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Returning to work [or not]

With both her kids now at school, Jean Flynn contemplates a ‘career change’.

I’m looking for a job. I already have one, but I’m interested in doing something a bit different – branching out. I’ve been in my current position for nearly eight years. It’s full-time and I always work later than I intend to, sometimes do night shifts and constantly say yes to weekends. I don’t get any annual leave, can’t take ‘sickies’ and am not part of a union. Oh, and there’s no pay.

That’s right, I’m a mother.

I have two kids, and as the youngest one has just started school, I thought I’d do something crazy: get back into paid employment. I think I’d like to do something that involves leaving the house after breakfast, doing tasks, having a lunch break, doing more tasks and going home. It would be nice to earn some money, be around other adults and sit at a desk without having to get up every five minutes to make somebody a sandwich or break up an argument.

It was my choice to stay at home after I had children. I had a stress-free administration job that I really loved, but I didn’t want to go back after one year of maternity leave. I was still breastfeeding during the day and getting up once or twice in the night, and frankly, I really just wanted to hang out with my daughter and be her main carer.

Fortunately, I wasn’t under financial pressure to return to work. Despite the days often feeling extremely long (those 3pm-7pm shifts nearly drove me insane), I never regretted my decision to quit my job. After meeting other women with babies and young children it seemed like a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do.

Now, I’ve suddenly gone from stay-at-home mother to lady of leisure – at least in the eyes of society. When people realise both my kids are at school they raise their eyebrows and say, “So, what do you do with yourself all day?” I probably get asked this question four times a week. (“Oh, just lie on my bed and read magazines till school pick-up, of course!”). There’s definitely social pressure to ‘Do Something’. I have never felt guilty about being a full-time carer before, but this year is different.

For the past couple of months I’ve been buying the local paper specifically to go through the classifieds section. I’ve also been looking at various job websites. The search makes me excited…until I fail to find anything. I don’t want to be picky, but my ridiculous availability isn’t going to suit many workplaces. My husband is a shearer and handyman, so he’s often away from the house between 6am and 7pm. Also, he doesn’t get any annual leave, long-service leave or sick pay, so he never takes a day off.

Of course, if I did get a job, would I remember how to go to work? What if it turns out that I’m ridiculously slow or think about the kids all day and can’t concentrate? What if the coordination of parenting and working is all too much?

This arrangement has worked while I’ve been at  home with the kids, but it’s going to make it tricky for me to get back into the workforce. Somebody has to be able to take the kids to school and pick them up (me). Somebody has to be home for 12 weeks every year to look after them in the school holidays (me). Somebody has to be able to stay home if one of them is sick (me). I’ve been trying to think of a job that would allow me to do all of this, but I’m not sure that one exists. Although working from home is an option, I’d prefer the stability of being an employee, with set hours and a set income.

There’s another problem, too. Even if I do find a perfect job, what are my chances of getting it? How can I compete with other applicants when I haven’t been to work for nearly a decade? My main skills at the moment are: limiting the weekly food shop to $140, making dinner out of the leftover veggies at the bottom of the crisper, getting three loads of washing to fit onto one clothes horse and reading Enid Blyton books aloud in a posh accent.

Parenting abilities would probably look better if they were translated into resume-speak: I am a team leader, educational coach and project officer with experience in financial planning, mediation and welfare innovation. I can work independently and am proficient in tackling unforeseen issues calmly and efficiently.

Now I sound professional.

Of course, if I did get a job, would I remember how to go to work? What if it turns out that I’m ridiculously slow or think about the kids all day and can’t concentrate? What if the coordination of parenting and working is all too much? A friend recently started working again after spending 12 years at home with her four children. The part-time job was good, but she quickly realised how difficult it is to be the main carer and go to work. She used up all of her leave in the first three months because her children were sick, one after another.

Despite all these job-hunting difficulties, I feel I must persevere. It sounds silly, but I had an imaginary deadline (the day school started), which I have clearly failed to meet. I’m starting to feel slightly panicked about the whole thing, but really, why is this? Maybe the real issue is that I’m embarrassed that people might think I’m slacking off. Although I do genuinely want a job, perhaps my motivation for finding one – escaping the ‘lady-of-leisure’ image – is unwarranted.

Yesterday I was telling a friend about my search for employment and she simply said, “Jean, there’s no rush”. That was it. No snide subtext, no judgement. No one else has reacted this way. I think she might be right. After all, my kids are seven and four – there’s still so much parenting and housework to be done.

If I’m not at work I will be available to help out at school, which the kids will love. I’m sure there will come a time when they don’t want me anywhere near their classrooms, but at the moment they’re both very keen for me to attend excursions, assemblies, class presentations and other events. I can still keep looking for a job – I will keep looking – but not in a crazy, desperate way. As long as I know that I’m not lazing around all day eating chocolate, surely that’s all that matters. When people raise their eyebrows and say, “What are you doing with yourself these days?” I might ask them the same question.

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