Joyce Fegan: In 2020, is a woman's place still in the home?

Parents don't need €1 here and a week's leave there, as promised in this week's budget — what parents need is a public model of childcare
Joyce Fegan: In 2020, is a woman's place still in the home?

Liz and Sebastien Costigan Fleury with their 18 month old twins Zac, left and Jules. Photograph Moya Nolan

It is just so ironic. Lockdown exposed how crucial the role of childcare is to the functioning of our society and our economy, and then the Government reveals its big giveaway budget and there's not a whiff about it. Not a whiff.

Parents don't need €1 here and a week's leave there — what parents need is a public model of childcare, full stop.

And it's not just parents that need it. It is you, the policymaker, the politician, the civil servant. Why? Because, in years to come, when all this borrowing has to be repaid, whose taxes are going to pay for it?

Yes, that's right the babies of 2020, and beyond — our future taxpayers. But with the cost of childcare being so high as to be prohibitive — what adult in their right mind is going to propagate or continue propagating if they can't manage to work to keep a roof over their head and pay for childcare at the same time?

But sure you don't need to worry about that now do you? Because women, as always, will step into this unpaid breach.

The Central Statistics Office carried out surveys during lockdown looking at the social impact of Covid-19.

The survey results showed us the same trend that other statistics have always shown us: Women, in the main, pick up the slack, the unpaid slack, in the home.

For example, more females than males reported childcare issues. More females than males were caring for a dependent family member or friend. And more females than males found it difficult to work from home with family around.

And right before lockdown, Oxfam found that women in Ireland put in 38m hours of unpaid care work every single week. If they received a wage for this work, it would cost the State €24bn a year.

But nice work if you can get it for free, right?

Five years ago the McKinsey Global Institute showed that family care work in Ireland is shared unequally between women (70%) and men (30%).

So when the parents of Ireland, and in particular the mothers, just about survived lockdown without even as much as a public swing to push their child on, how did the Government respond?

By doing absolutely nothing to create a public model of childcare. Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

This is not a mothers versus fathers situation either. Because men who found themselves working from home witnessed first hand just how crucial childcare is to the running of their life. There were Zoom meetings with colleagues interrupted by singing princesses, who would receive a virtual round of applause from daddy's work friends. There was homeschooling to be done in the evening, after the working day and the dinner.

But as the CSO found, unfortunately women carried that burden, on the whole, more than men.

Again, it's not a case of mothers versus fathers, it's a case of the Government stepping in to create public childcare. Why? Right now childcare workers and Montessori teachers get paid pittance to mind five to ten children each day. And come summer they're on the dole. How can these workers have children of their own and pay mortgages?

And this is highly valuable work they are doing. They are minding and nurturing our future generation or, seen another way, our future taxpayers. They are also minding and nurturing our future generation in their precious first 1,000 days when fundamental building blocks of emotional and mental health and secure attachment are hopefully being formed.

And yet, as mother to twin boys Liz Costigan Fleury pointed out in this newspaper this week, the 15 free childcare hours (Early Childhood Care and Education — ECCE) kick in when a child reaches three years of age, or two years and nine month. By that stage, those crucial first 1,000 days have passed and if a parent opted to not work outside the home, they've a career to wrestle back to life. Seen another way, that's a taxpayer missing from the system for three years.

Just when we thought we were moving out of the dark ages when it came to childcare in Ireland, with the introduction of the National Childcare Scheme, which provides around €20 a week towards the cost of childcare, this year the Government does nothing. Neither that payment nor the ECCE hours increased — despite us seeing how crucial childcare is to the running of this society and its economy or, said another way, this economy and its society.

Parents are forced to choose between giving up paid work or using one of the household's income to cover childcare costs. Picture: PA
Parents are forced to choose between giving up paid work or using one of the household's income to cover childcare costs. Picture: PA

Childcare allows parents to work outside the home and pay tax. Instead, parents are forced to choose between giving up paid work or using one of the household's income to cover childcare costs.

The costs of childcare in Ireland are among the highest in the EU. To stay with the EU for a moment, those ECCE hours aren't as good as they can be. ECCE is a policy that’s in 28 countries, but Ireland only adopted the minimum hours.

So when a family gets those three hours a day, and you include drop-off and pick-up, what part-time job could you rush off to for about two or two-and-a-half hours a day?

And remember the hullabaloo over insurance costs affecting all sorts of businesses? Some creches are closing "baby rooms" because the insurance costs are just too prohibitive.

So now parents are increasingly unable to avail of private childcare in the first year. Presumably the Government is aware of this too?

What does a parent do? The options are as follows (and none bode well for Paschal's public purse): Leave paid employment, rely on a grandparent if they should be so lucky, or pay a childminder cash in hand.

Census 2016 also showed us we had a childcare issue, with 331,515 pre-school children aged 0-4 in Ireland, and 548,693 5-12-year-olds. Like the insurance costs issue, presumably the Government is aware of the census figures too?

Who knows? Or is it a matter of who cares? 'Mná na hÉireann will pick up the unpaid slack' seems to be the unconscious motto of this State.

And yet parenthood, with its sleep deprivation, tantrums, toilet-training, runny noses, and sibling rivalry, is among, if not the most, rewarding jobs on this planet, should you so choose it. For some, it's an utter privilege to be at home with their beautiful babies, to help children with their homework every day, and to cook nutritious meals, but for others, that is neither affordable nor their preference.

As the clichéd but factually correct saying goes, "it takes a village" to raise a child. It's ironic that the State has never seen itself as part of that village when it comes to public childcare. And it's even more ironic that all the borrowing for the budget will be repaid by the future taxpayers of this State: Our children.

So to say the State does not have a role to play when it comes to childcare is like saying a heart does not have a role to play in the functioning of a body.

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