Short changing working mothers

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'Baby bonus?', by Chris JohnstonThe headlines said it all. 'Mums delayed births to boost bonus'. 'Baby bonus a health risk, say doctors'. And this from Herald Sun columnist and mother of two Robyn Riley: 'Dollars but no sense'.

According to a report released this month 'hundreds' of mothers delayed giving birth last year to be eligible for the government's higher baby bonus ($4133, up from $3166). And expect much of the same next July when it's bumped up to $5000.

The subtext was palpable. 'Selfish' women taking advantage of the system. The fact they were pregnant just made it worse. They put their and, more importantly, their child's health at risk. And for what? Less than $1000.

But rather than coming across scores of heavily pregnant Australian women across Australia with their legs firmly crossed, the University of Melbourne report 'Born (Again) On the First of July' found that only '687 births were moved from June 2006 to July 2006, representing about seven per cent of births'.

It also found that the delay was 'most probably' due to the 'timing of planned caesarean section and inducement procedures', both already widely practised by women seeking to fit the birth of their babies in and around a vacancy in their obstetrician's diary.

One thing the report didn't explore was why the women held off past their due dates in the first place. Here's a theory: paid maternity leave. Or, more to the point, a lack thereof.

Currently, working women are entitled to 52 weeks of unpaid leave (shared between both parents) after 12 months continuous service with one employer.

What this breeds (sorry) is anxiety. A survey of 165 women, also released by the University of Melbourne, found that women with no access to maternity leave were more 'worried, depressed and irritable'.

'Working conditions have an impact on women's psychological and emotional wellbeing during pregnancy,' said the report's author Amanda Cooklin. 'In particular, the worry about financial security and ongoing employment after the birth leaves women feeling very vulnerable during such a crucial phase of their lives.'

Any wonder they felt compelled to hold out for an extra $1000? (Or $967 to be exact which, take it from me, buys a decent number of nappies. Or a new pram, cot, change table or any other 'necessary' accoutrement for baby.)

More worrying is the Australian Institute of Family Studies report that found that even those with access to paid maternity leave weren't taking advantage of it, or being encouraged to do so. Last year, only four per cent of working women relied on paid maternity leave, with the majority relying on a combination of paid and unpaid leave.

During last month's election race, the time was ripe for the introduction of a government-sponsored paid maternity leave scheme. And most of us will never know how close we came.

The Coalition appeared all set to offer women working in small- to medium-sized businesses a scheme that promised new mothers a government-sponsored minimum wage for between 12 and 14 weeks. With its 'me-too-isms', it's not unfeasible that our current government would have followed suit.

It was certainly doable and, compared to recent spending, relatively inexpensive. Approximately $350 to $597 million a year, according to the last HREOC report. Contrast this with around $780 million paid out in baby bonuses last year.

But while Mr Howard and Mr Rudd both tried to woo working mothers with plenty of family-friendly pledges, there was no mention of the scheme. Instead, their promises of more child care and tax breaks for private school fees were simply icing on a non-existent cake. Funny, how it still left a bad taste in the mouth.

As Eva Cox, chair of the Women's Electoral Lobby and a pro maternity leave campaigner, tells it, a society that doesn't provide a paid maternity, or paternity, scheme 'disrespects women in paid jobs by denying them, and men, paid leave for time spent in parenting a new baby'.

While the baby bonus is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the family purse, it's just that — a bonus. A 'generous' package filled not only with promise but problems. What it gives with one hand it takes away with the other, thus ignoring the social and economic worth and relevance of working women.

Take the wrapping away and what you're left with is a pretty flimsy policy. To blame the women for taking advantage of this is akin to shooting the messenger, not to mention a blow to common sense.

Too posh to push (on time)? Forget that. Calculating money grabbers? Give me a break. These women weren't holding off for any real capital gain, but would it really matter if they did? Call it righting some wrongs, because as things currently stand working mothers continue to be short changed.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and deputy editor of the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry (currently on maternity leave).



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