Are childless women at work expected to cover for mothers?

You may have seen this article asking why childless women should work longer hours at work to cover for mothers.  It’s an interesting subject – and one which raises hackles on both sides of the debate. The starting point for the article is the story of a woman who wanted to take a couple of day’s leave to help care for her elderly father – and it hightlights the way that caring for an elderly relative is not always seen to be a justifiable reason for taking time off.

In the days when I still had a proper job, I remember watching women go off on maternity leave (and sometimes coming back, getting pregnant again and going off for a second lot of maternity leave) as I was stumbling my way through rounds of fertility tests and treatment. Maternity leave seemed to me at the time to be the most glorious thing in the world, and a central part of the whole mysterious world of motherhood that I so longed to enter.  I wanted to be able to take a few months work and I wouldn’t have minded not being paid for the time – but I felt that asking for time off without a specific reason would raise questions about my enthusiasm for the job.

What many childless women find particularly difficult is the way that having a family is often an acceptable excuse for leaving on the dot at the end of the day, for being late in the morning or for taking time off work at the last minute. It’s an unspoken rule in many offices that parents take priority when it comes to holidays in July and August.  Being a parent is always a valid reason for wanting to work part-time or flexible hours, but wanting to do this when you don’t have children is sometimes seen as a lack of commitment.

No one would want to stop family-friendly working policies, but rather allow some of this compassion to be extended to childless women.  Why should you always be expected to cover for mothers?  Shouldn’t there be some give and take in the situation?  Why shouldn’t childless women be just as free to opt for part-time flexible working, to work from home sometimes or to take time off work to do things that are important to them?

These arguments are summed up by many employers rather unhelpful attitudes to fertility treatment – it’s a strange world where taking a few days off for IVF often seen as unacceptable apparently because it is a “lifestyle choice”, but just a few weeks further down the line you would be allowed any time that you needed for medical appointments once pregnant…  Surely if wanting to have children using IVF is a “lifestyle choice” then having them at all, even if you are fertile, must be a “lifestyle choice” too – and if people (usually those with children) object to the NHS funding fertility treatment because it is a lifestyle choice, maybe the childless should start objecting to paying for maternity care when that’s a lifestyle choice too…  I know, I know – we don’t want to go there, but I just get so annoyed with the idea that having children becomes a lifestyle choice if you have a fertility problem…

Anyway, I digress… what do you think about family-friendly working policies and how they impact on childless women?  Have you felt you are being asked to cover for parents in the office because you don’t have children?  Is it something we just have to grin and bear, or is it time for a more compassionate attitude towards all employees and not just those who happen to be parents?



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