Creche workers are educators, cooks and surrogate parents...
Childcare workers deserve more credit for their input into our children's development, says Ciaran Byrne
FOR a year now, my little daughter and I have enjoyed a daily ritual. I think she loves it. I certainly do.
After my wife leaves for work, I dress Ciara (2) and give her breakfast. Sometimes she eats it, sometimes she flings it on the floor.
She babbles away about this and that and tries to put her shoes on herself. She seems to prefer her size three Clarks with the little buckle.
We scramble for hats and coats, then we're out the door for the creche, her world for the next eight or so hours.
Every morning Ciara does her best to prolong the short walk, picking up leaves, pointing at planes and shrieking in delight whenever she spies a "burdy . . . burdy!"
She also likes to tip-toe along a narrow path. The only concession to her burgeoning independence is to clutch my hand should she require some extra assistance.
We knock at the door of the Kilns creche in Portmarnock, north Dublin, and when a security buzzer releases it, we enter and say our goodbyes.
Sometimes it's fine and sometimes I find myself exhaling a sigh of regret as I head off. At the beginning, I must admit I found it unexpectedly gut-wrenching.
Diving into a well of guilt is a hazard for parents who struggle with the reality of all-day childcare. Children can be knackered by the time they see you again in the evening and not in the best of form.
I usually see Ciara again at about 8pm, shortly before bed. Luckily for us, there's usually a last blast of fun to be had before she finally hits the hay.
This is life for a lot of people in Ireland in 2013. The kids are of creche age and the home, in our case a two-bedroom apartment, is in negative equity.
Mortgages, if the property was bought in the boom, are substantial so it's pretty common for both parents, in the 30-45 age group, to be working.
Creches, often open from 7.30am to 6pm with full-time staff, play materials, hot meals and indoor warmth, are good solutions for children, particularly if, like us, you are not in a position to draw on family help.
But they've been getting a pasting this year. So much so that some parents have told me they have abandoned creches altogether.
What they saw earlier this year when RTÉ broadcast a 'Prime Time' investigation was simply the last straw.
The TV expose showed a small number of workers in a couple of creches allegedly engaged in generally unpleasant behaviour, mostly directed at their tiny charges.
Disturbing images appeared to show a child being roughly placed on a floor to sleep. In another scene, a little boy was screamed at, helpless while strapped into a chair. It was pretty shocking stuff.
Because we now live in a knee-jerk society, it was possible to set your watch by the response that came after 'Prime Time' was shown.
Social media feeds fizzed with instantly furious denouncements of creches and all who operate them.
Owners were depicted as uncaring zillionaires, milking the system for every euro. Radio stations crackled with anger about creche food and crying children.
We waited a few days to approach the owner of our creche about the last HSE inspection report. I, like most parents, felt obligated to ask. Our creche owner was open, transparent and welcoming of questions. She had been clearly upset by the programme, her mainly young staff were upset too.
In terms of the inspection reports, our creche had been notified about some minor issues which had already been rectified (dust on top of shelves, too many toys in the play area, that kind of thing) but on all the big issues, all was present and correct. Every member of staff had the minimum qualifications, the food was of a very good standard and, above all, everyone working there was garda vetted.
I felt guilty asking because we pretty much already knew there was little to worry about; the physical evidence was already staring back at us.
What we noticed first after Ciara started creche last January was her very rapid development.
We knew she loved going into the creche which my wife had liked because she was instantly drawn to its homely feel.
We knew the educational flash cards were having a significant impact on her speech and in no time Ciara knew the names of all the creche workers.
We lost count of the times we arrived to see Ciara sitting on Caitriona, Mary Lou or Meaghan's lap, or dancing with Jennifer or Hayley or laughing with Laura, Sinead, Karen or Faye.
Every day there seemed to be something new: water-play, painting, making Easter cards and dressing up for Halloween, all sparking excitement and curiosity.
What also struck us was the creche staff's deep knowledge of each child, their needs and different quirks. They just knew when something was up.
When you analyse what goes on at a good creche, you can see how workers earn every euro of their take-home pay.
On an average day, they change dozens of nappies, dress children after sickness and other mishaps, feed them freshly-made meals, administer medicine and comfort them when they inevitably get upset.
These heroes of childcare are entrusted with significant responsibilities, requiring a range of complex skills. They're not in it for the money. At different times they are educators, cooks, minders and surrogate parents. When it all works, you can see the evidence in your child's face.
Ciara bounces into the creche every morning and talks about her little pals and minders at night. She's content and happy.
A year on, far from feeling guilty and nervous, we have celebrated the transformational benefits on offer.
She's learned a lot, has become an extremely sociable child and is comfortable interacting with adults and children.
One doctor, picking up on Ciara's alertness, guessed that she was in a creche and not being minded at home. Not that there's anything wrong with that option; a child is simply exposed to more of everything when other people – big and little – are around.
This was something of a bad year for the image of Ireland's creches.
Much of the fall-out was hysterical and often unfair.
As we now know from the inspection reports available, the vast majority of creches are well-run. It remains true that with any service, if you choose wisely, you will get the right results.
As 2014 approaches, we're moving on from our apartment, to a bigger home in another area. Sadly, that means Ciara will probably soon change creches.
So to the staff at the Kilns, I say this: thank you for the brilliant, loving care you have given her over the past year. As she bounces into a new year, she's thriving and, make no mistake about it, a good bit of that is down to you.