‘We Struggle So Much To Even Have A Career After Kids’: Why ‘Picking Up The Mum Slack’ Is A Feminist Issue

In part one of our ‘the mum slack’ story, we looked at the expectation being placed on child-free women to take over the time and responsibilities of their colleagues with children, who have to work between school hours. In part two, we speak to mothers at work about the pressure on them to perform as if they don’t have an entire second shift to manage, and we look at possible solutions that managers can bring in to help this problem.

At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culturewhy perpetual striving might not make us happierworking-mum guiltletting go of perfectionismbattling burnoutjuggling work with the mental load and SO many more.

Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? Are there more things we could ask our employers for? And what changes might we want to see in the workplace?

Welcome to our series What Working Women REALLY Want. If you have story ideas, or are keen to be interviewed about a topic, please email us at [email protected]!

Liz* from Wellington is offended by the phrase ‘picking up the mum slack’: a term used to suggest that working mothers are ‘slacking off’ by leaving work early, and/or arriving late, in order to do the school run.

“I’m privileged that I work in IT so I can ‘work extra’ to make up for the ‘mum slack’,” Liz says. “No one ever questions my productivity. If something absolutely has to be done at school-run time, generally a meeting, then I take that call on Bluetooth in the car while driving. As a senior woman in my industry, I also try to model and normalise the fact that I DO go and get my kids at school-run time, and I put in place methods to make this work, e.g. it’s in my diary as a meeting etc.”

‘Most days when I leave work, at least one person says something like ‘lucky you! I wish I was finishing early’ as if I’m going to be relaxing’

“Comments like ‘picking up the mum slack’,” Liz adds, “always make me sad because I see this as an indictment of our society and the self-centredness it encourages, as well as the idea that women’s domestic work is seen as incompatible with non-domestic work”. Because we all know that mothers put in long days between paid work and unpaid parenting.

Liz doesn’t appreciate the attitude that working mothers are being granted unnecessary favours. “Something that galled me recently was when I was saying that, if affluent companies want people to return to the office [after the pandemic-era hybrid working], then maybe they should think about subsidising city-based childcare and parking, as those are two big financial burdens that you don’t have if you work from home. A woman said to me ‘what do I get if I don’t have kids though?’.

“I wish I’d had the presence of mind then to have a retort at hand, because ultimately I do firmly believe that robbing mothers of options is not ‘fairness’. It just limits our whole gender, as women are the ones who are culturally expected to drop out of the workforce – or self-limit their career so they can work it around children. This is a feminist issue, but you have to have strong, cogent rebuttals at hand to convince people because you’re fighting against their desire for individual gain.”

Mel* is also bothered by the term ‘picking up the mum slack’ and similar sentiments expressed in different words. “There’s a lot of this privileged sort of stuff from child-free people who complain about co-workers who have kids. Like, cool, no one minds if you don’t want children but you’re really not being oppressed here – we struggle so much to even have a career after kids. Also, most days when I leave work, at least one person says something like ‘lucky you! I wish I was finishing early’ as if I’m going to be relaxing. LOL!”

The majority of the women I canvassed said that, when they leave for school pick-up, they get comments like ‘lucky you’, or ‘afternoon hours, I wish!’. Kate* says “I’m self-employed now but in my last job the deputy manager had a habit of saying things like ‘nice for some!’ or ‘hope you enjoy your afternoon off!’ as I left at 2.40 to do school pick-up. As if I was going to be lolling on the sofa for the rest of the day!” Kate made up the hours at other times, sometimes doing an hour for free. “But my manager never commented on that.”

Cassie* says “I quite often get comments about ‘oo, afternoon hours!’. I know I miss the end-of-the-day rush when others help each other finish their work, so I’m not seen as a proper team player. Years ago it would have bothered me, but now I’m like, ‘na, I negotiated these hours, I get up at 4am so I can be here early, I do my job well, I have the right to work like this’.”

When Work Doesn’t Fit Into 9 To 5

The ‘picking up the mum slack’ attitude is particularly aggravating for working mothers who make up the hours in the evenings, weekends, or early mornings – or who are equally or more productive than their colleagues by working really hard in the hours available.

Also you could argue that if working mothers don’t manage to get through quite as much work as a child-free colleague, perhaps that that’s fair enough because, hey, they’re raising the next generation. Even if you’re worried about overpopulation, these kids will eventually pay the taxes when we’re getting superannuation.

Mary* says: “I do think some child-free people could show more respect for people raising the next generation of politicians, caregivers, taxi drivers etc as they will come to rely on our babies as they grow up, with [childfree people] having done little to contribute – apart from complaining about taxes being used to [help] support families.”

As Josie* puts it, “The whole discourse around ‘you chose to have them, it’s your issue’ is a feminist issue, and a neoliberal issue. Children are seen as an individual responsibility rather than a communal one which is f***ed on so many levels.”

Some women think that some child-free rhetoric is taken too far. Lauren* says “the current anti-child or child-free movement often translates to anti-mother. I have no issue with women who choose not to become mothers, but I do take issue with those who use that choice as a way to punish and talk down about women who have made the choice to be a mother or been forced into being a mother. It’s like this weird mix of internalised misogyny and faux woman power.”

Is There A Solution To This?

Transparency about arrangements can help. For instance, if an employee will be making up hours at other times, or is contracted for fewer than 40 hours, this should be made clear to everyone. Also, an employer (or manager aware of employment arrangements) can temporarily redistribute tasks to others when necessary – for instance if a deadline is looming.

HR manager Helen* mentions ‘glide time’: a system permitting flexible working hours at the beginning or end of the day, provided an agreed period of core time is spent at work. “When you leave work early, as in before your usual finish time, for family reasons,” Helen says, “do you then work from home to make up the time, or do you stay longer at work on other days, or do you take on something else for someone else?”

“Someone’s [childfree] colleagues might feel less aggrieved if they’re aware of the glide-time arrangement – and if they’re aware that glide time is, or should be, available to them for any reason: e.g. if someone wants to leave early for a haircut, that’s also okay, if they follow the same glide time expectations as someone who leaves for family responsibilities.”

Carmen* says if child-free people feel they’re doing more than their fair share, they should talk to their manager. “Then it’s on the manager to have the conversation with their team about equity and inclusion. As a ‘people lead’ where I work, I have mums in the team, but also have someone with an elderly parent that they take to appointments, another that has a diabetic cat, another that travels to Queenstown monthly as her partner lives there. We all cover each other when needed for the ebbs and flows of life. That didn’t happen by accident but by deliberate conversations and role modelling.”

“As for someone grumbling about ‘picking up mum slack’, having the manager chat to this person about recognition sounds important. They might find this is a perception issue rather than reality. Working mums are some of the most productive people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

Another possible suggestion for a solution to the whole conundrum: that we all work school hours or a four-day week.

*See LINK for Part One of this story, from the perspective of childfree women. Please let us know your thoughts on social media or [email protected] for a potential Part 3!

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