Friday 14 December 2018

Creche kids: A ticking timebomb?

A leaked UCC report this week hinted that children felt they were not being listened to by their working parents. But with little evidence to show creche kids are worse off, guilt-ridden mums and dads would be better focusing on how they spend the time they do have together.

Andrea Mara at home with her children Elissa, Nia and Matthew in Dun Laoghaire. 'I've come to realise that you don't have to do elaborate things with your children,' says Andrea. 'It's the simple stuff that they love best.' Photo: Peter Houlihan
Andrea Mara at home with her children Elissa, Nia and Matthew in Dun Laoghaire. 'I've come to realise that you don't have to do elaborate things with your children,' says Andrea. 'It's the simple stuff that they love best.' Photo: Peter Houlihan
Joanna Fortune ,Child Physchologist
John Meagher

John Meagher

The Little Ladybird Creche is based in Tallaght, Dublin, and boasts a service that is both eye-catching and - for several parents - a godsend. It opens its doors at 6.30am - a full hour before most creches in the capital.

For some, that 60 minutes makes all the difference as they try to juggle the demands of busy work lives with the role of parenting. Little Ladybird stays open until 6.30pm, a time that has become the norm for creches throughout the country although several stay open a further 30 minutes to accommodate parents who are unable to get out of work in time.

Until comparatively recently, creches that operates from early morning to late evenings didn't really exist in Ireland - they were phenomena more associated with places like New York and London - but work patterns have changed so irrevocably in this country that they have had to adapt in order to meet the demand.

That demand is fuelled by working parents like Mary and Steve (not their real names), who work in the heart of Dublin, and are among the first in line waiting for their creche to open at 7.30am.

"We both have to be at our offices by 8.30am at the latest, but the culture in my workplace is to be seen in as early as possible," Mary says, "and when I speak to other parents who use the creche here, they're under the same time constraints.

"Working from home isn't really an option and if you're going to do that you can't really be looking after children at the same time. Anyone who has a toddler will know just how much attention they need. It's impossible to work at the same time."

She says she feels guilty about waking her children at 6.30am each day and not getting to spend any meaningful time with them midweek except for two hours before their bedtime. "At least I always get to be with them in the evenings," she says, "but my husband often has to work late and doesn't get home until they're in bed. We talk about it a lot - how we're working so hard to earn money that goes into paying the best part of €2,000 a month in creche fees and how we feel we've no choice. It's a vicious circle."

This week, a leaked report conducted by University College Cork hinted that some children felt they were not being listened to. It prompted some commentators to suggest that there may be developmental problems down the line for those in creches all day while both parents work.

But child psychotherapists aren't convinced by such a simplistic deduction. Dublin-based child and family psychotherapist Joanna Fortune says there's no definitive proof that being at creche for sustained periods has an adverse long-term impact, as long as there's a strong bond with the parents at other periods.

"There's no point being nostalgic about a past where one parent - typically the mother - was at home minding the children," she says. "Those days are largely over and, anyway, I don't know if we should be eulogising a time where women effectively had to stay at home.

"The reality today for a large number of couples is that both parents have to work and the children have to go to creche."

Fortune says she sees stressed-out parents like Mary and Steve every day. Such parents can feel considerable guilt about having to put their children into creche for lengthy stretches each day. "There's no point beating themselves up about it," she says. "It's far better to look at how time-poor people can best maximise the quality of the time they spend with their children."

She employs a didactic teaching technique during which she observes children and parents playing together. Even the simple task of 15 minutes spent at play and giving children undivided attention can pay huge dividends. "I sometimes record the session and when the parents look back, they can see how much pleasure their child is deriving from it," she says. "Something as simple as (the nursery rhyme) 'Row Row Row Your Boat' can help with that connection to young children because it involves touch and eye-contact."

Fortune believes time-poor parents should aim to read a bedtime story every night they're around and says that weekend time with children should be as smartphone-free as possible. Rather than trying to cram as much into those precious weekends as they can, they should be mindful of the fact that children often prefer simple pleasures.

"Parents have the best intentions at heart when it comes to their children, but if they have guilt about being away for much of the week they can try to over-compensate by buying them things they don't need in order to make them happy or by simply doing too much at the weekend, such as taking their children from one class to the next, when in fact something as simple as a bike ride together could be much more appealing. And it's not as exhausting either - ask any childminder what their least favourite day is and they'll say Monday because the children are 'coming down' after being so hyper over the weekend."

Child psychologist Stella O'Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids, echoes such sentiments. "The last thing a child who has had a long week in creche needs is to be shunted around at the weekend," she says. "And it's stressful for the parents, too, all that timetabling, when they've had a Monday-to-Friday period where everything has been scheduled tightly."

As with Fortune, O'Malley says there's not enough evidence to suggest that lengthy days in creches have any detrimental impact on a child's development, but she feels some children can struggle in such an environment. "It can be very hard on introverts," she says. "It can feel very institutionalised, especially for those who are dropped early in the morning and picked up in the evening. I think I would have hated it when I was a young child. For extroverts, on the other hand, the experience can be very different. Like everything, creches aren't a one-size-fits-all solution and there's no point in pretending otherwise."

O'Malley believes the creche subject is an emotive one and something that bothers many parents. "But are they asking themselves deep enough questions?" she ponders. "Is it really necessary for both to work so hard? Or is it the case that they're doing it to maintain a certain standard of living? I'm not for one moment suggesting that the cost of living in somewhere like Dublin isn't very expensive, but at the end of their lives, will they look back and be completely happy with their choices? Isn't it worth asking each other if there is a better way?"

Andrea Mara used to work in Dublin's IFSC, but was made redundant last year when the financial services company she worked for closed its Dublin office.

With her husband Damien enjoying job security in the same industry, she decided to change career, and the direction of her life, by becoming a stay-at-home mother to three young children. Now, as a freelance writer, she juggles the demands of copy deadlines with parenthood. She also runs the award-winning Office Mum blog.

"I think we can all look back at our mother's generation and be a bit nostalgic and think parenthood was a bit more straightforward then," she says. "Many of us today maybe over-analyse how we parent, whereas back in the 1970s, they tended to just get on with it."

She believes the 'competitive parenting' phenomenon on social media plays its part in helping to undermine how good we think we are as parents. "It's hard not to take a bit of it to heart," she says. "On a weekend evening, I might look at Facebook and see that someone had the most amazing, wholesome family day out where they were walking in the woods and having an amazing picnic and I'd think, 'What did we do today as a family? We did the shopping.'

"But I've come to realise that you don't have to do elaborate things with your children all the time. Often, it's the simple stuff - like cuddling up together on the sofa to watch a movie - that they love best. And they'll sometimes let you know, like when we were planning a day trip over the weekend, and the kids said, 'Can we not go away?'"

Mara says she - and many other parents - strive for a "Holy Grail of life-work balance", but believes what works for one family isn't necessarily going to be the answer for another. "I think it's important, too, that all of your down time as a parent is not entirely child-centred. It is good for them to see you doing things for yourself - like going for a run or to a Pilates class."

It's a view that's echoed by Joanna Fortune, who believes parents should try to make time for themselves. "I don't think it's healthy for children to be the centre of everything," she says. "It's good to see that their mother and father have their individual lives, too."

And, she says, it's important that they reconcile themselves with the nature of their work and how they parent. "It's about maximising the quality time they have with their children, by making little changes that can make a big difference in the long run… stuff like not responding to that email as you're putting them to bed, or setting time aside for that bedtime story, even though you feel exhausted.

"It's you, the parent, that they want," she adds, "and what I constantly hear is the importance to them of your presence, not your presents."

Ireland's Creche kids: The stats

A 2015 Irish Independent survey found that parents need to earn around €30,000 just to cover the cost of  full-time creche costs for two children.

The survey found that it can cost €1,150 per month for a creche place for a baby, rising to €2,035 for a baby and toddler.

The high cost of childcare is considered the primary reason why three out of every four stay-at-home mothers do not work outside the home, according to a 2013 survey by the European Commission.

An Ipsos/MRBI poll last year found that, at 42pc, grandparents are the most common source of childcare for hard-pressed working parents. The same survey found that 32pc of Irish parents use a full-time creche service.

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