Achieving true family friendly work practices is going to require a little flexibility – flexibility on the part of families and flexibility on the part of workplaces. For a long time workplaces have operated as though families didn’t exist, while simultaneously relying heavily upon the support provided by stay-at-home wives. Now that female labour is a significant component of the paid workforce unpaid caring work is not so easily segregated. All the same, the accommodations necessary for this change have been made almost entirely by the family, namely women and children. After several decades we have collectively realised that inflexible workplaces are neither fair nor all that successful in the long run.
Often the changes necessary to make a workplace family friendly require more mental adjustment than significant institutional change, although the mental adjustment can be no less difficult for some to achieve. The incident which happened last week in the Senate is a good example of this.
Briefly. During the debate of a bill (which ironically was about a matter involving children) a division was suddenly required. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was spending some time outside the chamber with her two year old daughter, saying goodbye to her before she flew home to her father, and found herself caught in a difficult situation. She was immediately required for a few minutes to attend a vote but being nowhere near her office she was unable to leave her daughter. Hanson-Young decided to take her daughter with her into the chamber for the vote, something she had done without incident once before. Although the toddler was quiet and settled, Senate President JohnHogg enforced parliamentary rules and had the child ejected from the chamber. As soon as the toddler was forced to separate from her mother she burst into tears. Hanson-Young sat through the vote listening to her daughter crying outside the chamber while feeling all eyes upon her in the gallery. She says she felt both humiliated, and distressed for her daughter.
To his credit, Leader of the Greens Bob Brown argued strongly in support of her and the Greens are planning to bring forward a debate on the matter this week.
“It wasn’t a stunt, it was just an event that unfolded with Sarah wanting to be with her little infant for a few minutes more before they got separated for the coming day. It was a mum and daughter thing that was creating no harm. Most workplaces are not going to worry if a child’s there for a couple of minutes and a mother or father sees their child for a couple of minutes, particularly if they’re not going to see them for a little while. This isn’t a call to allow children to be 24 hours a day in the Senate or any other part of the Parliament. I think a little bit of common sense has got to prevail here.”
In an ideal world more paid work would be able to be performed alongside family work but in the meantime the two spheres remain relatively separate and parents make arrangements accordingly. Every now and then arrangements will fail. Shit happens, and not including lunch hours, I can count the times on one hand that I have had to have my daughter at work with me for an hour or so when our care arrangements have temporarily broken down*. It isn’t ideal but the alternative would have meant leaving work altogether for the day. My employer turned a blind eye, I strived to minimise the impact, and with constant gentle reminders from me my daughter even did her bit to try and control any intrusive child behaviours.
A couple of bullshit arguments are being used in the public debate around the incident involving Hanson-Young and around family friendliness more generally. Firstly, while it is true that few workplaces could accommodate their employees’ children on a regular basis most of them can for a short time, in a pinch. To say that in changing parliamentary rules to allow for unforeseen circumstances like those of Hanson-Young’s that politicians will be getting some kind of privilege beyond that other workers is nonsense. Further, federal politicians are required to spend a lot of time, more than most working parents I’d estimate, away from their family homes. A little flexibility isn’t going to tip the scales too far in their favour. Thirdly, most parents are capable of making a reasonable judgement call about their children – can my child handle this situation without disrupting everyone’s work or am I better off ditching this idea however much that inconveniences my boss? And to argue that family friendly work arrangements will be automatically abused is just mean-spirited. Like Bob Brown, I’m not advocating that the Senate be turned into a daycare centre. Few parents could, or indeed would want to work under siege from a dozen toddlers.. but when shit happens a very young child should be able to stay with its mother for a short period of time, in a pinch, without any humiliation or tears.
Sometimes workplace flexibility changes won’t work, sometimes they will require adaptation, sometimes they will need to be reviewed .. but this is flexibility, and with all due respect, it is the kind of adjustment working parents are doing day in and day out at home.
* On one occasion when my mother was caring for our toddler she received short notice of a job interview. Neither my partner nor I were able to take our daughter at work on that particular occasion and so my poor brave mother took our child along with her to the job interview – and successfully got the job!