Finding a balance? Work, family and economic security: insights from parents in the Life Chances study

Ursula Harrison and Dina Bowman

How has becoming and being a parent affected the economic security and financial wellbeing of participants in our Life Chances longitudinal study?

The Life Chances study began in inner Melbourne in 1990 with 167 babies and their parents. Since then, stages of the study have focused on different issues, from services for young children, to experiences of school and finding a job and to parenting.

Stage 13 of the study explored how the experience of becoming and being a parent affected economic security and financial wellbeing. It provided insights into the influences of gender and policy contexts, including paid parental leave, childcare and the right to flexible work on parents’ decisions about work and care.

The research team designed the study in two parts: an initial survey of current participants (122) in the Life Chances study; and in-depth interviews with 17 who were parents. The interviews explored the impacts of becoming and being a parent on their financial wellbeing, employment and domestic arrangements. Thirteen mothers and four fathers were interviewed, with 26 children in total ranging in age from nine weeks to eight years.

Dive deeper

Through the interview process, we found the following:

  • Most wanted to share the work and care: Once most interviewees became parents it was difficult to maintain equal care, and they tended to fall back into gendered roles where mothers did most caring work.
    Achieving a financial balance between work and family was often difficult. Mothers felt pressure to ‘return to work’, and fathers/partners felt pressure to keep working.
    Mothers reported carrying the mental load of parenting.
  • The gender pay gap reinforced gender roles: Mothers were more likely than fathers/partners to change working arrangements once they had children. Patterns of unpaid care set up in early parenthood tended to indicate that mothers would do more of the unpaid caring and domestic work over time.
    Part-time work, a key driver of the gender pay gap, became the norm for most mothers in the early years of parenting. Mothers more often organised work around caring responsibilities, whereas fathers’ participation in caring was typically arranged around their usual working hours.
    Having a supportive and responsive employer who understood the demands and responsibilities of parenthood was very important.
  • Take-up and coverage of paid parental leave was patchy: Some mothers were not eligible for the federal Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme due to insecure or interrupted work. Those eligible often experienced a loss of income due to low payment levels. They also lost superannuation contributions because this does not apply to the federally funded 18 weeks of leave. Because of this, even mothers who received both employer paid leave and federal PPL, still experienced a loss of income.
    Most fathers/partners did not take two weeks’ Dad and Partner Pay (DaPP) citing loss of pay and ‘the hassle’ of applying. With employer paid parental leave, when available (typically offering one week only), some extended their leave by taking annual leave or carers’ leave.
  • Limited and costly childcare restricts choice: Difficulty accessing timely childcare resulted in some mothers rescheduling their return to work. Lack of childcare flexibility forced mothers who worked variable hours to rely on extended family or, in one instance, to employ a nanny.
    The high cost of childcare was also a financial burden for parents.
    High effective marginal tax rates also influenced mothers’ decisions about returning to paid employment or working more.

We need to create a more equitable distribution of care

Recent refocused policy efforts by the federal government are positive attempts to place women’s economic security more firmly on the agenda. Applying a gender lens to all family-related policy areas will ensure the removal of barriers to gender equity, enable women to participate more fully in paid employment and reduce the mismatch between desired work and care arrangements for men and women. Policy levers include boosting childcare affordability and availability, developing models of paid parental leave that encourage more equitable distribution of care between mothers and fathers/partners, and supporting greater take‑up of flexible work options by fathers/partners.

Last updated on 19 March 2024