Opinion: Battle to juggle career and family on the farm

Can a farmer’s wife have an off-farm career? Or is being a farmer’s wife a job in itself? A mum-of-two shares her thoughts.

I am weighing up my options for returning to work from maternity leave. This is a difficult decision for most women at the best of times, but when your husband is a farmer, it is an even bigger decision.

I am a qualified town planner who works for a local authority. I love my job and I spent five years studying to get where I am – I did a geography degree and a masters in planning, both obtained from London universities.

You have guessed it – I am not from a farming background, but married a farmer. I tied the knot with Stewart in 2010. He works on the Chandler and Dunn family farm in Kent, which is 600ha split between arable, fruit and grass for livestock.

I remember my husband’s late grandmother being horrified that my sister in-law and I went back to work after the births of our first children.

Granny actually asked me: “Well, who is going to make Stewart’s breakfast when you are at work?” I have never made Stewart’s breakfast and put the question down to her being somewhat old-fashioned.

Breakfast aside and another child later (David is now two-and-a-half, Nathan is eight months), I understand where she is coming from. Being married to a farmer does seem to be a job in itself.

However, I have worked hard to get where I am and my job is no less important than farming.

The extra money allows us to have a better lifestyle – it means during the very limited window in which we can take a holiday, we can have a nice one. I also enjoy the company of my co-workers and the mental stimulation.

“You can’t work from home when you are driving a tractor or when some spraying needs to be done” – Danielle Dunn

But juggling working, a young family and the demands of farming is extremely challenging.

Even now that companies by law have to offer flexible working for employees, this just doesn’t seem to apply to farming. For example, as I write, my husband, although technically finished for the day, has just gone out to load a grain trailer.

His record working hours are 92 in one week during a difficult harvest.

Chandler and Dunn have even set up a childcare voucher scheme for its employees to help with costs. This doesn’t change the fact, however, that the farming day is not 9am-5pm (nursery hours).

Following my return to work after having our first son, my husband did the nursery pick-up, but this was challenging. Not only did his L200 truck not fit in the car park, he struggled to squeeze the trip in. Often I would come home from work and get handed a small child so he could go back and finish the job that the nursery run had interrupted.

During harvest, when my husband just couldn’t pick up our son, I had to use my annual leave to leave the office early or take my reports home to finish there.

The modern world of work supposedly allows for flexibility, but you can’t work from home when you are driving a tractor or when some spraying needs to be done. Health and Safety would, quite rightly, have a field day if you took a difficult toddler out with you on the tractor for the day.

I am not sure how relevant the legislation on working rights is for farmworkers with young families. Presumably a farmworker could request to share their partner’s parental leave and take upwards of 26 weeks off work? But in most instances this isn’t an option.

My husband is entitled to paternity pay, but following the birth of our second child he was back at work within 36 hours, because (perhaps due to poor planning) our second child was born in the middle of potato harvest.

It isn’t just childcare that is an issue; looking after the home is difficult too when you are working, which brings me back to my husband’s breakfast.

Stewart actually makes his own breakfast and cooks most of the other meals in our house too; he is just better at it than me. He normally cooks the dinner while I bath and put the babies to bed, but again in harvest this all changes. I then face the eternal challenge of thinking up a meal that can be easily transported to the combine while warm and eaten on the move with ease.

It isn’t all bad being a stay-at-home mum and farmer’s wife. I have really enjoyed spending time with my family and looking after a new puppy, and I can’t imagine a more idyllic place and lifestyle for the boys to grow up in. I love my family and I will do whatever it takes to make it work, including taking a career break if I have to.

But does a part of me wish I could return to work full-time? Yes, absolutely.

Do you have experience of this subject? Do you have strong views one way or the other? Email tim.relf@rbi.co.uk

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