The working parents' guide to surviving the school holidays

Caring for children during the holidays is a whole new challenge for families with both parents working, says Andrea Mara

Caoimhe Ní Dhuibhinn with her partner Patrick and children Saoirse and Sean, who are enrolled in a camp for July.

The countdown to school holidays is on, and parents all over Ireland are rejoicing – eight whole weeks blissfully free of school lunches and homework. I was in that gang too, until I realised that as a newly-turned work-at-home parent, having my kids with me all summer will be something of a challenge.

Until last year, I worked in an office, and used a childminder, so summers were very like the rest of the year, but with lighter traffic. Now, school is my childcare, and I work while they’re there, so summer takes on a whole new — and petrifying — meaning.

However, it’s not just work-at-home parents who face a challenge. Caoimhe Ní Dhuibhinn works full-time in Fáilte Ireland, and isn’t entirely sure how she will manage when her two younger children, Seán seven, and Saoirse, five, finish up for school holidays.

“They go to a crèche at the moment, but during summer we’ll be juggling a bit, because we don’t want to leave them in there full-time, and it costs a lot too. Because they’re of school-going age now, they’ll know it’s holiday time, and that half their friends aren’t in crèche, because they’ve been taken out for the summer.”

Caoimhe Ní Dhuibhinn works full-time in Fáilte Ireland, and isn’t entirely sure how she will manage when her two younger children, Seán seven, and Saoirse, five, finish up for school holidays.

“They go to a crèche at the moment, but during summer we’ll be juggling a bit, because we don’t want to leave them in there full-time, and it costs a lot too. Because they’re of school-going age now, they’ll know it’s holiday time, and that half their friends aren’t in crèche, because they’ve been taken out for the summer.”

She has enrolled them in a camp in July, but she or her partner Patrick will need to take time off to collect them, because the camp ends at 2pm. This is a general problem for parents — camps are great, but the hours are rarely a fit with typical office hours.

Also, it doesn’t make sense to use up precious annual leave while the kids are in camp, especially for parents like Caoimhe who are trying to stretch that leave to cover eight weeks of summer. “It means we’re juggling the time off between us, so we won’t get much time together as a family.”

Yvonne Fahy works in management consultancy and has three children, Clodagh, six, Cian, three, and Sam aged one.

“Our crèche charges an extra €35 per half-day when the school is closed, so random days off are expensive. For summer last year, we left our five-year-old in crèche full-time. This year we’re going to try various camps and see how it works out. It’s a bit of a juggle, as they tend to finish at 2 pm or 3pm and I work full days, so I’m not really sure how I’ll manage it,” says Yvonne.

Dealing with summer holidays is difficult when you work full-time, but is it any easier for part-time workers? In theory, yes, but in practice, those who don’t normally use formal childcare can face an even bigger hurdle trying to find solutions during summer holidays.

Aveen McEntee is a nurse in Dublin, working a mix of weekdays and weekends. Her parents mind her two children, Ava Kate, seven, and Sive, four, when she works weekday afternoons, but she’s not sure that will be feasible during the summer.

“Mum and dad are at an age where it’s grand for them to take them for a few hours but not a whole day. In the summer, I might get them to take them in the afternoons and pay for a babysitter in the mornings.”

Like Caoimhe, she is hoping to enrol her children in some camps to break up the summer. “I’m going to try to do a few extra shifts in July so we can pay for them to do camps in August. That eats into family time, but that’s the juggling act. I want the kids to be happy and secure and I don’t want them to be just passed around the place; it’s hard to find that balance.”

Parents who are self-employed and work at home often try to get through summer without any childcare at all — such as Dr Naomi Lavelle, owner of Science Wows, a website dedicated to sparking kids’ interest in science. She has three children at school, Caer, 11, Culann, 10, and Rohan, six, and, with her husband Diarmuid who is also self-employed, she works around the children.

“Basically, it’s a case of getting up a bit earlier to work in the morning before the kids get up, and in the evening or late at night, too. I dip in and out during the day, but that’s very unproductive!”

Her husband often schedules his work so he can care for the children to leave Naomi free to work and, when they’re stuck, they have back-up options.

Dr Naomi Lavelle with Rohan, Culann, Caer, and husband Diarmuid. With both parents self-employed, it’s a case of getting up earlier to work in the morning before the children wake, or working in the evening or late at night, though grandparents are a big help

“Although my parents don’t live near me, they’re very good. Our babysitter lives right next door to us and my lovely mother-in-law is also a great back-up, she has helped us out a lot.”

It sounds like a juggle regardless of working hours, so do parents feel that the school holidays are too long?

It depends on how and where those holidays are spent, says Caoimhe. “In so many families, there are two parents working, and those long summer breaks are a challenge. The kids don’t necessarily benefit from eight weeks off when they’re not getting to do things and really experience summer.” Aveen thinks six weeks would be about right. “I do think come mid-August they need the routine back — as much as we do too. Eight weeks is a lot. The kids are beginning to get bored and a bit ratty, especially if it’s raining!”

Summer holidays in Ireland are a little longer than in some of our European counterparts – in Germany, it’s six weeks, and in the UK it’s six to seven weeks for many schools. Luxembourg and France have more time off, but employees typically have more annual leave than we do in Ireland, too. So do Irish children really need eight weeks?

Róisín Carey, who teaches in Hollypark GNS in Dublin feels they do. “It’s a prolonged period when children can rest, recharge their batteries, and enjoy a sense of freedom away from the restrictive regulations of school. The summer holidays provide them with the opportunity to play, explore the arts, and engage in outdoor activities. It’s eight weeks of the year when children can really be themselves. They’re only children for a very short time and should have a number of weeks each year to play freely.”

Naomi Lavelle also doesn’t feel the holidays are too long.

“I think we all need it, eight weeks works well. I always feel a bit sad when they’re going back, but I also look forward to it too.”

Summer options

If your children are in after-school or at a crèche, you can probably book them in for full days during summer, though it can be expensive, at up to €8 per hour.

¦ Some after-school providers spread the costs throughout the year, so fees don’t go up during holidays.

¦ If you have a childminder who works afternoons only, she may agree to work mornings too during summer, but this will cost extra.

¦ Camps are fun for kids, though many finish mid-afternoon, and costs add up if your children do multiple camps.

¦ If you work part-time, try sharing a childminder with another family. 

¦ Grandparents who live nearby may be able to help.

¦ Take annual leave, and don’t forget that parental leave, while unpaid, is a legislative right.

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