‘Childcare costs are the new glass ceiling’ – meet the women creating alternative solutions
When Karen O’Reilly was a young mum living in France, childcare bills were the last thing on her mind.
“My children went through the creche scheme and everything was paid for. I didn’t have to put my hand in my pocket at all,” she says. “Your kids start at the age of two, and they can stay in there from 7am to 6pm. I was extremely lucky.”
She moved back to Ireland when her children were six and eight. Unable to find a job that would give her time to pick them up from school, she set up Employmum (which later led to a sister company, Employflex), a recruitment agency specialising in posts with flexible hours.
“I wanted a job where I could work from 9am to 3pm, and I realised there wasn’t really anyone out there in Ireland helping people find these roles. That really was the lightbulb moment for me,” she says.
“We set up the business in 2016, and then set up as Employflex in 2019 because 30pc of our placements were male at that point. But yes, there are more women looking for flexibility for sure. It’s just the way the modern world is — the childcare costs and issue really fall on the shoulders of women, and women are the first to look for flexibility in the workplace.”
The cost of childcare is an “absolutely massive” motivating factor for those looking for placements through her agency.
“People sit down and do the sums and go, ‘Will it pay me to go to work?’ Especially if all the money they’re going to earn goes into childcare. It’s generally women who make the sacrifice. Childcare costs are the new glass ceiling for women in the workplace.”
Research in June by Newstalk showed that creche rates in Dublin averaged at about €1,276 a month, followed by Wicklow and Cork, where prices stand at €928 a month and €857 a month respectively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that private childminders, caring for children from their own home, often charge €50-65 per child per day, with many increasing their rates recently to meet running costs.
There was some relief in Budget 2023 this week. Parents using the National Childcare Scheme will have their fees cut by 25pc from January. The measure is expected to save them an average of €1,200 a year per child, up to a maximum of €2,106. Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman has pledged to half the cost of childcare in the next two years. Even so, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath acknowledged on budget day that the childcare is “simply too expensive”, echoing an ESRI report from 2019 that found Ireland has among the highest costs in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of developed countries.
The forthcoming financial help will be welcome but it still leaves many parents facing hefty bills and difficult decisions about how to organise their lives around childcare.
In the post-pandemic workplace, does flexibility on hours and hybrid working really help to cut those childcare bills?
Maria Macklin, a Monaghan-based image consultant, lived in London with her husband Gordon and their two elder children (George, now 20, and Harry, now 18). They worked high-powered jobs in the City.
“We never had time with the kids, and I never liked that,” she recalls. “We moved back to Ireland in 2004, and Gordon told me he had heard of too many CEOs, CFOs and CTOs who retired and didn’t know their own children, because they never had a relationship with them when they were younger. He didn’t want that to be him.”
He came out of full-time work, while she continued to work full-time and commute to Dublin from Monaghan after the arrival of their two younger children, Maud (16) and Freddie (15).
“I was leaving at 5.30am and was back at 7pm, and Gordon picked up the kids, did homework, and put dinner on the table,” she says. “It worked nicely, as we were all getting to spend more time together.
“A colleague then suggested that the best time to get someone else in to help was for two hours, between 5pm and 7pm. That person did a quick runaround, doing things like laundry and tidying up while we had dinner, then helped to look after the small ones afterwards. It was an absolutely brilliant idea, and the best money we spent.
“Gordon loved being the primary caregiver, but he did notice he was the only man at the mother-and-toddler groups,” she adds with a smile.
“His friends couldn’t understand why he would do it. When he was in the supermarket and the kids would act up or he had a mishap, women in the supermarket immediately came to his aid, assuming he was somehow incompetent. I do think people need to understand that a team effort is important. We need to see men taking on these caregiver jobs, or things are never going to change.”
The couple’s decision meant that theirs in effect became a one-salary household; a situation that many could barely imagine finding themselves in right now. Macklin acknowledges that the arrangement was much more easily put in place a decade ago than it might be now.
Many parents can’t rely on the benefits of tag-teaming with another parent. One of them, Cork-based Vicki O’Callaghan, is a lone parent to her daughter Ruby (8). Eight years ago, she co-founded the children’s organic clothing company babyboo.ie, with fellow mum Michelle O’Riordan. For O’Callaghan, who previously worked full-time for the Irish Examiner, a desire to be her child’s primary carer was a ‘main motivating factor’ for starting the company.
Now, she uses a childminder two days a week. She and O’Riordan are sure to offer flexibility to their eight employees. They often work from 8.30am to 1.30pm, and the arrangements remain a moveable feast, depending on their families’ needs.
How much of this is specifically linked to childcare? “100pc,” O’Callaghan says. “We have a few staff who don’t pay for any childcare as a result of doing this — their partners work opposite hours to them.
“Like anything else, getting the flexible arrangements right [as an employer] is a bit of a balance, and there has to be give and take,” she adds. “You do have to think about what works for the business, but we’ve found that because our staff are so grateful to be able to do that, they tend to be more productive here as a result.”
O’Reilly says that for parents struggling with childcare costs, it’s easier than ever in the post-lockdown landscape to propose a more flexible work situation to an employer.
“Companies who were never talking about flexible arrangements beforehand are now, as they are driven by a very tight labour market,” she says. “They’re coming around to our way of thinking and realising that if they don’t offer flexibility, they’re going to lose people.
“To anyone wanting to have that conversation with their employer, I tell them to have a plan all worked out before you talk to them,” she adds. “Don’t go in with a vague notion of flexibility — present the specifics as an attractive option to them.”
In Greystones, Co Wicklow, Deirdre Doyle had been working full-time in the charity sector when she realised that her childcare situation (for Luke, now 15, Maggie, now 13, and Charlie, now 11) wasn’t sustainable.
“The whole idea of my business was that I would work around my kids. The business is designed to work around their hours, but there is the occasional need to work when the kids are off school,” Doyle says.
Motivated, too, by a desire to provide education on nutrition to families, Doyle founded the Cool Food School in Greystones when her youngest child was three.
This provided a degree of flexibility, yet as Doyle reflects, becoming your own boss isn’t necessarily always a silver-bullet solution to the childcare conundrum.
“I’d love to say it worked out completely but it often didn’t,” she says. “Really, what happens when you’re self-employed is that you have to work whenever people need you. So if I go into teach in creches, I have to do it during the day when kids are in school. At one point I would teach in a local creche and the kids would come with me and go to the creche. What ends up happening was that I would do a lot of the work — paperwork or social media — at night.”
Necessity was also the mother of invention for Róisín Murphy, known to many as the architect on RTÉ’s Desperate Houses. In the earlier years of her career, she often had to bring her children Jay (now 21), Harry (now 17) and Kitty (now 15) to work. She also decided to make a move away from commercial architecture contracts towards more domestic projects.
“It meant you could bring your babies, and nobody really minded, but there was a limit on that too,” she says. “One baby was cute — two babies was impossible.”
Murphy says that while the childcare conversation usually centres on kids of creche-going age, she was surprised to find that the ongoing care that older children need is also rarely acknowledged.
“When it comes to mothers and parenting, it doesn’t end with the nappies and the creches,” she says. “I thought [at this stage] I’d have that job done, but then you realise that teenagers also really need their mom.
“There’s this misconception that once your kid is old enough to get to school themselves, you’re kind of done and you’re suddenly off the hook. But the thing is, you’re never done.”
Murphy’s teenage daughter fell seriously ill last year, prompting the architect to take a year out from working to care for her full-time.
“I’ve found it really interesting — when life is difficult, women generally make the sacrifices. And it’s not easy. We really carry families. It’s so sexist in a way, but I think it’s true. Women usually bear the cost in terms of child-rearing, that’s just not quantifiable.
“The thing is, childcare can be really good. If you have proper creches and Montessoris, it can be of huge benefit to children in all kinds of ways. The only problem is it’s really half-baked here. It’s not treated as though it’s a State-level requirement.”