Work, daycare drop off, work, after-school activities, housework, dinner, work. Rinse and repeat. Modern parenting is a whirlwind, laid bare by the Covid era. So is anybody happy? Michelle Duff reports.
There’s a new study out. It says too much screen time could damage your child. Putting your baby to sleep in polar fleece could be deadly. Feed your child apples and rice crackers at your own risk. Ping! Hi, it’s daycare, your fees are going up. Can you stay home with him? I don’t have any sick days left. Ugh, who forgot to put a dance recital in the calendar! Stop crying, put your shoes on, where are your rugby boots? Mum needs to be on a Zoom in five minutes. GET IN THE CAR!
In the past few decades, parenting has undergone a seismic shift. The nuclear model of the stay-at-home-mother and working father is no longer widespread, with more than 60 per cent of mothers in some paid work before their child’s first birthday. Yet policies designed to support an outdated family and work configuration remain, or have shifted at only glacial pace.
Stuff spoke to dozens of parents about how they manage their lives. We found households around the nation are being held together by spreadsheets, Google calendars, chore rosters, grandparents, coffee, after-school care, waking up in the wee hours to finish projects, and ongoing negotiations about who does more, and who does what. “About 10 more hours in the day would help,” says Robert Jones, a teacher and father of four.
* NZ childcare: quality rated highly but near bottom in other areas, Unicef says
* Economy would make a $1.5 billion jump, if men did more at home
* Gender pay gap: New Zealand women share stories of bias at work
For two-parent families, the weighting of time spent on paid work was typically based on mental health, childcare and finances.
For sole-parent families, 82 per cent of whom are mothers, self-care was a luxury and the main focus was finding jobs flexible and well-paid enough to afford daycare and the increasing monetary and performance demands of modern parenthood.
Over and over again, parents told of falling into bed at night, exhausted, after fitting work presentations and deadlines around ferrying kids between different schools and extracurricular activities and worrying about their developmental needs in a technologically-driven age.
“More women work full-time, but everything around us hasn’t changed. The system hasn’t changed, it just expects so much from us,” says academic and mother-of-two Anna Ponnampalam. “And the mum guilt doesn’t go away, no matter how much you rationally know.”
We spoke to young mothers forced to pull their kids out of childcare because they couldn’t afford the fees. “My daughter’s daycare was amazing, and she loved it, but to put her in full time for me to work was going to cost more than $300 a week, and it was just not viable,” says Cassie, (not her real name). “I left in tears.”
The disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought family life into focus.
Parenting has never been easy. But the rise of employee burnout, persistence of the gender pay gap, the reported dissatisfaction of both men and women with their time spent at work and with the children, and an all-time low fertility rate suggest there’s more to it.
Have we reached peak parenthood?
‘The system expects so much from us’
Ponnampalam works at Auckland University’s Department of Physiology and Obstetrics and Gynaecology, where she’s a researcher and lecturer in reproductive biology. She is the primary caregiver of her two children, Aharan, 12, and Ahliyan, 9, who stay with their father four days a fortnight.
Her day begins at about 4am when she will wake to fit in some work before waking the kids, dropping them to Marshall Laing Primary and Blockhouse Bay Intermediate, and carrying on into the university’s central city campus. During Covid, when she was homeschooling, she would set the alarm for 2am. “Sometimes the work-life balance is a thin line or a blurry line, or no line at all.”
After school and on the weekends one or both will have swimming, water polo, hockey, cricket, or Scouts. Some nights, they won’t get home till 9pm. “I tried my best to not introduce them to cricket because it’s so long, but I think the 2019 World Cup did it. Then they were like: ‘We wanna play cricket’ and I’m like: ‘Great!’”
Since she’s had children, she’s felt torn between being the perfect mother and the perfect working woman, as if those two things were mutually exclusive. “So many people tell you: ‘You can be anything you want!’ But then people tell you: ‘You’re not going to be a good mum if you work full-time.’
“I remember thinking ‘Oh my God my career is going to be over,’ because at that time there weren’t too many people in my department who were pregnant and working.” Within her Sri Lankan Tamil community, questions were asked about who was going to feed her husband.
“I was like ‘I’m going to prove these people wrong. I’m going to be a superwoman’.”
Four months after Aharan was born, she went back to work part-time. She would ask professors to use their rooms to breastfeed, and store the milk in the staffroom fridge. She woke through the night to pump, and took tablets to improve milk production, which left her completely zoned out. When she was forced to stop, she felt dejected. “I remember crying on the bed thinking I’d completely failed.”
“There is far more pressure these days on mothers to be the perfect parent, the perfect mother, but also the perfect provider,” says Auckland University’s Dr Elizabeth Ruth Peterson, who has researched the compatibility of young motherhood with paid work.
“We hold on to this idea of what a mother should be, and what a working person should be, and they don’t always intersect very well. There’s an expectation women should exceed at everything, but there’s not enough help for them to do it.”
Along with the gender pay gap of 9.5 per cent, when women go back to work after having a baby there’s a “motherhood penalty” of around 4.4 per cent in lifetime earnings, according to Auckland University of Technology economics professor Gail Pacheco. This climbs above 8 per cent if women are off work for more than a year. For men, there is no impact.
Ponnampalam and her husband separated in 2019. While the emotional labour was hard before, now it’s another level, she says. “It’s only me, 95 per cent of the time. I have to remember when they’re being picked up and dropped off, to what sporting event. My job security is low, which as a single parent creates another level of anxiety.
“To be honest I don’t even know if I’m in an anxious state, because it’s my normal state of mind.”
She keeps colouring books in her office for when she needs to bring the kids to work, and they often appear unprompted when she is trying to present on Zoom. But at least she has a job where that’s possible, she says. “I’m always scared – I think ‘If I wasn’t an academic, how would I manage it?”
Her parenting worries include equipping her kids to resist racism and sexism in society and at school. She’ll often try and engage them in conversations about gender norms, and was rewarded when her son recently told a McDonald’s staffer “that’s the wrong question,” when asked if he wanted a “girl toy” or a “boy toy”.
“When you’re all really busy, when they’re telling you stuff, it’s really hard to know what’s getting through. You need to be thoughtful when they are talking to you about their days as well, ‘Do I have to butt in or do I have to butt out?’,” Ponnampalam says. “I find that hard and also kind of scary – am I doing a good job? In 10 or 20 years am I going to find that I have the parenting thing completely wrong?
“My biggest aim is to bring them up as equality-minded human beings in a patriarchal society. If I bring them up in that way, hopefully they can be that change in the future.
“They do roll their eyes at me. Sometimes we will be watching a movie and I’ll be like ‘that’s inappropriate’ and my sons will be like, ‘We know, can we just watch the movie?’”
Another major pressure for parents spoken to by Stuff was the desire to give their children access to enough technology to enhance their learning, while protecting them from the negative elements of social media and the internet. “Parenting is really difficult these days, and it’s not that kids have changed,” says Rowena Jones, a music teacher at Manukura School who raises four children aged six to 16 with husband Rob. “Expectations have changed.”
Aside from wanting to raise well-rounded kids, which for the Joneses means a ton of after-school activities, she thinks there’s more competition and judgment between parents. “Not only are you battling with different personalities within your own family, you’re constantly monitoring social media, which is in everyone’s home.
“You’ve just got to make decisions based on the information you’ve got. But sometimes there is just so much of it, and everyone has an opinion.”
‘We’re surviving, I wouldn’t say we’re thriving’
It’s dinnertime in the Shaw household, but Matt isn’t backing the stew he’s made. “It’s meant to be Irish,” he says, looking doubtfully in the pot. “But the meat always turns out chewy. I reckon we need a new slow cooker.”
Matt has had today off, as he’s just come back from a weeks-long stint managing the country’s isolation facilities with Operation Protect. He and Megan are both officers in the New Zealand Army, which means 40-hours plus weeks for both of them, and an equal share of the housework and childcare – though they both agree Megan does more household organising. Their daughters Genevieve, 5, and Carmen, 3, are wearing matching fairy dresses and poking at the vegetables on their plate.
“We have struggles based on the fatigue that we feel after keeping our careers on track, but also parenting to a level that we want to be parenting. I think society today expects quite a lot more from what parents deliver for their kids,” Megan says.
“If you want to be the best parent, you feel obligated to do all of the best things for your child. There’s so many choices, and there’s a lot of social pressure. It just adds to the overwhelm.”
The couple both work out of Linton Military Camp, and have no family support in Palmerston North. This means a lot of wrangling around school, daycare and after-school care drop-offs and pick-ups, and a hefty bill – around $1900 a month, which is more than the $1400 they pay for their mortgage. “At one point we tallied it up and thought, oh my gosh, how is this more than our house?” says Matt.
“I was very torn between spending that money just so I could go and have an adult day, versus staying home and saving that money and spending more time with the children as well,” Megan says. “But for us it was important to show them from a young age that we can both contribute to family life and have an individual life as well.”
Matt agrees. “I think I’d be really unhappy if I was filling a classical male role and I worked till 7pm and didn’t see the kids.”
Multiple studies have found New Zealand men want to spend more time with their children, and that women would like to do more paid work. Yet on average women spend twice the amount of time on household chores and childcare than men, even when they are employed.
Megan and Matt Shaw of Palmerston North talk about juggling parenting, day care and their jobs.
Women bore the brunt of Covid, at two-thirds of all job losses in six months during 2020. Right now, 5000 more women than men are looking for employment. “We need fewer barriers to make sure they’re able to work if they want to, whether it’s because of childcare obstacles, unequal sharing of the load at home, or employers who aren’t flexible,” says Pacheco.
Improving gender equity in the home and workplace would boost the economy by an estimated $1.5b, according to a study commissioned by Westpac. How might that balance be achieved? Ministry for Women research identifies three major factors that would help.
Those are; more flexible work hours, incentivising men to take paid parental leave, and increasing subsidies for childcare beyond the 20 hours currently provided for 3-5 year olds. Minister for Women Jan Tinetti signalled in May the desire to address at least some of these in a Women’s Employment Action Plan, currently in development.
When the kids were younger the Shaws talked about Matt taking some parental leave. While that never eventuated, they think it’s important they are both equally involved in bringing up their children. Still, when things get really hectic, Megan sometimes wonders if it would just make life easier if she stayed at home.
They say more affordable daycare would make a big difference for them and families they know. “Although it’s not necessarily designed that way, mothers are the ones who predominantly stay at home and then go back to work, and all of that happens a lot sooner these days,” Megan says.
Dinner’s over, and the kids are off. Later, the Shaws might order takeaways for themselves before trying to reset the house, doing extra work if needed, and falling into bed.
It works, most of the time. “There are lots of late nights, early starts, lots of fatigue, and lots of large-scale and small-scale arguments,” Megan says.
“We’re managing to find a balance, well, a survival balance really. I wouldn’t say we’re thriving.”