Few people realise how flammable maternity bras are. Under the right conditions they go up like a drought-stricken quokka. Burning bras is of course a rather hackneyed way to draw attention to a protest cause. But this is what we did under the auspices of the Mothers of Intervention, on the steps of the Victorian parliament, on the release of Pru Goward’s Valuing Parenting report in 2002.

Goward had made strange bedfellows with Sharan Burrow of the ACTU to recommend 14 weeks universal, publicly-funded maternity leave. That’s right. It was 2002.

Seven years on and the memory of our charred, melted bras seems as good a symbol of recent gains for mothers as any. We mothers have all of us spent years in training, working and paying taxes. We all of us everyday, carry on the relentless grind of unpaid caring and domestic labour, that guides our littlies toward productive and participatory citizenship. In that sense we had all of them “for the country” and each of the blessed little blighters does their bit to counter the ageing demographic.

Tuesday’s budget night follows close on Sunday’s Mothers’ Day. Only 22% of Australian enterprise agreements make provision for any paid maternity leave, a recent study at the University of Sydney by Marian Baird has revealed. Under these positively industrial-revolution era conditions mothers are being forced into early returns to work.

Let’s be absolutely clear about what this means. Women who are at times still recovering from birthing, establishing breastfeeding, sleep-deprived, passing clots, with painfully distended breasts and at the height of attachment, are sitting at their desks when they should be with the babies who need them.

Part of our difficulty is that too few of women who have experienced birth and newborn babies are informing the policy-making around paid maternity leave. It is unimaginable and unconscionable that new mothers and new babies should be torn apart from one another before they are ready because a wealthy government fails to understand and provide for the dictates of their bodies.

The Productivity Commission draft report has recommended 18 weeks pay at the minimum wage as a government-funded parental leave provision. We are facing a national skills shortage, which may put women in a better bargaining position in demanding leave from their employers. The more flexible the work arrangements, the more women are able to continue participation in the workforce. However, since women still dominate in lower-paid jobs in the service sector they are also most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the economic downturn on unemployment.

A number of recent studies have shown that differences in men and women’s access to paid leave around the birth of their children establishes and entrenches patterns of inequity in the home. Pressures on women working the “double-shift” are simply unsustainable. Without access to paid leave and, just as critically, without enough support from their partners in caring and homemaking, women face a stark choice between having children and employment. Rationally and reasonably women are opting for fewer children — I know I did — having profound effects on low levels of fertility and the aging demographic.

To counter these trends government policy needs to consider and provide for men not just as breadwinners, but as care-givers. It won’t be enough to support mother’s domestic and care commitments. Any paid leave needs to consider the particular needs of mothers as bearers and breast feeders in the early stages of child-raising. But, if we genuinely want to encourage equity in the home as well as the workplace, men need to be integral in family-friendly provisions — including access to paid leave.

A payment that attaches to the child and allows parents to negotiate the best time to take that leave, whether together or separately, or whether to spend that money on childcare at the right time, enables most flexibility. That is, as long as their choices are not forced by their respective workplaces paying men higher wages and insisting on inflexible hours, or demotion on their return to work.

Few people realise that Mothers’ Day was first celebrated in 1870 by an American civil war mother protesting her sons’ enlisting and advancing the cause of pacifism. Julia Ward knew the value of her work as a mother, but she also toiled in a no-man’s land between the public sentimental mythologies of mothering — the motherhood statements — and its actual valuing and exploitation by governments. This budget we mothers want our due for Mothers’ Day. Mr Rudd and Mr Swan need to keep in mind that women also vote with their wombs.

Peter Fray

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