PARENTS

How Many Parents Can Afford To Leave Work To Spend More Time With Their Children?

26/09/2014 12:44 | Updated 20 May 2015

Mohamed El-Erian

Imagine the scene. Woman has baby. Woman quits job to look after baby. This does not become international news.

Another scene. A 10-year-old girl complains to her father that he's going to miss her Sports Day. The father explains that he has to work, and that if he doesn't work, they live in a cardboard box and don't eat. The daughter sulks. The father feels guilty for providing for his family. None of this makes the national newspapers.

But when multi-millionaire Mohamed El-Erian leaves his job as chief of the world's biggest bond business to spend more time with his daughter, suddenly everyone's throwing a party for him.

El-Erian has apparently now taken on a 'portfolio' of part-time roles, including Chairman of President Barack Obama's Global Development Council. I think he's probably doing all right for himself.

The rest of us, however, don't have the luxury of this option. Although, Mr President, if you do need a hand with running the world, I'm always happy to help out.

In case you hadn't noticed, many women leave their jobs to have babies. And when they want to go back part time, they get kicked down a rung. A survey in 2012 found that almost half of part-time working mums had to take on a lower-paid and less skilled job when they returned to work after their maternity leave.

And a lot of dads are missing a lot of milestones. A recent study found that almost two-thirds of fathers have missed a parents' evening, while one in five couldn't attend their child's last school sports day. Just under a third of fathers have missed 'most' or 'all' of their child's Christmas plays and a fifth said they were 'lucky' if they caught one bath time a month.

More than half of all fathers have missed out on important milestones in their children's lives like first steps, first words and school awards ceremonies.

Is this really anything new? People have to work for a living. Shock. I doubt my great-grandfather was pulling his hair out about missing a school sports day while he was working on the docks. Perhaps what's changing is that more fathers want to be more involved in their children's lives. Which is great. But it usually comes at a cost.

What this study doesn't mention is mothers. I'd like to bet there's a significant number of mothers who also miss out on many of these milestones. Because in a lot of families, both parents work. A study last year found that the mother is the main earner in almost a third of families with children. Interestingly, there's not much mention of El-Erian's wife in any of the reports on his lifestyle choices.

But yes, there are a lot of children out there who find that neither parent can come to their Sports Day. Children who take their first steps in front of a childminder or a nursery nurse. Children who don't see a familiar face in the audience at their school play. Does it matter? If we decide that this does matter, then perhaps we need to rethink the way our society works.

Maternity and paternity leave is too short, and too badly paid. Flexible working is becoming more common – but it's still not common enough. And it seems to be a lot more acceptable the higher up the chain of command one travels. The CEO gets patted on the back for being an awesome father for wanting to go to his child's school assembly. The supermarket shift worker? Not so much.

For most families, it's a constant juggling act – we try to go to as many football matches, school plays and concerts as we can, but sometimes it's just not possible. At the end of the day, we have to put food on the table for our kids, as well as being there for them.

Sarah, who works full time and has a daughter at school and a son in nursery, says: "I do feel guilty about missing the school run and putting her in after-school club. I try to work flexibly but you can't do everything."

Catherine, who works part time and has two children at school, says: "I feel guilty when I miss things – that's just part of being a mum!"

El-Erian's moment of revelation came after his daughter gave him a note citing 22 milestones in her life he had missed due to work. Fair play to her. That's some evil genius-style emotional blackmail. And it worked. But the rest of our children don't have multi-millionaire parents, and that means dealing with disappointment, and learning that work is important, and necessary.

Unfortunately, until more workplaces become more family-friendly, there will continue to be these difficult choices, and these difficult conversations with our children. And we'll just have to put up with it.

What do you think?

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