The economy is close to full employment and the last Census shows that there are 1.25m children under the age of 18 in the State. So how well is our childcare system able to cope? asks Joyce Fegan
The average monthly fees for childcare in Ireland remain the highest in the EU making it inaccessible to many, says the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI).
A national survey last year showed that the average cost of childcare in Ireland stood at €745 a month. According to the Newstalk Radio study, Dublin was the most expensive, at €1,047 a month, Wicklow came in second at €1,006, and it Cork was third at €896.
With 331,515 pre-school children aged 0-4 in Ireland, according to the 2016 Census and 548,693 five- to 12-year-olds, early childcare has been described as being in a state of crisis.
“The early childhood care and education sector has a significant sustainability crisis and is reliant on low-wage and precarious employment contracts, including a dependence on summer-month social welfare supports for employees. The sector experienced a staff turnvover rate of 24.7% in 2018,” said a spokeswoman for the NWCI.
Ursula Barry, associate professor at UCD’s School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, also uses the word “crisis” to describe childcare in Ireland.
“The childcare system is in crisis in terms of affordability,” Ms Barry told the Irish Examiner. “As opposed to having the system dominated by a private market place, in the medium-to longer-term the best form of childcare is when it is publicly provided.”
Ms Barry represents Ireland on an EU-wide network that look at policies on gender equality. The network produces country reports and engages in research for various States as well. She explained that Ireland’s membership of the EU has pushed us into having better childcare supports, such as the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme.
It provides 15 hours of care a week for children over the age of three.
“The EU context has been important in terms of pushing the childcare situation in Ireland. ECCE is a policy that’s been across 28 countries, but Ireland only adopted the minimum on that and that was seen as a breakthrough. It’s also only relevant from three years on, and for three hours a day, so 15 hours a week,” said Ms Barry.
While it is progress, it does not support sustainable employment.
She also believes that care work in Ireland, whether it’s child or elder care, needs to be prioritised and valued, and that it is something the State has never seen itself as having an active role in.
Caroline Fahey, from St Vincent de Paul (SVP) said that some families in Ireland are finding it difficult to make ends meet due to the cost of childcare, despite full employment: “We did a piece of research and found that families who don’t make ends meet and one of the things they mentioned was working irregular hours, commuting around the country and how hard it is to meet childcare costs.”
“Childcare is one of the things that has been raised a lot,” she added.
Ms Fahey said families are “managing with great difficulty”.
“It is mostly households with children who we’d be assisting and single parents, who are out of work due to low-earning potential and childcare costs,” said Ms Fahey.
Childcare workers are also reaching out to SVP in the summer months, when there is no work available.
Ms Fahey said the high cost of childcare and the high cost of housing are the biggest drivers of poverty generally.
The NWCI states quality affordable childcare is good for children, women, families and the economy, and that not having access is one of the biggest barriers to women’s employment and participation in public life.
Mother of one, Kate was determined to mind her daughter herself and run her business, but after six months felt everything was suffering. She took the decision to use a creche, and it’s worked remarkably well.
Kate Rose Crean is self-employed, the owner of Dusty Boy Designs stationery and a mother of one. She is based in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford and she and her husband avail of three days in a creche for their childcare needs. Kate hadn’t considered using a crèche and had hoped she could work at home while doing the childcare as well.
“Beatrice will be two in September. She’s been in creche since she’s been 11-months-old. It’s not a decision I intended to make at all, but needs must. Years ago when I was in college, I always knew that I wanted to work for myself because family is really important but I thought I could be a stay-at-home mother and work full-time. You think you can do it all.
“I had to go back to work six months after she was born, and three weeks after she was born I was doing stuff with my husband Justin, helping with stationery orders and other business logistics. It’s just the two of us in the business, he needed that help at that time, it’s been tricky juggling that as time went on and she got older and she started moving around something had to give.
"It was like a weight off my shoulders. There is this amazing creche outside Enniscorthy, Carrig Briste, and all of her cousins have gone there. She’s outside most of the time, it’s very sensory. It’s so beautiful. I don’t have any space at home like this. I felt really comfortable sending her there. As soon as she went in she just absolutely loved it, that has definitely really helped, I know she’s really happy.
“Prices down here are a lot cheaper, €33 a day, which is pretty good, she’s in three full days. Myself and Justin sat down and said that in order for that to happen we had to make more sales, it’s been a really good driver for me because on the days I am working I’m very focused. She’s in Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and on Tuesday and Thursday I’m her mam. We go off to our cousins or go out for the day, just get outside and play with the dogs.
“Definitely, if something is pressing I have to go on the laptop, but I hate doing that in front of her, I’ll do that when she’s sleeping during her two-hour nap. I also get a lot of energy after she goes to bed, I love what I do and it’s creative.
“Organising family days off that’s really tricky, always having to look and evaluate and see what we can do, but it’s important to fill up the cup.
“Because our business is almost 100% driven by Instagram, if I’m not on during the day and if I don’t put stuff on that’s personal it affects sales. You’re always on. I’ve noticed people have stopped emailing, they’ll direct message a lot and people’s attention span is quite short. But I’m really happy with the setup, we don’t rely on family members at all, even though they’re there, we’re both working from home and we can be flexible.
“I also noticed that our business really took off in the last three years. I wanted to do something that was a bit more creative, so I said ‘let’s do four collections of really different stuff’. It felt it was completely ours and people really took notice, it was such an exciting time, we got a lot of press without looking for it. And then we added to those collections, people really responded to that, they could really connect with quotes on wall prints, — they’re really heartfelt, giftable and affordable and that took off.
“Our business has been driven by customers, we do stock in a few shops around Ireland, this year has just blown up.
“When Beatrice was born that was a crazy time, and so was it when I was pregnant with her. It took a long time to get pregnant with her, so I was so consumed with being pregnant that I took my eye off work. There is only so much you can do outside of having a baby, so the business took a hit. Then she hit six months and the catalyst was the childcare. It changed everything.
We need to ditch the idea that the ideal worker comes to work early, leaves late and lets nothing impact their work, says Siobhán Donohoe.
When I’m asked to describe myself I generally say I’m a 47-year-old mother-of-three and almost as an afterthought add that I’m a medical doctor. It’s an afterthought these days because I haven’t worked in medicine or in any paid employment since 2013.
At the time I was happy to take a break from a busy job in general practice. I had two children at home already and my eldest child had just started school. My husband’s job was busy with some travel required. Plus we’d had a baby that died from anencephaly 18 months before so it felt right that I would take a bit of time out to enjoy the arrival of our ‘rainbow baby’ and let my husband be the breadwinner for a while. But there were other issues too.
When my first was born in 2007 it became apparent that working part-time was not something that was routinely done. When I returned to work my boss was unable to offer me a part-time role in the surgery. So I found locum work in a general practice closer to home.
I worked there until my second maternity leave in 2009 and for a few months after it in 2010. I then moved to a practice about 30 minutes’ drive away. It made the day longer but our creche was open until 7pm so it was just about manageable. But as time went on, I found myself increasingly stressed by the juggling.
I was supposed to finish by 6pm but would often run late due to the unpredictable nature of general practice. The phone call to my husband to see if he could leave work to collect the children or if I had to leave to get to them on time became a frequent and regular added stress to my day.
I felt I wasn’t able to fully focus on patient care while preoccupied with the need to leave on time. Then there was the guilt and desolation of being the last parent to collect their kids from the creche on a Friday evening, almost every Friday evening. I began to question what it was all about.
By the time 2013 rolled around, I felt the pull to step back. General practice had become increasingly busy over the years and I was finding it all a bit too much. As if to confirm my decision, the introduction of continuous professional development (CPD) in general practice also added to my problems.
I completed the first year of the scheme which records doctors’ learning activity to keep them up-to-date in their work practices but at the time didn’t make allowances for doctors going on maternity leave. I had accrued extra points coming up to my leave but was told they could not be carried forward and would not be counted toward the overall five-year target.
Instead, I would be expected to do extra activities to make up the points when I returned to CPD activities after the baby was born. This was the final straw. I took the decision to voluntarily withdraw my name from the medical register rather than add to the stress of trying to complete CPD activities as I cared for our new baby who turned out to have talipes (club foot), a treatable but time-consuming medical issue to deal with on top of everything else. Having a medical career and keeping up-to-date didn’t feel relevant or nearly as important to me at that time.
We settled into our new routine: I got to spend time with the kids, bringing them to and from school and look after the baby as his club foot was treated and corrected.
Going back to work took a back seat during these important early years and while I had fleeting thoughts about making a return, more often than not I shuddered at the thought of the stress that would almost inevitably accompany such a move. Then at the end of last year, things changed.
My husband was unexpectedly let go from his job. It was a cruel blow as he had moved to this new role just a few months before. He started looking for a new role and had several interviews but no success.
Initially, I wasn’t too concerned. I know he’s a good worker and that he will get a job again but the process is long and drawn-out and works on a timescale driven by the employer and not the job hunter. So here we are halfway through the year and neither of us is working and I’m not sure where to turn.
Part of me feels I should start looking too so that at least one of us is working. But part of me knows that general practice has got more stressful and demanding and I don’t know if I am ready to put myself back in the line of fire. There may also be practical barriers to a return to work concerning retraining and medical insurance as I’ve been away from practice for so long.
I know I’m not the only one experiencing these issues. I’ve spoken to many mums who would love to return to part-time work to facilitate caring for their children but for many that option is not available.
If we facilitated part-time roles for people like me I’m certain there would be many takers. We’d have more staff for our burdened healthcare system and we’d have many experienced workers in all lines of work who have much to offer but need a bit of flexibility.
We need a new approach. We need to recognise that people go through phases in their lives when they can’t work full-time. There should be a way of facilitating a change to part-time work when someone’s life circumstances change.
We need to lose the idea that the ideal worker comes to work early, leaves late and doesn’t let the needs of their children or other dependents impact on their work. We pay lip-service to work-life balance but we don’t address it properly. This damages workers, their families, and ultimately society.
I’d like to return to work, possibly in the medical world, but I don’t want to sacrifice the small bit of sanity I have left by returning to an unsustainable working model that will make me another casualty of the system.
I don’t have an answer but we need to start working on one now for the sake of our medical services and everyone who uses them. Otherwise, I’ll just have to write the book I’ve been threatening to write for years.
“We have the dichotomy of not paying childcare staff properly, then parents that stay at home are looked down on by society — ‘you’re at home, why are you not back at work?’”
Lourda Scott is a yoga teacher and a newly elected local councillor for the Green Party in Greystones, Co Wicklow. She is a mother of three who does not currently use childcare. In the past she has relied on childminders and creches, when both she and her husband worked full time. “I’ve worked full-time, I’ve taken parental leave, I’ve been self- employed and I’ve worked part-time.
“When I was going back to work after I had Dylan, I was going back on a four-day week as a civil servant, using a parental-leave day once a week. We were looking for creche places and it was extremely hard to find one. We had his name down before he was born.
“We did a trial, but it wasn’t for him and we found ourselves with no childcare one week before I was to go back to work.
“I’d had 10 months extended leave, and we have no family around to help out. We found an excellent childminder close to our house for three years and she was excellent. She had her own pregnancy in that time and we found a crèche for her maternity leave. There is always that pressure and juggle.
“We had Rosalie, six, then and made the decision not to go looking for crèches and pay huge fees for two kids, so we looked for a minder to come to our own house and we found someone great. The offset is it’s quite expensive but I had two parental leave days. Financially it was not really worth it to go into work. It was very, very expensive, at €100 a day for a childminder.
“When we had the third child, Summer, three, between paying to get to work and paying for someone to mind our children it wasn’t financially feasible to go back to work and I moved into the self-employed world, where I’ve been for the last three years, teaching yoga and looking after two kids at home.
“I took a career break, which I did the self-employed work on, it was a no-brainer really, the financial cost of going back to work just wasn’t equating. Nor was the mental cost and commuting morning and evening, rushing everyone out of the house, rushing back in the evening, dealing with all the problems in the evening, it was all waiting for you.
“Parental leave is also not the be-all-and-end-all. You work five days in four days, you’re being paid less and all those things weigh up.
“With the second child gone to school recently, there was massive stress as there’s no community creche that takes on kids for an hour so you can do work. As a self-employed person, it’s unfeasible to do work and expand your business while also paying for childcare.
“At the moment I have a part-time job as a councillor and two children in school and the third child will be availing of the Early Childhood Care and Education. For the two-and-a-half hours a morning that I have free, they are the mornings that I will be doing my part-time work, between school drop-offs and collections.
“My typical day is getting up at 7am, spending two hours getting everybody ready to get to school, drop-offs, the library for two-and-a-half hours’ work, then collections and then unpaid childcare. In the evenings there are lots of meetings and I pay for a babysitter at night as my husband is working. Up to now, it’s been a massive challenge.
“In Ireland we have the dichotomy of not paying childcare staff properly, then parents that stay at home are looked down on by society — ‘you’re at home, why are you not back at work?’ Then there is the criticism of parents. leaving kids in creches, but being stay-at-home parents is looked down on as them not really doing that much. This attitude really has to change, caring roles have to be valued.”
“We have the dichotomy of not paying childcare staff properly, then parents that stay at home are looked down on by society — ‘you’re at home, why are you not back at work?’”
Lorna Fusciardi juggles a busy life as a mother, a full-time role in finance and an inter-county player and says her family support network is part of the secret that allows her to stay top of her game.
Lorna Fusciardi is an inter-county footballer with Wicklow. She also works in finance and is a mother of one. She and her husband have the help of their family for childcare.
“I had Harley in August 2017, she came two weeks early, and I was working full-time. I play football with Wicklow, and then I play in a club Foxrock-Cabinteely. We are one of the best in the country and it was tough missing out a full year when I was pregnant. I had Harley and came back to football six weeks after. You have a fear of missing out, and you’re rearing to go.
Going back to football and training and being with all your friends again, it was just so good, it was just good to get out. For me it was a massive thing, but support from our parents allowed me to do that.
My husband plays sport too. He was training the opposite nights I was training. It’s two hours a night, you can make time for something you enjoy, we are really, really lucky. She’s just turned two this month and it’s not as easy to mind her. I’m finding it a bit more challenging now. If she sees me with the keys she’ll wonder where I’m going, when she was younger she didn’t notice I was gone.
I took seven months maternity leave. I took the standard six months and then one month unpaid. We were in the process of trying to buy a house so it wasn’t ideal. Ideally, I would like to have tried to take the year, it goes so fast.
When I went back to work in month-seven, I wondered would she be okay, there was slight anxiety. It takes a month to settle back in, the older men and women in the office all have kids and know what it’s like, I work in the bank, work was very, very flexible.
There is so much post-natal depression you have to be so careful when women come back to work.
With childcare, my mum works nights and my mother-in-law is a carer, they divided the childminding between them. We tried a minder and it didn’t work out. I felt a bit stressed. Was it too much on my mam and his mam, worrying that they had very little time to themselves.
I didn’t consider creches because we knew we had the support there. If I was going down the route of childcare I’d like someone in the home, I do think she misses out a bit with socialisation as they learn quite a lot in crèche but it’s just the expense. If it was more affordable you’d nearly put them in a few days.
A week when I’m playing club and county means I do 8am to 4pm in work most days. I travel from Wicklow into St Stephen’s Green, I either drive or get the bus. Then I get home and I’d leave for training at 6.30pm and I wouldn’t be home until 10pm and 10.30pm.
I do that maybe three nights a week. My husband also does very similar on his training nights. Nobody is making me do this, at the weekends I’d always have a Saturday free and then a game or training on a Sunday. I do sleep well. Everyone always talks about this thing called Netflix but I don’t have time to watch it.
A few of us on the team have kids. When I came back and I was an even better footballer, I had a really good year the year after returning.
If you enjoy something or if you have a hobby you have to make time for yourself and it. The baby is a massive part of your life, but you’re still your own person and make time for that. There are always ways around things and there are ways around organising your week. You definitely need time to yourself, you need to adjust the baby into your lifestyle. You’re still a person. You can still do a lot of things. I know not everyone has a support network like I do, but you’ll find some time for you.”