The first year it happened, I was in shock. Now I’m just pissed off.
Before my daughter started school, I had no idea that school-aged children had 12 weeks of school holidays every year. TWELVE, people! And some of the private schools have 17 weeks, which just goes to show that you can pay more and get less.
It was just too crazy to even contemplate. Who’s supposed to look after all these children for almost one quarter of every year?
Oh, that’s right. Mothers.
Who has to put their careers on hold for twenty-five per cent of every year, or try to juggle reciprocal play dates and school holiday programs or call in favours from family, while holding down a job?
You guessed it! Mothers again.
The school ground is full of desperate conversations between mothers about what to do with their kids for the next six weeks. There are the intel swaps on school holiday programs; which ones are good, safe, affordable – and not fully booked.
There are the desperate group texts begging anyone to take their kids for this day or that. Some women who don’t have family support or can’t afford school holiday programs, have no other option but to accept that they can’t work for the next six weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my daughters and enjoy spending time with them. Although, I’d be lying if I suggested that the idea of entertaining a seven year old for 42 days in a row doesn’t make me feel a little overwhelmed. Gone are the days of kicking the kids out of the house after breakfast and not seeing them again until dinner time. And sitting them down in front of a TV or iPad for hours on end is just a recipe for mother guilt.
But this isn’t an issue about quality time spent with children. It’s an issue about the inequity of who does the caring. It’s about the invisibility of said caring work and the impact that has on women’s careers, aspirations and wellbeing.
I lie awake at night trying to work out how I’ll be able sneak in a couple of hours here and there to keep my career bubbling away until my daughter goes back to school in February. Other mothers are stressed out and spending hours of unpaid time trying to work out solutions. And they do this four times every year.
Meanwhile, many fathers couldn’t even tell you when the school holidays start and finish and haven’t given a single thought to who will be looking after their kids all holidays. Many don’t even know the phone number of the person who babysits their kids on date night so what are the chances they’re going to be researching, scheduling and booking school holiday programs? Or taking on the burden of childcare themselves.
That’s a problem for their kids’ mother to sort out. And, for some women, pay for. In some families I know, childcare is seen as a mother’s responsibility and therefore the cost is deducted from her income. And we’re not talking pin money. Some school holiday programs are over $100 a day, and many of those don’t attract the childcare rebate.
And while the issue of access to affordable, high quality childcare has made it onto governments’ radars, school holiday childcare barely even gets a mention. It’s another example of free labour that is almost exclusively only expected of women. And it’s another barrier to gender equality that remains invisible to many.
While employers and corporate cultures – often begrudgingly – allow mothers to work around childcare responsibilities, it rarely occurs to them that a man would want to, let alone have to, do the same. That’s what women are for.
Part of the problem with our schooling system lies in outdated assumptions. From volunteering expectations, school meetings in the middle of the day and school holidays, women’s time is not regarded as valuable. Too often it’s simply assumed that we’re all just sitting around idly waiting for the school to give us something to do between other domestic and caring responsibilities.
The burden of school holiday care falls almost entirely on the shoulders of mothers. The short-term consequences are stress, frustration and financial inequality. But the long-term consequences, over 13 years of a child’s school life, can be devastating to a woman’s financial security and wellbeing. This is an inequality rooted at the heart of family life and all the equal opportunity legislation in the world will not solve it.
Just imagine if men were expected to take 60 days leave every year for 13 years to look after their kids on school holidays. That’s a career break of over 3 years. I’m pretty sure there’d be calls for a national inquiry into the reform of the school year and public money would start flowing to fund holiday programs.
But because it’s a women’s issue, we are just expected to shut up and get on with it. Happy holidays!
This article first appeared in Daily Life