Do you really need to work?

Author and journalist Gill South.
Author and journalist Gill South. 

How many of we working mothers have been asked this question? "Oh, but do you really need to work or will you just use the money to buy more stuff you don't need?" Or "Maybe if you lived more simply, you wouldn't have to."

You get this question from all sorts of people - grandmothers, work colleagues, even well-meaning dads. You know they are wondering if we are just a bit consumeristic... wanting overseas holidays and hell bent on having a better quality of life at the cost of seeing our kids less.

My answer typically is, "Yes, I do have to work - firstly for my sanity and secondly for the health of our family finances... we have a large mortgage and are still trying to make a dent in it."

I am not alone in having a large mortgage. Housing affordability has became a significant issue for many New Zealand and Australian families. According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey 2008, the median house costs 6.3 times the median annual household income. In New Zealand, according to the Wizard Home Loans Affordability report published in October 2008, most home buyers need almost two median incomes to pay the mortgage on the median house. The same story is happening in Australia.

We have to be armed with these kind of figures. Society still expects women to justify their participation in paid work on financial grounds, write Jane Caro and Catherine Fox, in The F Word. "It seems almost impossible for a woman with children to say she works because she wants to. She has to rationalise her choice by claiming to do it to pay school fees, the mortgage or various other financial demands."

Society still expects women to justify their participation in paid work on financial grounds.

One working mother I spoke to says that she doesn't have to work for financial reasons, but she sees her contract work in human resources as an 'insurance policy' in case her husband suddenly gets made redundant or falls ill. When she is between projects she does a lot of gardening but admits that once she has the garden sorted she starts casting around for a new work challenge. She can't think how else she would fill her days.

Melbourne-based management consultant Melissa Grasso and her husband Michael behaved sensibly when they bought their first house together. They bought it with a family in mind so they limited the mortgage to one that could be paid with one income. "I did need to come back to work a little bit. It helps," says Grasso. But she didn't need to go full time. Despite there being little need for her to return to work, Grasso was in no doubt. As a mother, she says, you get complained at constantly. "I want to go somewhere where there's positive feedback. You get positive feedback from the work environment."

She repeats a mantra that's spoken by numerous working mothers. "Coming to work helps me to be a better mother; it is valuable work being at home but [my son] James has no sense of perspective. Being a mum brought perspective at work."

Gill South is author of Because We're Worth It; A where to from here for today's working mothers. The book takes a close look at the changing workplace, and encourages women to be braver about requesting a better deal both at work and at home. Timely, practical and full of personal anecdotes from working mothers in New Zealand and Australia.

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