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Thursday 7 April 2011

Jackie O: going back to work - how soon is too soon?

Days after the Jackie O / Pru Goward controversy (can you believe the hoo-haa generated over that one photo?), I am yet to address the other argument which was so instrumental in setting this whole kerfuffle off. Women returning back to work - how soon is too soon?

A bit of background first.

The first stone was cast by Daily Telegraph Sydney Confidential gossip columnist Annette Sharp, who, in an open letter to Jackie O, questioned why the radio co-host would return to work only "a few weeks" after the birth of her baby Kitty.

"I'm not judging, I just don't know why a woman who can afford to take a year off with her new baby wouldn't," Annette wrote. A tearful Jackie O broke down in tears after Annette's comments made her "feel like a second-rate mum".

Jackie O used her live breakfast show to hit back at Annette, telling listeners she felt positive about her choice until she read the newspaper article that morning.

"It was two months I was off [not a few weeks]. Then when I did return to work I was working from home and had Kitty by my side for the whole show," she said. "I'm trying the best I can. It is hurtful. I just wanted you to know that I put her before everything else."

Yes, you are trying the best you can, Jackie. And of course you put her before everything else. But the judgement is constantly stacked against working mums. Or non-working mums, for that matter.

So I was very interested to hear about the just-released, sixth Annual Child Care & Workforce Participation Survey examining the health of Australia's child care system conducted by http://www.careforkids.com.au/.

The survey encourages parents to provide insight into their specific child care arrangements and have their say about our child care system and whether it is working for them. According to the survey, up to 60% of working mothers feel stigmatised, while up to 40% of stay at home mums have been judged by their decision not to work.

The report was discussed by journalist and mum Renae Leith-Manos on the Kerri-Anne TV show yesterday (Renae also happens to be my old editor, and is a fellow mum of twins).

"Children are a highly emotive issue and everyone wants to put in their 10 cents worth and try and tell mothers what to do," she told Kerri-Anne. "It's really tough out there... I've done it. To work or not to work? And the real issue is that if you lose your job for too long you won't get it back in this day and age - depending on what your job is of course. But for most of us there's a real pressure and a real choice and it's the toughest choice a woman has to make.

During the segment, Kerri-Anne asks, "Who out there is at the pointed end of the criticism?" Responds Renae: "I hate to say it - I think it's other women. The women who stay at home criticise the women who go back to work. The women who go back to work criticise the women who stay at home... it's been going on for a long time and us women need to talk to each other and support each other more."

Ain't that the truth, Renae!

She adds, "Even if you go back to work, there's this expectation of, 'Oh, she's going to come in late'. Or, 'she's going to leave early. She's going to be exhausted. She's not going to be up to scratch.' And sometimes those things are true. Because, you know having babies at home is tough work. You're up all night, your brain isn't functioning to full capacity. It's tough."

When Kerri-Anne adds that the survey shows that 60% of working mothers said that they were made to feel that they were not taking their parenting responsibilities seriously, Renae says the exact sentiment I am thinking.

"Isn't that devastating! As a woman, there is nothing more important than your children. And the idea that someone would judge you in that way is heartbreaking."

So, what constitutes the 'right' reason to go back to work? Money? Boredom? An excuse to get away from the madness? Says Renae. "And again, it's judgement. And who's to say what someone's financial situation is, what their emotional situation is. I mean, a lot of women feel better going back to work and feel they can give more to their children. And it's not necessarily always about money. It's also about your future career. You may not need the money now, but everyone needs to have a job. And if you leave it too long you may not get it back."

Long before I had kids, my best friend (already a mum) revealed what she called a dirty little secret working mummies kept - that they actually only wanted to work to get away from the responsibilities of parenting (that, and making money for the family, of course).

I must say that for me, my primary motivations were that I wanted to contribute to the family funds... and I hated the way I felt when I wasn't working. There was a slight power shift in the family dynamic - and I didn't like it. I had freelance sub-editing jobs before I had the twins and when they were three weeks old I gladly accepted some work from home. It was minimal, and I have been working from home for the past three years (going into an office only late last year), but I loved that the sole purpose of my day was not only to raise my much-loved children.

The irony was I had taken on the oft-called 'most valuable job in the world'... and yet when I didn't work, I felt the most worthless I'd ever felt. Weird, no?

Agreed Renae on Kerri-Anne: "It can be really mind numbing being at home all the time and again people judge you. Friends come over and they're working... work can be fun! And when you're not working you can't relate to a lot of the things they're talking about, so yes you do feel stigmatised as well."

The answer? Says Renae, "Look I don't think there is [one]. I think the answer is to be more understanding. More part-time work helps a lot. And more childcare facilities on-site. I would love to see some big corporations bring childcare into the workplace. That would really facilitate a lot more women going back to work and acheiving that balance that they're really after."

You said that right, sister.

Perhaps the shape of things to come? In the meantime, please - let's respect each others' choices, eh?

To see the entire interview, go here: http://www.kerri-anne.com.au/video_highlights.php (Photo credits: Renae: http://www.motherandbaby.ninemsn.com.au/; Kerri-Anne: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/)

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