Tuesday 26 March 2019

Life Coach: We are being encouraged to 'lean in' to our careers but something will have to change

Childcare in Ireland is placing a huge block in the way of women who want to work, writes maternity coach Sarah Courtney

Sarah Courtney who is a Maternity coach.
Sarah Courtney who is a Maternity coach.
Sarah Courtney

I am a mum of two little girls and I want to work. As a maternity coach, work is a large part of my sense of purpose. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, I partner with companies that choose to support their working parent population and ease the transition back to work after having children.

As employers re-define the concept of how work is done, and introduce strategies to attract and retain their staff after they have children, they are looking for new ways to make this time as stress-free as possible, and coaching is one option that really helps. Can you imagine how good you would feel going back to work after having your baby, knowing your employer was genuinely excited to see you and was proactively helping you during this time?

Despite much progress towards engaging with women returners, I still hear stories of difficult transitions after a break to raise children. In particular, requests for flexibility (and I mean a very little amount) being turned down and the woman leaving as a result. Often to a competitor who will happily meet her request without seeing it as a big deal. They want her skills and if they can have them 80pc of the time that's a big win compared to delaying recruitment while they search for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

The reasons for saying no to flexibility are usually along the slightly dull lines of:

"We can't set a precedent, what if everyone starts asking for it";

"We don't have the technology to support it";

"The role has always been full time in the office so…"

The lack of creative thinking is a little depressing, but happily with near full employment, there are often options for those who want them.

Employers who offer maternity coaching tend to be ahead of the curve on this. They recognise that their staff has varying demands on their time outside of work, and they see the benefits of adapting to this. Driven by a desire for retaining a diverse skill-set, proactive employers are increasingly open to flexible working arrangements.

Nearly all of my clients work flexibly in some capacity. That could be reduced hours, early start/early finish, term-time hours, remote working options, hybrid locations, the list goes on. They are all parents of young children finding a way to make life and work, work. They are the mums at the school gate doing drop off and heading to work for 9.30am. They are the mums you see on the bus home at 4pm so their child isn't the last one in the crèche, having started work at 8am (they probably started their day at 5am but that's a different conversation). Everywhere you look, working parents are striving to find their own balance in partnership with their employer.

Indeed businesses have established to connect flexible workers with flexible roles. There are very clear drivers for this. Many talented and experienced professionals took career breaks for various reasons but are ready to jump back in in some capacity, rocketing property prices are pushing workers further and further away from their employer's location, in addition to the demands of a generation who simply don't see the appeal or productivity of sitting at a desk from 9-5. Flexibility in all its guises is the way forward, and employers are getting on board with that, championing flexibility for their employees.

Sounds good, doesn't it? So what's the problem?

If you're reading this, it's highly likely you're a working parent juggling something similar. So you can understand my horror when I opened an email a few weeks ago advising that the Montessori my daughter attends would be closing at the end of June. It's been in operation for 30 years. In a few sentences all my carefully-crafted childcare arrangements fell down around my ears. Seeing the staff the next day was heart breaking. Some are part of the furniture; it's not just a job for them. Warm, fun, incredibly caring of my little pride and joy. It's the childcare arrangement you can only hope for. It's what has enabled me to work with full peace of mind. Until you walk in those shoes, it's hard to explain just how important that is.

Before I even picked up the phone to other Montessoris I knew how hard this was going to be. To find somewhere that:

1) would care for my little girl to the same standard;

2) had availability;

3) could give us the hours we need;

4) was in a suitable location;

5) fit in with my other daughter's school run.

On paper, fairly straightforward. In reality, childcare nirvana. Eight phone calls later and there were no suitable options. One said "we rarely have vacancies, but if something comes up it must be full-time". She laughed when I said I only wanted part-time. Another said "we could offer you 9am-12 noon from September 2019". Ignoring the very obvious problem of a 15-month waiting period, how on earth do you work with only three hours of childcare? And that doesn't even take into account the time needed to drop off and collect. I cried tears of frustration that it was this hard. My first priority should have been finding the right childcare provider; the one that feels like a home from home, the one that allows me happily work knowing that she is thriving in a warm, fun and supportive environment. I was faced with the reality that I might have to put my daughter somewhere I was not 100pc happy with, simply because I might have no choice. In the end, after further calls, visits and a few sleepless nights, we got sorted. None of us ever really like change, but she will be starting a lovely new crèche soon and I have coached myself to see the upside of this new experience for her, while swallowing my endless mum-worry.

So why am I telling you this, and what has it got to do with the flexible revolution?

This is childcare in Ireland. It's limited, it's expensive and it's putting massive blocks in the way of women who want to work. I say women because it's still predominantly women who take the lion's share in the role of childcare. But there are clear signals that this is changing incredibly quickly as working dads opt to work flexibly as they also want to play an active, hands-on role in their children's lives.

Childcare costs are eye watering. Families in Ireland on average are paying 25pc of their household income on full-time childcare. And for the privilege of paying all that money there are constraints everywhere… confined hours; no option to flex with work; no option to dip in and out.

What about the parent who works week on, week off?

What about those who job-share? What about parents who stay in the workplace on a part-time basis to keep their skills fresh but simply can't afford full-time childcare? What about freelancers with uncertain income levels? Do they just accept that it was their decision to have children and step out? How do we ever address the gender pay gap if that is the case? There are multiple flexible working arrangements that employers are actively supporting that are enabling a work/life balance that limits burnout. But what are our childcare facilities doing to keep pace?

It is clear I am not in a minority. I've spoken to so many parents who pay for more childcare than they need simply because that's all that is available to them. Their employer enables them work four days a week but the crèche provider will only offer five days, so they take the financial hit in order to prioritise family and squeeze that belt a little tighter. Or they've negotiated an early start/early finish at work so they can spend time with their child in the afternoon, but they still have to pay up to 6pm. Or their crèche opens at 8am but the school day doesn't start till 8.50am so the younger sibling is never there that early but the parents still have to pay for time they can never use. Maybe as you're reading this, you are nodding along. So many of us are in the same boat. We are being encouraged to have more children and we are being encouraged to 'lean in' to our careers, but something will have to change because we simply can't do this without better and more flexible childcare options.

So how do we affect change?

Well, there's people power you might think, the power of the customer. Many of the parents I coach are client facing. It's first and foremost in their minds as they consider their work. If their clients were asking for something, at the very least they would listen, and in most cases they would do whatever they could to respond. In this story, parents are the customer, so why aren't crèches responding? Crèches are businesses and they need to make money, I fully accept that, but clearly the way they are structured and regulated, means that despite demand, it is not financially viable for them to keep pace with modern working practices. What message are we giving when childcare workers are paid little more than minimum wage? To be clear, this isn't about poor quality childcare. My personal experience and that of friends and colleagues has been wonderful for the most part. But the CSO statistics on "Module on Childcare" released in 2017 report that:

"When presented with the statement "I have access to high quality childcare in my community", 52pc of households strongly agree or agree.

When presented with the statement "I have access to affordable childcare in my community", 43pc of households strongly disagreed or disagreed.

Government after government tinker around the edges with childcare introducing things like the universal subsidy and the ECCE scheme and while these supports are welcome why isn't more being doing to incentivise the crèches to provide more flexible services? Hourly rates, pay as you go etc. In the era of choice, when will we get less of a one-size-fits-all option?

The recent 'baby boom strategy' launched by the current government aimed at increasing birth rates to counteract the increasing economic demands posed by the country's ageing population is all very well, but how about empowering families to continue working to support these additional children? Birth rates are declining and Irish families are having fewer children. Surely the introduction of more appropriate and affordable childcare options could help a little more than perhaps a baby box?

Our crèches are doing the best they can at one of the most important jobs in the world, but until we get properly funded childcare, with the best will in the world, they will have their hands tied. And working parents will continue to contort in all sorts of ways to meet the challenge of inflexible childcare.

Sarah Courtney is a mother, coach and champion of supporting parents who want to remain in the workplace. A graduate of UCD, DIT and the Irish LifeCoach Institute, reach her at sarahcourtneycoaching@gmail.com.

See sarahcourtneycoaching.ie

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