The new National Childcare Scheme aims to make childcare more accessible and affordable for families. Joyce Fegan looks at the changes set to come into place from October.
This October, the Irish childcare system is set to change, with the launch of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS).
It aims to tackle both the accessibility to and the affordability of childcare in this country for parents with children of all ages.
From October, several things will come into place.
One of the main measures from which parents will benefit is subsidies towards childcare.
Subsidies will be available for families with children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years who are attending any participating Tusla-registered service, including childminders and school age childcare services.
It is the first-ever statutory entitlement to financial support for childcare in the history of the State.
There are two types of supports available — a universal subsidy and an income-assessed subsidy.
The universal subsidy will be available to all families with children under three years of age. It will also be available to families with children over three years who have not yet qualified for the free preschool programme.
It can be used towards the cost of a registered childcare place for up to a maximum of 40 hours per week where parents are working, studying, or training, or in circumstances where a parent is unavailable to care for a child.
Where parents are not working, studying, or training, the subsidy will be paid for up to a maximum of 15 hours per week.
As part of Budget 2019, the income thresholds used for assessing the level of subsidy to which a parent may be entitled were raised.
The significant increase in the scheme’s maximum net income threshold from €47,000 to €60,000 per annum enables some families with a gross income of €100,000 to qualify for income-related subsidies.
“When operational, the parent will be able to apply for a subsidy online or by post. A parent is required to have a verified MyGovID when making an online application.
"A verified MyGovID is a single, secure account to unlock Irish Government services online,” said a spokesman from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
These changes will go some way towards assisting families with childcare, as statistics show that the majority of parents of young children are employed.
According to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, where primary caregivers of five-year-olds are at work outside the home, an average of 29 hours are worked per week.
There are also changes to parental leave. From September, there will be an extension to parental leave from 18 to 22. There is no data yet available on the take-up of this scheme.
For new parents, there are also some new benefits coming down the line.
From November, there will be the introduction of the new parents’ paid leave and benefit scheme to allow both parents to take additional time off during their child’s first year. Initially, this will be available for two weeks per parent but will increase over time.
This is in addition to the benefit paid to working partners who have since September 2016 been able to avail of two weeks’ paid paternity leave, which must commence before their baby reaches six months.
Paternity benefit is paid at the same rate as maternity benefit, €245 per week.
In 2017, the first full year of the scheme’s being in operation, 26,559 fathers availed of it.
Overall, research here and abroad shows that parents want to spend more time with their young children.
According to the department, across Europe, both women and men would prefer to work fewer hours per week for most of their lives, particularly during the phase of life when they have children.
In an international context, greater employment flexibility is associated with higher rates of female employment and there is considerable demand for a range of flexible working options among working parents.
Both the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and Barnardos have been lobbying the Government for changes in the area of childcare.
An NWCI spokeswoman said that several things need to be addressed so the country can have a better childcare system: “As the sector is predominantly staffed by women this has the consequence of perpetuating negative gendered labour patterns.
"In order to provide a system we can be proud of, the State needs to increase investment incrementally over coming budgets to 1% of GDP and establish a model of funding that ensures proper wages for the workforce and affordable fees for families, particularly those living in poverty such as lone parents.”
Barnardos is calling on the Government to come good on its promises.
A Barnardos spokeswoman said: “In 2018, the Government published a 10-year strategy for babies, young children, and their families called First Five.
"To move towards a high-quality and affordable system the Government must deliver on the implementation of First Five.”
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone told the Irish Examiner that she is “committed to improving access to affordable and high-quality early learning and care and school age childcare”.
“I have always made clear that this area was neglected for many decades and it will take several years to rectify, but good progress is being made,” said Ms Zappone.
Funding for early learning and care and school-age childcare has increased by 117% in the last four budgets, going from €260m in 2015 to nearly €574m in Budget 2019.
Avril Flynn is a self-employed midwife and host of ‘Motherboard,’ a podcast. She has one child, Felix, aged one, and uses a doula as well as a childminder.
“I wasn’t even sure if I would continue to work or if I’d be a stay-at-home mum,” she says. “I had done a law degree, then moved back home to study midwifery.
"I had always been on the fence about having kids, but I loved my jobs and I loved kids.
“But then I got pregnant and I really didn’t enjoy pregnancy. My mum is dead 15 years, and it was a really triggering time.
"This was a much-wanted and planned little person, but I had my own existential crisis, and, as a midwife, I felt like a bit of a fraud.
“I was then asked to present ‘Motherboard’. I started doing it during my pregnancy with Felix. I had loved giving birth, and when he was born I was so delighted.
"He was healthy, I was breastfeeding, and I got mastitis several times and I was pumping.
“Then, my husband found DoulaCare.ie, two weeks after I had Felix. I needed something that was for me, and with all that going on, I found doing ‘Motherboard’ very cathartic. I was able to be honest about finding it tough.
“It was at this time that I decided to give my own business a really good go. I went on to mindme.ie and the gods divined.
"I found the most amazing childminder; she’s been with us since Felix was about four to five months old.
"She looks after Felix several mornings a week, and it has totally enabled me to start my business, do the ‘Motherboard’ podcast, and write articles.
“All my family live in Dundalk and my mum is dead. My husband and I had discussed crèche, but we needed him to be looked after at home.
"Fiona has enabled us just to have our life. I couldn’t exist without her; we are just so so lucky to have her.
"My work and being able to get out of the house saved me. Now, he is very happy and smiley. I love the fact that I am back at work, but each to their own.
"I have nothing but respect for people who stay at home. You need to do what’s right for you; whatever permutation works for you.
“Having a doula from two weeks up until Felix was four months was a great help. They’re amazing and they will come for however many times.
"I was pumping. I was getting one hour’s sleep every 24 hours, but with a doula I could go to bed for several hours and it saved my sanity. The doula came during the day and at night, too.
“Then, we decided to start my own business and so we needed more permanent care. We were lucky to find Fiona.
"That’s 20 hours a week, and that allows me to do something in the morning and then me and Felix hang out in the afternoon. When he goes to bed, I work again.
"I’m still a midwife. I will always be passionate about antenatal education, especially for people who are marginalised, from gay parents to single parents, to people who use a surrogate.
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"I provide tailored antenatal care packages and they get that in the home.
"It works like a class: There is hypnobirthing and being baby-ready. I love it and, more importantly, it fits around my son, who is the priority.
“If I had never had Felix, this wouldn’t have happened. The birth was very empowering and healing. It provided me with so much peace.
“I just think, if I’m going to do something, why not now? What am I waiting for? Be the role model you want to be.
"I was forced to re-evaluate my working life. I didn’t realise how important working life is to me, but I found the balance by doing it my way.
“It’s so important to me to have other facets to my life. You need to find what’s right for you and your family, and ask for help.
"The permanent state of guilt we live in has to stop. Everyone has such similar feelings around this.
"Do what’s right for you.”
Kathy Milliken says it’s easy to become the forgotten women when motherhood takes over — we do tend to put everything else before ourselves and then think: ‘How did I get here?’
Kathy Milliken mixes being a stay-at-home mum with growing her business, Bump, Baby and Me.
She is a mother of two to Ayla, 4, and Robyn, 2, and when she is working her childcare consists of full days in a creche several days a week.
“Our childcare is a bit of a mix and we’ve been down most routes. We had an amazing childminder but then with changing circumstances we went down the creche route,” she says.
“I went with the creche after six friends recommended it, I did my own thorough checks, but there was no choice, I have to be OK with handing my child over, I have to continue to work, but sure, the guilt comes in.
“Life can be pretty hectic. I work full days Monday and Wednesday and some evenings, but every evening I’m on my laptop doing admin. Tuesday is our fun day, I try not to do too much work.
“On Thursday I volunteer with Cuidiú — I’m a breastfeeding counsellor. The girls often have to come with me. I am a trained doula as well.
"I am a birth and postpartum doula and provide antenatal support, but all that has gone on hold as you could be out of the home one to two days for a labour.
“My main work consists of being a stay-at-home mum half the time and growing my business.
"I teach classes and run empowering parenting workshops where I invite other professionals to host workshops on various topics that will support parents and parents-to-be.
"We have lactation consultants, child resilience coaches, toddler behaviour specialists, paediatric first-aid courses, women’s health physiotherapy, baby sleep solutions, cyber safety for children and lots more in the pipeline.
“Ayla and Robyn are both in creche part-time, they do a few full days. I am still dropping them off and collecting them.
"I’m in the house working and I think: ‘Oh I better go get them’. This is with running my business and teaching antenatal and postnatal classes.
"At the moment, Robyn only has a space until December and we’re back in the question mark area again. I’m crossing my fingers she can keep her place.
“Ayla goes into her second year of ECCE [Early Childhood Care and Education] soon, and I’ll be paying the full-day rate to keep her a couple of hours later.
"Robyn is in full days on Monday and Wednesday and then from December until September we may have no care until ECCE starts.
“It’s a juggling game — the juggle struggle. But it’s important not to power struggle with that struggle. We are OK that things won’t always feel balanced.
"Keeping things balanced is exhausting so we just try our best to go with the flow and know lots of things are just phases.
“Steve, my husband is self-employed too. He owns Performance Therapy Ireland, PTI, and one year ago he co-founded BikeRowSki.ie.
"It’s a heated studio where you bike, row, and ski. It’s a huge cardiovascular workout that is high-intensity and has a party/nightclub feel.
"There are four franchises at the moment in Dublin — Fairview, Balbriggan, Glasnevin, and Kinsealy.
“I know a couple of mums who are full-time at home, it’s very rewarding but pretty intense. I’m not sure if I could do that, I honestly take my hat off to any man or woman who is at home full-time.
“It’s important not to forget ourselves. You can sometimes become the forgotten women when motherhood takes over — we do tend to put everything else before ourselves and then think: ‘how did I get here?’
"So carving out time for ourselves is so important.”
Kara Heriot works full-time in an ad agency and also runs the monthly support group Mum Talks. She is mother to Thea, 5, and she relies on a childminder.
“I was working in RTÉ when Thea and I had the best experience of childcare, as we had a crèche on-site. I had no stresses.
"From when I was 12 weeks’ pregnant, her name was down. I was able to drop her at 8.30am and collect her at 5.30pm.
"I had her there from 11 months until I decided to take a new job.
“I had the challenge of trying to find childcare, as I had to take her out of my old work crèche. I fully believe that if I’m happy, she’ll be happy, and I knew I was not going to get an opportunity like this again.
"She was three when I changed jobs and then my world opened to what crèches were like. There’s only one crèche in my area, and it has a very long waiting list, so I found this other crèche.
"I went in with my husband and the kids seemed happy. I used to leave her in and I’d leave crying.
"I’d started a new job, but there was still something in my gut. I didn’t feel right about it.
“I got close to her teacher. Thea was coming home and things didn’t seem right. Thea came in one evening imitating smoking and we’ve never smoked in our life.
"I got her teacher to babysit one evening and I started asking questions. She was lovely. She said she would keep an eye on things.
”I got up from my desk, and I told my boss: ‘I have no childcare, but I have to pull my daughter out of the crèche. I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ My boss was amazing.
"After that, I found an amazing Montessori and there was one space. They do their numbers and arts and crafts, and it’s near enough to where we were living.
"It was the making of Thea, going into school. It was small and intimate, and there was an afterschool there, too.
“I took redundancy when she was five and going into senior infants. I asked myself: ‘OK, am I going to be a stay-at-home mum?’
"Being a stay-at-home mum wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind. It wasn’t something that I had ever gone: ‘Oh, I’d love to be a stay-at-home mum.’
"But it did allow me to focus on Mum Talks and then pick her up, so I ended up being at home with her in senior infants and first class.
"I found it lonely during the day, as I didn’t have the office environment and everyone else was working.
“Thea wasn’t finishing school until 3.30pm, so I then decided to go back into advertising and take a new job.
"It was a new career path in an ad agency; it was fast-paced. Then, I had to look for childcare in this circumstance.
"I joined every Facebook group in Ireland of au pairs; I wanted a live-out one.
“So I got 15 girls who had been in touch with me. They were students in the morning and I couldn’t give them massive hours.
"I went to a coffee shop and interviewed 12 girls in a row. Then, I met our new childminder and I got a really good feeling about her; she’s amazing; she’s part of the family.
"For the summer, I’m coming out cost-neutral between summer camps for the morning and the childminder. We have also split our annual leave.
“I also run Mum Talks with my friend, Lucy Edge. We had both lived in London and there was so much for mums, but there was nothing like that in Ireland at the time, so we said we’d do something.
"We started monthly meet-ups for mums, where they could bring their baby or go solo.
"From our monthly talks and listening to our mums, we saw that their was a lack of support for mums returning to work after maternity leave, so we decided to launch ‘Return to work with confidence’ workshops.
"We host talks in Dublin and Cork. There needs to be tax relief against primary school childcare, some sort of tax relief; they don’t do anything for primary school-aged kids.
"You’ve to pay for the donation, all the after-school activities and all the books.
"There should be some sort of financial help for parents and to encourage mums back into the workplace, if that is what they choose to do.”
The connection between happiness and parenthood relates to social supports that countries offer, says Joyce Fegan.
Does parenting reduce your happiness levels?
In 2016, researchers at the University of Texas published a study in the American Journal of Sociology that examined social surveys from 22 European and English-speaking countries.
At first reading, it might look like people without children report higher levels of happiness, however, when examined more closely, the connection between happiness and parenthood relates to social supports.
Parents in the US, Britain, and Australia were found to be less happy than childfree people in those countries, but in places such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Hungary, parents are actually happier than people without children.
The researchers looked at various governments’ policies, specifically “the duration and generosity of paid parenting leave, the number of annual paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law, the cost of childcare for the average two-year-old as a percent of median wages, and the extent of work schedule flexibility offered to parents of dependent children”.
Researchers found that those policies explain the difference in parental happiness among different countries.
Unhappiness is not caused by having children. It is caused by having children in a country that does not support parents.
Ursula Barry is an associate professor at UCD’s School of Social Policy, Social Work, and Social Justice.
She also represents Ireland on an EU-wide network that look at policies on gender equality.
Childcare is a key issue when it comes to gender equality.
Ms Barry told the Irish Examiner that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, “has moved things in the right direction”, in terms of childcare in Ireland, but that the sector still has “a lot of issues”.
“In Ireland, we have a relatively high level of child benefit, we have a cash payment but we don’t have State-provided childcare,” said Ms Barry.
What works well is when child-care is provided by the State, as is the case in Britain.
“In the UK it’s provided by local government, we don’t have that public involvement here,” Ms Barry.
“The Irish State didn’t want to be seen to be supporting women going into the workplace as opposed to women being full-time carers in the home.
"Funding childcare services would support women going into the workplace.”
Aside from seeing State-support of childcare as of benefit to women, some countries look at it from the perspective of what is best for the child.
“In the most of the European countries, especially Scandinavian countries they see childcare supports as being of benefit to children, not to support women going into work,” said the associate professor.
There are proven benefits for the children primarily, when a system is developed with a model that has the child at the centre of it.
This was acknowledged by the State, in its national childcare strategy First Five, published last year.
It has been shown that in countries where parents provide all of the care work for the first year of a child’s life, the child benefits greatly in terms of cognitive development, social skills, attachment, and resilience later in life.
Data has shown that children born into low-income areas and households, benefit even more from this year of care.
Ms Barry also called for more debate about the quality of care for early childcare.
However, overall, the associate professor said the “care economy” needs to be prioritised in a way that it just is not at present, be that eldercare or childcare and other ongoing care.
The country and State needs to take responsibility for the “care economy”, which has been influenced by traditional thinking, where care was seen as part of the domestic sector.