‘With two young kids and extortionate childcare, we’re living in a constant state of financial plate juggling’
Dominique McMullan shares her strife at the current childcare crisis, writing that she is 'sick of feeling like my skills as a mother and my skills as an employee are at ends with one another.'
I am writing this from my in-laws in County Mayo. We had to escape down here for help with my two boys (11 months and 3 years) as their creche is closed for the week due to staff shortages. Their creche is brilliant, the staff are mostly young Spanish people who are so loving and kind with the kids. We are so grateful, especially considering people just up the road from us had their children down for a year to attend this creche, and a few weeks before their start date were informed that there was no longer space. These are exceptional circumstances, they were told. But these exceptional circumstances seem to be impacting the entire industry, and those who rely on it.
We are in the midst of a childcare crisis. I don’t think anyone would debate that. But this is not new, in fact I wrote about this very crisis three years ago, when I found it nearly impossible to find childcare in the Ranelagh area for my firstborn before I went back to work. I’m not even sure the word crisis really means much anymore, so often has it been used over the years.
So, let me spell it out. For us, crisis means spending more than €2,000 a month on childcare that is not reliable. It means a veritable second mortgage. It means (mostly) women – in a very real way – being pushed out of the workforce. We have two children that are not yet old enough to qualify for any meaningful childcare support (such as ECCE, the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme). Financially, we are close to a point where it would make more sense for one of us to stay at home and mind the kids. That someone would be me. Many of my friends are in the same position. I love my job, and moreover, I need it for my mental health and sense of purpose.
Stay-at-home parents are truly the unsung heroes of our modern society, and I have the most gigantic respect for them, but a stay-at-home career is not for me. I need to work. I want to work. If the cost of childcare rises any higher, I may not have a choice. We’ve just moved into a new house, something for which I am deeply grateful, understanding the current market. But it took the financial help of two whole families’ to get us here. The weight of a housing crisis, plus a childcare crisis, is pushing down on us.
We are living in a constant state of financial plate juggling, trying to balance priorities, needs, wants and doing the “right” thing for ourselves and our boys. This comes in tandem with time juggling. Two boys are a full-time job, never mind the two full-time jobs my husband and I work at during the day. There is always an email to be answered, a nappy to be changed, a food shop to be done, a call to be returned. Most days I don’t mind the juggle. But what I struggle to understand is how two hard-working people, who pay taxes, who do all those things responsible adults are meant to do, are still finding it hard to make ends meet?
Some days it’s tempting to throw in the working towel. I ask myself, “Wouldn’t the boys be happier if they were with me, rather than in creche? Wouldn’t it all be easier?” It can certainly feel like the easy option when little faces cry as I leave in the morning, or when the invoice for this month’s fees arrives in my inbox. When mum guilt kicks in and I ask myself, “Am I doing the right thing for them, leaving them in the hands of strangers?” I pull myself together and remind myself that they need interaction with other children, I need interaction with other adults and “I love my job, I love my job”.
It can feel like the whole system is set up to make it hard for women to work. Huge fees, staff shortages, closures, child sick days spent struggling to keep heads above water, waiting lists where names need to be put down before the child is born, etc etc etc. Even the ECCE help that we are due to get in September, works off a system that provides free childcare only for children aged 2 years 8 months and older, from 9am-12noon Monday-Friday, and not on school holidays.
Now I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth, I am ETERNALLY grateful for any help at all, but 9am-12noon during school term isn’t really going to do much for a full-time working mum, is it? What about the ages under 2 years 8 months? What about after 12noon every day? What about school holidays that aren’t work holidays? It’s easy to understand why generations of parents, and mothers, in particular, flee the workforce.
There are three problems in the childcare sector – affordability, supply and quality. Each of these is essential to a healthy, well-run sector. And a healthy well-run sector is essential to a healthy, functioning society. Fees are too high. This much is obvious. Globally Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland have the least affordable childcare for the middle class in wealthy countries (according to a Unicef survey from June 2021).
You might think that with high fees comes a quality service and good compensation for childcare workers. Not so much. Staff are leaving the childcare sector in their droves, hence our son’s creche being closed due to staff shortages. From what I can see, this is due to a combination of low wages, lack of accommodation, and a difficult working environment. The high turnover of staff of course impacts the quality of service provided. It’s no wonder that creches are closing and waiting lists are years long.
Good childcare is an essential foundation for a prospering economy. In last year’s budget, the Irish government put together a €221 million childcare scheme. Nothing has been actually paid out yet, and some in the childcare lobby say the new approach will lead to hundreds of providers closing their doors. The scheme will hopefully freeze fees. The Taoiseach promises that improvements in childcare are at the top of the Government’s list of priorities, but a lot will depend on how much the upcoming budget allots to the sector.
Forgive me for believing it, when I see it.
I am sick of feeling like my skills as a mother and my skills as an employee are at ends with one another. I am sick of not feeling seen or listened to by the people who make decisions. I am sick of watching my friends struggle to make ends meet, and not have the time to be present with their children.
No, we certainly cannot have it all. But can we have something?
Anyway, I’ve got to go – a dirty nappy calls.