Sunday 23 October 2016

The cost of farming out our kids so we can work

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

GUILT RIDDEN: Some mothers are wracked by guilt at leaving their child to be reared by somebody else. Picture posed by models
GUILT RIDDEN: Some mothers are wracked by guilt at leaving their child to be reared by somebody else. Picture posed by models

We obsess about making childcare more accessible, but why don't we figure out how to spend more time with our kids instead?

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It's that time of year, isn't it? Any of you who are the parents of young children will have experienced the inconvenience of a sick child recently. I use the word inconvenience because, sadly, that is the first thing many of us think of these days when we discover we have a sick child. Obviously, you are sad to see your child feeling poorly and you want to look after them. But the overbearing issue for many parents when a child is sick is not the well-being of the child but the fact that the child will need to stay at home from creche or school, causing knock-on effects for work.

In most households where two parents work, a sick child is still the mother's problem. And if she is a working mother, her first thought will be for work. And it will not just be about whatever she has to do in work that day. It will also be about perceptions. A working mother worries that missing a day in work because you have a sick child feeds into a perception that she's just not up to it any more, since she went away and had children. Her brain is gone to mush. She's lost her focus. She can't be relied upon.

Women who have three or more children are much more likely to give up work. "Give up". It sounds a bit like she has let herself go, or given in, failed in some way in the thing that is important in life - the business of ambition and having a career and getting ahead. Women who give up work will tell you that they often feel stigmatised. They say they feel a bit defiant but often ashamed when they "admit" to people who asks them what they do that they are "just" a mum. They will tell you they often feel insecure, unimportant and unworldly in the company of career women, who talk about "important" stuff and look politely bored at their kid talk. And I'm not suggesting for a minute that stay-at-home mothers are bores who only talk about their kids. But they can feel like this. It's a paranoia bred by the attitudes in certain circles.

In a way, we reinforce all this in the way we rear our children now. Like most of you, even if it's not consciously done, I probably rear my two girls to believe they can do anything and be anything and that they should be as ambitious as the boys. I don't know if at some point I will start rearing them to believe that they are biologically different to the boys also and that one day they may decide to become mothers and that this too is as valid and important a choice, and that it will be nothing to be ashamed of if they choose to stay at home and raise their kids. I do know that if I had a boy I would say it to him, that being a full-time father is just a valid, and possibly a more fulfilling and rich choice. Honestly, I would.

All of which is not to say that men won't have their own inconveniences at this time of the year. There will be Christmas plays, prize-givings, concerts, carol services. And there will be ones that working mums and dads will miss. Which involves extraordinary guilt. And then, nearly as bad, there will be the ones they get to go to. There is a myth that the father who leaves work early or pops out for a few hours to attend something child related, is viewed as a great man altogether, a brilliant father, and that he is admired for it, in contrast to how a woman is made to feel weak for doing the same thing. This is not, in fact, generally true. Most men dread trying to explain to colleagues about these things too. And when we are there, instead of enjoying what should be magical moments, we are standing at the back with restless leg syndrome thinking, "when the hell is this going to end? I need to get back to work!"

And, of course, this is not the only time of year that there are inconveniences. There is, of course, the inconvenience of Easter holidays or summer holidays. Unless you are a teacher, these too can become a nightmare for many parents. How many camps can you book them into? What time do the camps end? How many weeks' holidays can you take at a time of year when everyone else is trying to take holidays too? In an ideal world, we would look forward to our kids not being in school or creche. But for working parents, it can just become another occasion of dread and stress.

More guilt on Friday when it was reported that children whose mothers work full-time during their early years can suffer in their personality development. This is, in its own subversive way, a politically incorrect message, but it is probably one that many people secretly agreed with. That is not to say that these people all think we should go back to the 1950s and all mothers should stay at home and be mammies. But most people think their kids would be better off with them. But in the case of half of the young children in Ireland, they are not cared for by their parents for what can be more than 30 hours a week. It's sad, and it does make us reflect on how society has completely lost its way when it comes to family.

The Growing Up in Ireland study, the latest tranche of which was launched during last week, is a fascinating longitudinal look at children growing up in Ireland. Last week we learnt that this half of Irish children who spend their early years in what is called non-parental care do not suffer in terms of vocabulary or non-verbal reasoning. However, it seems that the children who are minded by grandparents, childminders or what is called centre-based care, can suffer emotionally, especially when their parents are less educated. This could be a reflection of the quality of childcare enjoyed by different demographics.

But then, who among us doesn't suspect intuitively that on some level everyone is suffering at the hands of the current model of parenting, where half of our children are farmed out so both their parents can work. Parenting is probably the most meaningful experience most of us will ever have. It is arguably, biologically, the whole point of our existence. Yet for half the families in the country it is viewed as an inconvenient add-on to the real business of life, which is everybody working all the time.

I'll put my hand up here. My kids were in a creche. It was a wonderful place and I think it did them a lot of good. It always felt to me like the staff at the creche were our partners in rearing the kids, and indeed some of the people who looked after my girls then are still in their lives now. I also think that the sociability of creche was great for my kids.

But there's no doubt that I missed out on a lot of aspects of my kids' development. There's no doubt I missed out on a lot of magic. And indeed I still do. And there is also no doubt that when I am involved with my kids there can often be a level of stress involved that can ruin our time together, because my primary energy goes into work. The corollary of this is that, like a lot of parents I know, I can tend to be a bit like a divorced dad at the weekend, trying to make it up to them for not being there during the week. And like all of us, I feel terrible guilt when I notice how happy the kids are, how easy things are between us all, and how much they seem to grow when we all have a holiday together, or we all spend some extended time together as a family. In these times, it feels like we all get to know each other again.

We were always led to believe that as the future came, technology would set us free and give us more leisure time. Now that the future is here, it somehow seems that we need to work harder than ever, and somehow now, in this time of increased prosperity, both parents need to work just to keep the show on the road. And sometimes it feels as if we pop out children and then desperately farm them out to whoever will take them while we try as best we can to continue serving the same demands as we did before we had children, with the added stress of children.

The political response to all this has been to obsess about childcare and the cost of it, to try and figure out how we can make it easier and more affordable to be good little economic units.

A truly visionary politician would be asking how we could get our society back on track. A truly visionary politician would be saying, we lost our way here and we need to try and rethink things and fix it. Maybe Ireland could lead the world in fixing this. The ideal for most working mothers would probably be to work part time. And the same is possibly true of a lot of working fathers. Instead of focusing on making it easier for people to farm out their children, maybe we should be focused on how to make it easier for people to spend time with their children. Childcare is not a feminist issue. It is an issue of humanity.

Sunday Independent

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