After five years of stay-at-home parenting, I returned to paid labour this year. During interviews, my potential employers referred to my half-decade of caring as “time off”. One described it as a “prolonged spell away from the workforce”. As if my brain was extracted in the birthing suite back in 2016 and frozen in a cryogenic vessel until further notice.
“And when was the last time you managed a team?” A young graphic designer asked me over Zoom.
“This morning,” I replied, my children’s screams still ricocheting around my temporal lobe.
“Oh great. Can you tell me more about that?”
“Sure. My five-year-old was wailing because we were running late for kinder and my three-year-old was refusing to get down from the top bunk. I injured my back last time and the hose doesn’t reach that far, so I decided to change tack …”
“Sorry, I mean a team at work.”
“Do you mean paid work?”
“Five years ago.”
I inhaled slowly through my nose and readied myself for the next question. I’ve breastfed two babies through the night next to a snoring partner. I’m excellent at metabolising rage.
In the first episode of Netflix’s Maid, Alex, played by Margaret Qualley, escapes an abusive relationship with her young daughter and tries to find a job. A support services manager asks her if she has any special skills. The vision cuts to a flashback of Alex and her child on a gentle morning beach.
“No,” she replies.
Alex learns of her limited career and housing options and takes a job as a cleaner to make ends meet.
If employers recognised parenting as a special skill Maid would be a very different show. For starters, it wouldn’t be called Maid but rather Project Manager, Strategy Lead or Warehouse Team Leader. It would still be centred around a woman who leaves an abusive relationship, only she would land a job that pays enough to cover food, housing and childcare.
“How would you manage a dissatisfied client?” continued the graphic designer through my computer screen.
I’d remind them that they just ate and that dinner was almost ready, but if they were really, really hungry they could have an apple slice. When they started to scream I’d stop what I was doing and crouch to meet their eyes, stare into the abyss of human wanting and blow a raspberry on their neck. I’d serve them a wholesome meal and watch as they pulled it apart and threw it on the floor, only to say an hour later how hungry they were, whimpering softly in bed, apparently weak with starvation. I’d bring them an apple slice and sit them up until they’d finished it to ensure they didn’t choke, before returning to the kitchen to salvage what I could.
“I’d pass on their feedback to the account manager,” I answered.
There are articles on how parenting skills apply to the workplace. Many refer to them as “mum skills” and are accompanied by images of grinning women scooting children down hallways in laundry baskets.
Some list “time management” and “planning” as separate categories, and encourage parents to list “driving children to and from engagements” as an example of each on their CV. Other articles implore businesses to hire more primary carers, and list quotes from CEOs about parents’ impeccable leadership skills, grit and creativity. They position parents as multitasking superheroes who are guaranteed to improve a company’s bottom line.
I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Primary carers make exceptional employees, but they often require additional support. We’re like the troubled sports stars of the workplace. Only instead of factoring in resources to cover legal fees for violent outbursts, employers should make provisions for school pickups and the occasional sudden absence.
I was at the beach recently with a mother of three kids under five. She’d just turned down a part-time job as a receptionist at a psychology centre. After childcare fees she would have ended up $50 out of pocket, but had considered taking the job for her mental health.
A heavily pregnant woman walked past us holding hands with a toddler. I shuddered. I’m only just recovering from my own experience with two kids under two.
“That’s magic,” said my friend, gazing after them.
“Do you want another one?” I asked, bewildered.
“No. Definitely not. But at least I know how to do it.”
Primary carers have spent the last however-many-years growing humans and forgetting to keep sunshine and water for themselves. They need employers to believe in them. Then they can bring their grit and creativity to a company’s bottom line.
“Do you have any special skills?”
I caught a toddler before they reached a main road with milk dripping from my naked breast. I think I can learn Google Slides.