the next few years – taking time off to care for elderly parents, not children. Although it is difficult enough to find holiday care for kids, imagine the reaction of some bosses to being asked for leave to care for parents.

  10. Where I work, quite a lot of the contractors are doing it in intensity bursts these days. I’ve been reluctantly impressed by how many men have told me that they are happy to work intensely for six months and then take a few months off to spend with the children.
    Seven years on, we now have eight or so Big Swinging male contractors around (that’s a whole ‘nother story) and the change is palpable. Every other day, it seems, one of these highly paid men is taking a day or so off for a sick child. And management is too. And management’s factoring it all into how long it takes the project to complete. W00t! Some sanity is creeping in!
    My theory, you see, is that once the Dads are all doing it, it won’t just take the pressure off the mums with regard to time: it will mitigate the whole mummy-track thing, because if a man is as likely to take time off as a woman, well… the discrimination will just ease off and the whole attitude of management to work and family will change in the economy. And, if we have a skills shortage, that can only help.
    (Having an Optimism moment)

  11. Thanks Helen for the post – it certainly is a big issue for parents without access to Holiday Care programs.
    I’m v. lucky – my daughter’s primary school has a Before & After School centre which runs a holiday program – it closes for 2 weeks over Xmas/NY. (I believe it has been running for over 20 years now.)
    I was on the committee for 3 years – like alot of OOSH’S – it is a community-based organisation (not even a sub-committee of the P&C etc.)
    We heavily recruited for parents with accounting, administrative, HR, and governance related backgrounds – and this made a huge difference to the quality of the administration/finance and recruitment of staff – after the old committee had almost quit en-masse.
    It requires a bit of work from parent committees to operate a child-care centre as per the State based Child Services Act and also in relation to CCB and Centrelink rebates ““ It also helps if at least some parents have a background in community based orgs like P&C’s, sports club & other skills as per above – but it is do-able! The quality of the coordinator and other paid staff is the key, obviously. And they can even return small surpluses if well managed.
    I think new parents should be encouraged to get together and work with their school executive to start Out of School Centres in their schools, if there is a real need in their area. The fact that there isn’t a centre ““ doesn’t mean that this couldn’t be changed & in quite a short time frame.
    There are resources available to help set up centres – and schools will often provide space & other resources from within the school. Principals often want to have centres located in their schools ““ as they can increase enrolments. And local councils will often provide expertise and possibly some $$ etc.
    It does take some time to put everything in place (!!) but to see a community centre running really well – is such a joy. And to know that your kids are being looked after by qualified staff, have interesting programs and healthy food and so on!
    BTW – there is a provision for Vacation Care to accept a very small percentage of children who have turned 5 but not yet at school, for that Xmas Holiday program before they start school. These places are often taken by younger siblings of children attending the school.


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