The grey area of the parent trap and the failure of work to tackle it

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Jasmine Gartner
Training consultant
Jasmine Gartner Consulting
Columnist
Womba/Mumsnet
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I’m going to make a bit of a generalisation and say that there are really only two ways of working in our society. One way is task-orientated and the other way is clock-based. You can imagine this as the difference between a freelancer’s life and an office worker’s life.

Task-orientated work

If you’ve ever worked as a freelancer or run your own business, you’ll know that you work differently than you do when you work for a company: all the freelancers I know (myself included) are always working on their business.

If I don’t do whatever needs doing, quite simply, it won’t get done. I intersperse other tasks throughout the day that, in an office, wouldn’t constitute work (doing the shopping, for example, or prepping dinner). I don’t differentiate between “work” and “non-work” tasks.

I also choose when and how much time I have off. And, I might take time during the day to chat to friends, email my sister, and go to yoga.

Take my local café, for example...

It was started a few years ago by two locals.

Today, as I sit in the café writing this piece, Laura, one of the co-owners, is fixing chairs.

Because she runs this small business, she does whatever she needs to in order for it to be successful – when it first opened, it meant she was making the croissants herself as well as serving coffee and planning menus.

But, unlike when she had a job in the City, she can also come in when she wants to, she can bring her young daughter in if need be, she can take care of domestic chores as she wishes.

The line between “work” and “life” is not so clear-cut. You can see it either as all work or all life.

Clock-based work

This really changes as soon as you start to work for someone else: there starts to be a distinction between the time you put in for them and your “own” time, and you start to separate out activities that ought to be done in each of these kinds of time.

Typically, household chores and childcare, going to the doctor, or doing upkeep on your home, are seen as things you do in your own time, not on company time. Buying holidays or chatting with friends are also things you should do in your own leisure time.

Work and leisure are seen as opposites, with work being purposefully separated from the rest of social life.

And as long as you fall into one category or the other – you work for a company or you don’t –  this isn’t a problem.

It hasn’t always been this way

It’s really important to remember that this distinction between what you do at work and what you do outside work is an artificial separation.

Before the Industrial Revolution, life for most people was a lot more like Laura’s life – a lot more like a freelancer’s life or a small business owner’s. I’m not speaking here about how hard life was back then, I am simply saying that clock-based work was not prevalent, if it existed at all.

All work was about getting tasks done, and it didn’t matter whether those tasks were domestic, or childcare, or making things to sell, or working the land.

There's now a grey area...

But what if you straddle the two categories? What if you work for a company, and then you become a parent?

Parents – and perhaps, especially new parents – have to live an activity-orientated life like the freelancer (children need to be taken care of when they need to be taken care of, not at scheduled tea breaks), yet they have to fit work into the time allocated by their contract with their company.

Many companies have tried to solve this problem for parents by Frankensteining the two ways of working together – this, of course, is flexible working.

But it's not a great solution, because it’s still expected to be regular and consistent, and we all know that real life is neither regular nor consistent, even more so when young children are involved.

And while flexible working goes some way towards correcting this imbalance, not every job easily lends itself to flexible working. If you work in a factory or an oil rig, flexible working isn’t an option.

Helping parents out of the parent trap

So, here are my tips for organisations who want (and who can) to square the horns of the dilemma:

  • Instead of expecting parents to allocate a specific amount of time to being in the office, switch to thinking about how many tasks you’d like them to perform and in how much time
  • Let parents figure out how to get those tasks done while also spending the time they’d like to with their children or taking care of the tasks that having children entails
  • Think about how this will seem to those without children – will they see it as an unfair advantage or preferential treatment? Why not think about extending task-orientated work to them too?

Are you a parent? Or an organisation who has come up with innovative ways of helping parents to both have satisfying work lives as well as allowing them to take care of their children in the way they’d like?

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