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Ladies, Here's The Thing: We Can't Have It Both Ways

Bill Shorten Was Half-Right On Childcare. But We Need To Prove Him Wrong.

07/06/2016 12:12 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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We can't complain about that unfair division of household chores and childcare duties, if we don't step back and allow men to have a go themselves.

Childcare. The experts tell us it's one of the pivotal points upon which the coming federal election will turn. And you can see why. For an overwhelming number of Australian families with kids it has simply become unaffordable, unreasonable, unworkable and, for far too many, unattainable.

Who wants to work, just to have the privilege of sending your kids to childcare and finding that you are, literally, going backwards financially? That's if you can even secure a place at a local centre. Any centre...

That's why both major parties have been keen to push their family-friendly policies out there.

On Sunday, that is exactly what Opposition Leader Bill Shorten did by announcing a $3 billion childcare package that would potentially give working families an extra $1600 per child should Labor win office on July 2.

"I understand how everyday people live their lives," Mr Shorten noted. "I understand the dilemma of the pickup and the drop off. I understand how difficult it is for a working woman, with the kids, trying to work out how on earth does she go to work if 80 percent of what she's earning gets eaten up in child care fees."

Great! A politician who is listening. Who is living in the real world. Who actually gets working families and the ongoing struggle to juggle. And then this...

"Let's face it, the men in Australia rely on the women in Australia to do the childcare and organise the childcare."

And that, right there, for me at least, was the problem: the belief that childcare is "women's work", and that we women would all be letting the side down if we didn't just accept it, so that men can then get on with doing all the other more important stuff.



Language is such a subtle thing, but so very very powerful. In that single line, in among all the good logic and empathy, Bill Shorten helped grant men permission to just keep "relying on the women".

No worries, mate, because that's just the way it is.

Yesterday, he clarified his comments, explaining that he was simply describing the unfairness of what is going on in so many Australian households: that women do a disproportionate share of the domestic work, and it's time for that to change.

And on that he is 100 percent right.

What surprised me most though, in the overwhelming tide of comment that resulted yesterday, was how many women didn't particularly want to change when it comes to their share of the domestics and childcare. Even though exhaustion and fights were a common theme.

To quote just some of the feedback I received after calling out Mr Shorten's comment on The Today Show yesterday: "Bang on, Bill! If I left my husband in charge of the kids, I shudder to think what they'd eat, and whether they'd even get to school. He's hopeless, so I have to do it all."

Or this: "I think I would die from shock if my partner looked into childcare!"

And: "Look, it's just so much easier if I do it all. My husband would have no idea how to pack a lunchbox, what time pick-up is, how to sew on a missing button, when or where their sport is on... or even how to cook a decent half-way healthy meal. We both work full-time, but I get so frustrated whenever he is in charge of the kids, it's just easier –- and there are fewer arguments -- if I do it myself. And yet, I completely resent that it has got to this point. The whole thing is exhausting."

But, ladies, here's the thing: we can't have it both ways. As exhausted working mums, we can't complain about that unfair division of household chores and childcare duties, if we don't step back and allow men to have a go themselves.

They may not always get it right first time round, but if we throw up our hands in frustration at the first sign of a badly mopped floor, toys kicked under the cupboard and Mr Five Year Old sent off to school without his jumper and play lunch, then it's inevitable you really will end up doing it all yourself –- and slipping into a state of perpetual, resentful exhaustion.

And speaking of Mr Five Year Old, this will continue to go on for generations if, when he gets home from school, he's not encouraged to help peel the potatoes and take part in the washing up just as much as Ms Seven Year Old.

So it's up to us to break the cycle. Believe me, I know. I had to do it myself. After years of being in charge of a big team at work, I found it hard accepting the chaos that comes with kids, and being one half of a two-career couple. And my husband was, and I say this with great love, a little unreconstructed when we first met. (I blame too many professional football tours.) It took more than a little patience. And overcooked vegetables.

But between us, we've mostly found our balance, and worked out our strengths and weaknesses on the domestic front. On organising childcare, he's always been fantastic. Domestics? He tries. Doesn't do it exactly as I'd like, but on those occasions when he does accidentally throw a red bandanna in with a load of whites, I've learned to turn a colourblind eye. And while I still think he believes there is a magic toilet roll fairy, he has more than made up for it over the years in recognising when Mummy needed a sleep-in, and taking the kids off to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. Some things, Mummy just doesn't need to know.

So while all sides of politics finally appear to be getting serious about providing more accessible child-care, and that is a great step forward in closing the gender gap, surely the rest is up to us.

To borrow that famous line: If not us, who? And if not now, when?

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