Friday 15 December 2017

'We'd live on beans and toast for the service' - Childcare options are hard to find for parents who don't work 9-5

For parents whose jobs aren't nine to five, childcare can be hard to find. We hear from the families who are struggling to make it all work

Night nurse: Barry Stenson, a paramedic, and wife Bernie, a nurse, who both work 13-hour shifts, rely on Bernie's sister to look after their children Lily (5), Isabelle (3), Ryan (13) and Elise (1). Photo: Damien Eagers
Night nurse: Barry Stenson, a paramedic, and wife Bernie, a nurse, who both work 13-hour shifts, rely on Bernie's sister to look after their children Lily (5), Isabelle (3), Ryan (13) and Elise (1). Photo: Damien Eagers

Chrissie Russell

It's 4am and Fiona O'Keefe is trying to settle a tiny baby back to sleep. The house is silent, but if she listens very carefully, she might just be able to hear the gentle breathing of someone asleep… not the baby in her arms, but the baby's mum and dad in their bedroom down the hall.

Fiona is a night nanny, and founder of the Cork-based business Dream Team Nannies. Since 2013 she has been minding children through the night while their parents work night shifts, go out or simply enjoy a much-needed night's rest ahead of a busy day at work.

Business is brisk and the mum of five can be working 10pm to 7am up to five days a week. She has six to eight other childcare workers, all nurses or midwives, on her database of minders and charges €110 a night (€150 if it's triplets) with extra hours at a €10 hourly rate. Most clients block book her for several months. Many of her clients are doctors and nurses, but not all.

"I'd one normal, working-class family with triplets who said they'd have lived on beans and toast to pay for the service and it still would have been worth it," laughs Fiona. "It's not a luxury item for a lot of people, it's nearly a necessity - particularly people in high-pressured jobs - they need sleep."

Fiona's bulging appointments book is just one indication of the growing demand for all-night care. Just last week it was revealed that a growing number of nurseries in the UK are now offering extended hours and all-night options for childcare.

Although no nurseries in Ireland appear to be offering this service yet, it's clear there's a pressing need for something to be done to address the difficulties faced by parents struggling to cope with juggling childcare and a job with unconventional hours.

Nurse Bernie Stenson (40) works 13-hour shifts and commutes from Drogheda to Dublin every day, as does her partner, Barry, a paramedic. The mum of four isn't convinced by the idea of night nurseries, believing "a child needs some stability at night," but she thinks there's a huge need for more workplaces offering on-site crèches with extended hours and greater flexibility from employers.

"Saying a shift has to be 13 hours doesn't suit," she says simply. "More flexible hours are needed. After all, isn't it better to have someone working for a few hours rather than lose that worker because they can't do the full 13?"

During the week, Bernie relies on her sister, who she pays to look after her children, three of whom are under five. She's grateful, especially because she knows that someone outside of family probably wouldn't be as understanding about her erratic work hours.

"I'm supposed to get out at 8pm but if I'm in A&E I'm lucky to get out the door by 9pm," she explains. "My other half is the same, if he gets a call in the ambulance at 7.50pm he has to go."

But she's worried about how long the arrangement will work, particularly as the children get older and will need to be dropped to school. She has to keep a close eye on rotas to make sure she and Barry are never both scheduled on nights, often leaving the couple feeling like ships passing in the night.

At the moment Deirdre Kirby (31) from Ennis, is enjoying her maternity leave with her four-month-old daughter Emily and two-year-old Liam.

But at the back of her mind is the worry about what's going to happen when she goes back to her job, at a residential care unit, where her shifts are 12 hours long, (including night) and the rota changes week to week.

Her husband Michael, a factory worker, also works 12 hour shifts and nights.

"We're going to be relying on my mother to mind the two children when our nights clash," says Deirdre. "But as a lady in her 70s, it's only a short-term solution. The only other option is to hope that at some stage one of us won't have to work nights, but I can't see that happening any time soon."

She's taking two months unpaid maternity leave and just last week received permission from her employer to use her parental leave to shorten her shifts, working 9am to 5pm instead of 9am to 9pm.

"I was finding it very hard to find a childminder who will work after 6pm and do a day-by-day rate rather than week to week," she explains.

"It means I'll lose out on eight hours wages a week, but I think it will be worth it as at least it means I'm only missing out on one bedtime a week instead of three or four."

Even so, "I feel sad I won't be able to tuck them into bed every night and I hope it won't affect them," she adds. People have suggested they get an au pair, but they've no extra room in their house.

And the costs are prohibitive. Often anti-social hours mean spending extra money. As Ken Williams knows. The single parent, who lives in Blackrock, Dublin with his daughter Sarah, relies on childcare workers he's found on, Ireland's largest childcare website.

"Yes, there have definitely been times when I've thought 'why am I working?'" he laughs drily. "I work in sales and have to travel across the country, which sometimes means being away from home overnight. There have been times when I've come home to a bill of €150 or €200, and I might take a loss for that day, but I have to work."

And he's grateful for the flexibility and high level of one-to-one care he's found on compared to the nurseries and crèches he used when Sarah was younger.

"You're dealing with fewer personnel and it feels more accountable," he explains.

The minders he uses are all Garda vetted, require references and he listens to Sarah's feedback. "But whether you're dropping them off at crèche or leaving them with a minder you're ultimately handing your child over to someone you don't know," he says. "You're making a leap of faith."

Beyond the financial implications, this is something that many parents worry about most - the impact that childcare will have on their children, particularly if it means being separated from them at night.

One of the most important building blocks in child development revolves around secure attachment with a primary care giver, usually mum and/or dad.

"To build that, you have to be available for the child," explains Anne O'Connor, a child psychologist with the parenting website

"Secure attachment gives children a safe base from which to explore the world. If you don't have that, then the world can seem like a very scary place."

If a child doesn't feel it has a secure attachment with his or her caregiver it can have a knock on effect on their social and emotional development.

The good news is that research shows good quality daycare doesn't interfere with attachment.

"But I'm not aware of any research on night care," adds Anne. "I'm not saying parents shouldn't do it, but be aware that it could have effects, such as if a child already has problems sleeping then they may be more anxious going to sleep in a different place on different nights with other children and changing personnel."

Attachment is developed in the early years and the more secure it is, the more robust it is.

As a working mother, Anne empathises with the juggling act involved. "It's something that needs nurturing. But you have to prioritise the child," she says. "Being away a whole 48 hours very regularly just gives the message that that parent isn't available. It's a very emotive subject and these are difficult issues for parents."

The issue of night nurseries in the headlines has generated a wave of heated discussion in the online parenting communities. Mum-of-four Siobhan O'Neill White, who runs the Mumstown parenting website, says there's been a strong negative response to the idea on her site, which echoes her own feelings on the subject.

But she also believes it reflects a need for greater choice when it comes to the limited options for childcare available in Ireland.

"Parents who work anti-social hours shouldn't feel their only option is to give up work and leave a job they need and love, because they've no access to childcare," she says.

According to Sharon Tighe from the parenting website, childcare remains one of the biggest areas of concern debated online and there's an urgent need for "increased financial support from the government for childcare costs either through tax rebate or direct payments".

Interestingly in Sweden, frequently ranked one of the best places to raise a family, night nurseries have been in operation for over 20 years and all childcare is heavily subsidised by the government.

Perhaps what's needed all-round is greater governmental and societal support for parents to be able to make the childcare choice best suited to them, whether that means staying at home, or working all night.

Night nanny Fiona thinks we could all do with being less judgemental about who requires help with their kids and when.

"I could make my rates a lot higher and I've purposefully not done that because I want to be accessible," she explains.

"I've been there with a baby who doesn't sleep and I know what it's like to need a night's rest. If a new mum is at the end of her tether and needs a night's sleep I don't want her feeling she can't afford it.

"People come out with things like 'you should be looking after your own baby', and I've clients who would never want to let on they'd hired me," she adds.

"But you shouldn't be afraid to ask for help, mums need all the support they can get."

Irish Independent

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