What happens when stay-at-home mums get sick? Dads still go to work

There's no 'sick leave' for stay-at-home mums.
There's no 'sick leave' for stay-at-home mums. Photo: Stocksy

 

Dad travelled a lot for work when my sister and I were little. When my sister was one and I was four, my mum broke her elbow. Dad had to go to work. Interstate.

Once, when she had gastro and was trying desperately to get my dad to cancel his work trip, she screamed as he walked out the door to catch his flight: "What would you do if I died? Would you still go to work?"

Polly Dunning has calculated that if she returns to full-time work her family would have to fork out $32,900 in ...
Polly Dunning has calculated that if she returns to full-time work her family would have to fork out $32,900 in childcare fees for her son, Alfred. Photo: Martine Payne

Dramatic? Maybe. But she was right. And almost thirty years later, sadly, she still is.

The first time in my adult life I had gastro was when my son was 11 months old. He had just learned to climb the couch (and everything else he could reach) but was yet to master a dismount that wasn't a headfirst dive, so I was lying on the floor so as not to tempt him into climbing. He wanted to play (fair enough), so was becoming increasingly frustrated with me. Pushing me, pinching me and pulling my hair. It was 7:30am and I was on my third pair of knickers for the day.

My husband left for work. I sobbed. It would be at least ten hours before he would return.

Reinforcements (my parents and my father-in-law) were due around 11am. So I spent the next three hours between the living room floor and the bathroom with a climbing, crawling, cruising baby trying to stop him sucking the toilet brush or knocking over the bowl of vomit by my side. If we weren't lucky enough to have family available, it would've been the whole day.

But my husband had to work. And he really did. But why?

Why do we still have so far to go when it comes to fathers in the workplace that their employers can't understand they have a responsibility for children, just like mothers do?

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When I relayed this story to my mothers group (what a godsend those women are), I was bombarded with similar tales. Sitting on the toilet with a baby in one arm and a bucket in the other, making the kids' dinner and having to stop every few minutes to retch at the sight and smell of the food. All the while, husbands had to go to work.

Let me be frank. A person who is so ill they can barely move is in no state to be responsible for children. I wouldn't leave my child in the care of someone that incapacitated. Neither would you.

We talk a lot about flexibility in the workplace for women, but that flexibility seems to come at a cost. Employers talk about how women's priorities at work change when they have children. The wage gap is still at 16 per cent, or 23 per cent depending on how it's calculated. Almost one in five women in Australia lose their job during pregnancy or shortly after returning to work. So, clearly, the march towards flexibility for women affects our career prospects and earnings.

What we don't have enough of is flexibility for men in the workplace. The problem is that workplaces (and society more broadly) still see women as taking the caring role, while men continue on at work as normal or ramping up even more to support the family.

When a friend of mine told his boss that he had to leave work to pick up his sick son from childcare, his boss asked where his wife was.

Another friend has her husband as the primary contact for her daughter's school because he works from home, while she teaches high school. But she's the one they call, because "we always call Mum because you know what dads are like!"

When my husband took four weeks leave when our son was born, an older colleague of his (with four kids of his own) asked why he was taking any time off at all, since: "There's really not much you can do at that early stage, they just need mum."

Only when men have flexibility at work, will women have real flexibility at work.

Only when fathers are seen as just as responsible for children as mothers will women be able to participate fully in the workforce.

Only when fathers can stay at home because their wife or child is ill will women be able to hug the porcelain throne and chunder in peace.

This only happens when men push for it, of course. When fathers start standing up and saying "I am just as responsible for my children as my wife, and my job is no more important or urgent than her job, or her health," is when this will change.

Men need to start advocating for their own flexibility in the workplace, not just supporting women's flexibility.

Maybe when men's priorities and lives are seen being impacted by the advent of children as much as women's are, we will be that little bit closer to ending discrimination against women in the workplace.

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