Why do parents continue working if a salary only just covers childcare?

Irish parents are spending about a quarter of their income on children with some paying up to 40%. But can you imagine saving up for your childcare? Andrea Mara spoke to one mother who said she had no other choice.

Nicola Sheehan with her children Mina and Gia. For most parents, a good salary or extended family, are vital if they are to stay in the workplace.
Nicola Sheehan with her children Mina and Gia. For most parents, a good salary or extended family, are vital if they are to stay in the workplace.

Just about breaking even after paying for childcare – that’s a familiar story. Or giving up work entirely, because childcare costs too much – that’s very common too. But saving to pay for childcare – putting money aside in order to go back to work after maternity leave –would anyone do it? Cork woman Nicola Sheehan did just that.

When she and her husband decided to have a second child, the mother of two did the sums. “I realised that after the mortgage and bills, our wages would not cover a second child in crèche,” says Nicola, who works three days a week as a legal executive. “So I saved enough money to pay the second child’s crèche fees, to cover the nine months until my older daughter starts the free preschool year this September. We are both on decent wages, but still couldn’t afford it.”

“A second mortgage” is the familiar refrain when childcare comes up, and it’s accurate - here in Ireland, we now pay the highest childcare costs in Europe. Childcare typically costs 24% of net income, whereas the OECD average is just 10%. And for many parents, it’s much higher – up to 40% of income. How do parents manage this – can only those on high salaries afford to continue working?

Some people are earning enough to pay this “second mortgage”. Others rely on extended family for childcare, though this is not without its issues. And some, like Nicola Sheehan, come up with more creative solutions - even if that means effectively working at a loss.

Why do parents continue working if a salary only just about covers childcare? For many, it’s down to fear – giving up work in those early childhood years can mean difficulty getting back in later. Particularly in the private sector, where career breaks simply don’t exist. Therefore many continue working, even if there’s little left after paying for childcare.

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Extended family is also an option, and in Ireland, 42% of childcare is provided by relatives – predominantly grandparents. But even when grandparents are near, willing and able, this solution has its drawbacks. Some arrangements work well until a second child comes along, making it difficult for grandparents to manage. And of course, as they get older, grandparents may become less physically able to help out.

So what options are there for parents who can’t afford formal childcare but also can’t rely full-time on extended family? For many, the only solution is for one parent to stay at home – sometimes willingly, but often because there is no other choice.

Many parents faced with this dilemna understandably decide to give up work (be it either parent – this doesn’t automatically apply to mothers.) But Nicola Sheehan was determined to keep working, even if in the short-term, it is effectively costing her money to do so.

“I’m hoping that by September, with the free pre-school year, the burden might ease off a bit,” says Nicola. “It’s not easy, but I try to see the bigger picture. It’s only for a few short years.”

And that’s what it comes down to – she is prepared to go through some financial pain, in order to keep her job for when she comes out the other side of the particularly expensive early years. Giving up work, albeit financially beneficial for her now, isn’t what she wants in the long term. Nicola is upbeat and matter-of fact, saying, “I like my job and I’m good at it.”

READ MORE: Choosing to be a stay-at-home parent

What about the grandparent option? In fact, Nicola has her daughters in crèche two days a week and brings them to her mother’s house for a third day.

“As my mum is already minding my sister’s toddler on a Monday, she takes my older daughter then, as they are closer in age and easier to manage together. Then she takes the baby on a Wednesday,” explains Nicola. “I do a lot of driving around before work.”

Like her financial decision, she accepts some short-term pain for long-term gain.

“It is what it is,” she says. “Ideally if I was able to afford it I would have them both in crèche three days a week and let Mum just be their nana as opposed to their childminder.

“I know how exhausting it is on the days she’s minding the girls.”

Dual-income parents are sometimes criticised for farming their children out to childcare, but the reality is far from the stereotype. As epitomised by Nicola Sheehan, most are just trying to do the best they can for their families, in the face of huge financial and logistical obstacles, and hoping that by the time their own children have families, the working parent’s lot will have improved.

Because what’s clear is that without a very good salary or extended family who can help, staying in the workplace after having children is a huge challenge for most parents. The system needs fixing, and saving to go to work shouldn’t be the solution.

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