We shouldn’t make it hard for parents to stay home and care for their children

HOW can any progress be made for children in Ireland if every single time anyone suggests an alternative approach to their care they are accused of wanting to send women back to the kitchen?

Short of printing the paragraph in shocking pink, I don’t think I could have been more explicit that this was not my intention in my column here last week. I wrote: “I really am not saying that mothers should stay home if they don’t want to. These are decisions which parents should make for themselves. Deputising to a minder or a family member if you both go out to work is a good idea.”

This was described on this page on Tuesday by Fergus Finlay as “a sweeping condemnation of childcare.”

Far from “condemning childcare”, I was suggesting only that babies and children under three do not get optimal care if they are in commercial creches full-time because the ratios of carers to children are too high.

I do not believe this because I have joined the Branch Dividians. Yes, sure, it started as a hunch when I was touring creches with my first baby in a sling. But my hunch has been backed up by some of the most exhaustive research ever carried out on the subject and by some of the biggest names in child psychology including Penelope Leach, whose Your Baby and Child sold two million copies and Steve Biddulph, whose Raising Boys sold four million copies.

Full-time creche care is unpopular with Irish parents. Independent research in this newspaper in 2005 found full-time care by parents used by 52%, while grandparent care was used by 8%, care in a minder’s home was used by 6%, and full-time creche care was used by 3%.

But although parent care is so popular in Ireland and all over the world, I believe passionately that wanting to do the job of caring for young kids is a requirement for being good at it. And this applies to parents as much as to childcare workers.

So even if you leave aside financial necessity and gender equality, it is clear that parents shouldn’t have to stay home with kids if for any reason they don’t want to.

Probably the reason I am so adamant about this is that I am thankful my mother didn’t stay home with me. She found herself pregnant with me at 42, 14 years after she thought her family was complete.

She showed both great insight in hiring a wonderful woman to care for me. Annie said she “had God annoyed” with asking for a child of her own so she more or less adopted me. I was gutted when she succeeded in adopting a child for real. Three decades later when I had a baby and was looking for childcare a very elderly Annie rang me in and said she was terrified I was going to put him in a creche and was preparing to travel 20 miles a day to mind him herself.

Annie didn’t have a degree, let alone a Leaving Certificate. But she was brilliant with children. Will the Annies of this world, childminders in their own homes and in children’s homes, who make up most of the childcare workforce, survive if the childcare workforce is wholly professionalised?

Granted, childminders are not adequately regulated or resourced. In Denmark, the poster child of creche culture, it is a growing trend for children under three to go to a “daycare mother”, who cares for three children but forms a network with four other daycare mothers and is resourced by a “play house”.

Our childminders can offer tiny children good one-to-one care — one-to-one baby plus a couple of toddlers perhaps — for a fraction of the capital cost of creches but they do need more help. But no matter what childcare is on offer, lots of parents want to stay home when their kids are tiny and more would if they only could. So why do we in Ireland make it so difficult? All over the OECD governments recognise the unique care responsibility that is a baby or toddler under three years. Though it is notoriously hard to compare the different regimes, I counted at least 11 OECD countries which facilitate leave for parents of children under three, or part-time work, or both.

In Finland, France and Norway there is an allowance for a parent to stay home with an under-three. In Germany, Austria and Sweden parents have three years’ leave between them and a right to part-time work. In Spain the parent of an under-three has a right to unpaid leave and part-time work until the child is eight.

The right to part-time work for parents of young children has been established to differing extents in Belgium, New Zealand, Portugal, the Netherlands and even, in the UK.

But in Ireland we think we’re doing a baby or a toddler a favour by providing a creche place where they can be one of three babies, one of five toddlers under two or one of 10 over 2 and a half. We think we’re doing parents a favour by suggesting they might be able to watch them on a CCTV camera.

And when you suggest we might do better by you’re accused of wanting to send women back to the kitchen sink.

The problem for Irish parents, who would love to stay home with their kids for a while, is that neither of the two great dogmas dominating Irish life have any place for raising kids at home. The first is conservative capitalism. The second is the conservative left wing.

This is no doubt why we have never, in this country, conducted any real research into outcomes for children in different childcare services, nor have we even conducted an audit of international research. The National Childcare Strategy (2000) dodged the ball completely by only reporting research into group care for kids aged from three to six, and going on to make recommendations for younger kids.

But there have been moments of hope. Labour’s Eithne Fitzgerald published an amazing manifesto called Cherishing Our Children in 2002. It made many suggestions and one of them was three years’ parental leave.

At the time I was working in a newspaper office, having gone back to work full-time when my first child was four months old, and again when my breastfed twins were eight months old. I had been refused parental leave.

No wonder I was excited when the headline concerning Fitzgerald’s plan for parental leave was read out at an editorial conference, but the men all laughed. I went bright red and spluttered that three years’ parental leave was, in fact, common all over the EU. I was politely ignored.

I am older now and my voice has grown stronger. I don’t mind how many people laugh when I say that babies and toddlers need consistent, one-to-one attention and parents need choices, which include staying home with them if that is what they want to do.

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