In my twenties, I worked with many part-time mums in the corporate world. One mum never had a lunch break so she could leave on time. Another was given only non-time critical activities which over time, became just non-critical activities.
A third mum was regularly overlooked for promotions because management roles were always full time. She offered me this advice: get to the level I wanted before children because part-time promotions were few and far between.
At the time, having children and how I would balance them with work seemed like a problem in the distant future. So I ignored it, carrying on with my work, oblivious to the difficult choices that these mums had made for their families.
Fast forward to my mid-thirties and that future problem became real.
I became a first time mum 16 months ago. When my daughter was born, I took some time off to heal, breastfeed and parent. When she was about eight months old, I was ready to go back to work but I was nervous about going part time.
When my daughter was born, I took some time off to heal, breastfeed and parent.
In my parents’ group, part-time work was deeply contentious for all of the returning-to-work mums. One mum wanted three days but was pushed for four, a seven-day fortnight still in negotiation. Another had four days approved on the condition that it was reviewed every three months for an unspecified period of time. Rest assured, this check-in was for their benefit and not hers.
Another mum couldn't reach an agreement so she started looking for a new part-time role. In interviews, she was often asked how she would manage the conflicting priorities, how she would stay connected and how she would make herself available. She had to prove herself in ways that were not asked of a full-time worker even though time management, business acumen and positive relationships were relevant to all roles.
The stress and exhaustion in fighting for and then keeping part-time work was consistent everywhere I looked. Some mums were doing it better than others (job sharing, supportive manager and employer) but no one was doing it well. No one was nailing it. No one was on the fast track to success in a part-time role.
The stress and exhaustion in fighting for and then keeping part time work was consistent everywhere I looked.
I was only 37 and I still very much wanted fulfilling work, growth and development in my professional life. I didn’t have full confidence that part-time work would give me that.
When I raised these concerns with my husband, we discussed our goals and aspirations both in and out of the home. We considered our options in childcare, getting a nanny, relying on our parents. In the end, we decided that my husband would take three months off to be the primary carer and that he would return to part-time work after his period of parental leave.
This would at least support a full-time return to the workforce, giving me six months to refocus my energy from the home to the workplace without the juggle of pickups and drop-offs, dinner or laundry. At the same time, my husband enjoyed playing a bigger parenting role beyond bed and bath while my daughter grew closer to not only her father, but also her paternal grandparents who came around more when it was their son at home.
In the end, we decided that my husband would take three months off to be the primary carer and that he would return to part time work after his period of parental leave.
His three months at home flew by and he is now facing into the challenges of working part time. Despite best efforts, he too works on non-work days to make deadlines he would otherwise not meet, dials into meetings from home and is often asked (pressured) to “pick up an extra day”.
Despite the steady increase in part-time workers over the last decade, the structure of the workplace remains rigid. Roles are designed for full time. Increased flexibility means more work outside of 9-5. The default employee works Monday to Friday, five days a week.
So much has to change before part-time workers are seen as equal to their full time peers, or that part-time work is seen to be valued or even worth aspiring to.
It’s my hope that as the part time workforce continues to grow, and as more men request part time too, there will be more empathy through lived and shared experience. But for now, my husband and I will take turns working part time. In doing so, we both get days at home with our young daughter while minimising the less desirable effects of part time work.
By sharing the load, it feels like a small step in the right direction.
Lucille Wong is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter here.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter here.