Back to the office

Working with kids during the pandemic has been challenging (I may never actually recover), but the flexibility has been brilliant. Something I wrote for The Age.

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The debate about how the world of work can realistically accommodate mothers juggling childcare and careers is not new.

But as Victoria reaches its 90 per cent vaccination milestone and many of us head back into the office, the nature of the debate has changed – many of us have now spent long periods working from home, and we know it works.

As a working mum of two young children, my experience of working from home is that the flexibility it offers has made me a more productive worker and a better parent.

Working and parenting often feels like you’re trying to fit a star-shaped block through a square hole. No matter how hard you push – with compressed hours or recruiting grandparents to help – it never seems to fit and it’s a constant juggle.

In March 2020, when I was due to return to the office after maternity leave, I was planning how to manage breastfeeding and calculating the number of hours I wouldn’t see my kids. Then the pandemic hit and my daily commute shrank to the 20 steps to my dining table.

I wanted to spend more time with my second-born but never anticipated it would be a virus that would enable this to happen. She attended childcare until centres closed to all but essential workers.

Suddenly, breastfeeding was possible and I didn’t have to worry about pumping milk before work. I worked around her naps and even developed a late-night work rhythm with other mums, the emails going back and forth between 8pm-11pm.

Then when childcare opened up again, I could enjoy the convenient travel situation – all it took was a three-minute jog down the road to childcare in my tracksuit pants. I no longer had to factor in heels or travelling into the city.

Our work days were shorter and the kids were home earlier. We could all enjoy the small things that connect families – dinner, baths and watching TV together.

I could also be with the kids more easily when they were sick. Rather than feeling embarrassed about requesting carer’s leave for yet another sniffle, my partner and I tag-teamed through it. We didn’t have to constantly advertise our absence from the office and could manage our kids’ illness more discreetly.

As the pandemic rolled on, I felt more confident in applying for new jobs. I’d clung to the old one for the location and flexibility it had given me, but the changed situation meant I could go for more challenging jobs, confident that the pandemic had created a climate that made requesting a family-friendly work situation unnecessary.

Pre-COVID-19, I had conversations with other mums about when you should bring up the “f” word (“flexibility”) in job interviews. The consensus was that if you brought it up too early, you’d likely be out of the running. The lack of flexibility offered in many jobs no doubt prevented many mums from applying for roles they would have excelled in.

Family and flexibility is not something you should feel you have to hide. The pandemic has shown me that it’s possible to balance family life and work – not perfectly, but in a better way – and it would be a shame if that was lost in the big return to the office.

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