Saturday 24 February 2018

'You can't have it all - but you can have it some of the time' - The childcare conundrum

In this week's Budget, the State threw its weight behind a subsidy that incentivises women to get out and work, throwing into sharp relief the tough childcare choices facing mothers across the country.

Struggle to readjust: Alex Kotsos and Tracy Gunn, founders of Mumager, which helps mothers smooth the path from maternity leave back to work. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Struggle to readjust: Alex Kotsos and Tracy Gunn, founders of Mumager, which helps mothers smooth the path from maternity leave back to work. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Career fears: Laura Erskine
John Meagher

John Meagher

Tracy Gunn's son was just 18 months old when he was admitted to Crumlin Children's Hospital with pneumonia. It was one of those health scares that would be difficult for any parent, but it was especially traumatic for the mother-of-two: she was out of the country on work at the time.

"I felt so guilty not to be there," she says. "As women, we are still seen as the parent most responsible."

She was in Germany when she got the call and was able to get back home to Dublin the next day.

"It was a relief to have been somewhere that was easy to get back from quickly, but it did make me think."

Not for the first time, she pondered the difficulties faced by all parents, but especially mothers: juggling the demands of a professional career with that of the challenges of caring for young children.

"It's a tricky balancing act," she says. "We're told we can have the career and the family life - and a lot of working mothers find the Lean-in message of [Facebook CEO] Sheryl Sandberg, for instance, to be very inspiring - but it's not easy. And it's okay to admit that it's not easy.

"I remember attending a seminar and hearing Lucy Gaffney [chairperson of the Communicorp media group] say, 'No, you can't have it all, but you can have it some of the time'. That makes sense."

Gunn knows more about the challenges facing mothers in the workplace than most. She is the co-founder of Mumager, an agency that helps women smooth the path from maternity leave back to work.

Career fears: Laura Erskine
Career fears: Laura Erskine

"I found it incredibly difficult to go back to work after my second child," she says.

"I found that my confidence had gone and my concentration was not as good as before. It took me quite a bit of time to get to the point where I was functioning as normal."

Gunn struggled to readjust to life as a freelancer working in retail marketing. She says it's likely to be even harder for those who have to go back to regular office work, and that's certainly what her clients are telling her.

"Many of them take less maternity leave than they would like because they worry that their careers will suffer," she says.

"It's sad to have to say that in 2016, but we have seen cases of women who have taken longer maternity leave coming back to their workplace to an inferior position."

It is a subject that has been thrown into sharp relief in a week when the Budget essentially offered an incentive to working parents, in the form of an allowance to go towards alleviating hefty crèche fees by €80 per child per month.

It was cautiously welcomed by some, but not others, including Annmarie Boles, a mother-of-two living in Dublin.

She says the Budget offers yet more proof that this government, like previous ones, incentivise both parents to work outside the home.

"As a stay-at-home mother," she says. "I can't help but feel that I'm part of a demographic that's always forgotten about. And when you take the tax individualisation that [former Finance Minster] Charlie McCreevy introduced, we're discriminated against."

This tax system, unveiled in 1999, effectively ensures that one-income families now pay more tax than dual-income couples.

Boles says she and her husband were fortunate enough to be able to afford for her to leave paid employment and look after their children full-time. That's something she has done for the past 10 years and has never regretted the decision, despite encountering the occasional "isn't it well for you" jibe.

"In Irish society, it seems to be acceptable for a woman to say she wants to work and be a parent, but not acceptable for her to say she wants to stay at home to look after her children."

It's an argument regularly made by the Catholic think tank the Iona Institute, which claimed this week that a one-income family with children is far worse off now than it was in the past. It conducted a comparative study of the tax system today with how it operated in 1974, and says such families are poorer to the tune of €3,500 per annum.

"The family today is being hit with far higher taxes, even after taking into account child benefit," says Iona founder and Irish Independent columnist David Quinn.

"The tax code today takes far less account of dependent children, which all young families have, or a dependent spouse, which a quarter of a million families still have."

Boles, meanwhile, spoke to a newspaper last year about the frustrations she feels as a stay-at-home-mum and was taken aback by the negativity of many of the responses the article generated.

"75pc of them were saying 'Do you know how lucky you have it?' There's a lot of anger out there."

Many of them, Boles admits, are likely to be other mothers.

Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family, the organisation of lone parents, says it is "not a fan of pitting mothers who go out to work against those who stay at home" and she believes such a battle is largely a media and social-media construct.

"No matter what her situation, Irish mothers have been crying out for quality childcare for decades," she says. "We lag so far behind places like Scandinavia, where childcare is free or far more affordable than here."

Census figures show 85pc of lone parents - the one with custody or who take primary care of the children - are women. Some 42.5pc of lone parents work outside the home, compared with 69.3pc for heads of two-parent families. The unemployment rate for lone parents is considerably higher than couples.

"It is exceptionally difficult to be a single mother and to try to combine a job, too," Kiernan says. "The lack of support can really put a strain on women who work outside the home, obviously, but also those who are stay-at-home mothers."

One Family have campaigned for employers to be more family-friendly but Kiernan notes that "in general, they do not consider the needs of parents".

Alex Kotsos is only too aware of employers who take a decidedly old-fashioned approach to the requirements of working mothers. The HR professional, who co-founded Mumager with Tracy Gunn, says one of the most pressing issues for today's mother in the workplace is the provision of flexible hours.

"It's one of the main reasons why women leave the workplace," she says. "The situation is better than it was, but there's still a long way to go."

Kotsos notes that while there is much talk about an increasingly egalitarian society, old habits die hard.

"It's still, more often than not, the mother and not the father who has to go to the crèche if the child is sick or if extended time has to be taken off work," she says.

"Women still feel pressure to take the caring role, irrespective of which partner is working or earning the most money."

Consequently, she says, it's no surprise that far more women leave the workforce than men - a phenomenon borne out in the most recent Census data. In 2011, 34.9pc of women aged 60 to 64 were still at work, compared to 55.8pc of men. And when the overall employment figures are broken down across all ages, 44.7pc of the workforce were women that year, as opposed to 55.3pc.

Kotsos believes there's little doubt that child-rearing responsibilities contribute to the sobering fact that far more men than women are in senior and middle-ranking posts than men. "It's why many women don't feel comfortable taking 12 months' maternity leave," she says. "They worry that that time away from work will go against them."

It's a sentiment shared by Laura Erskine, the "mum-in-residence" at MummyPages, Ireland's most popular parenting website. "It's a subject that is discussed on our forums all the time," she says.

"A lot of working mothers have concerns about being away from their jobs for an extended period of time, particularly if they work in a field where there's a relentless rate of change, such as in technology. If you're away from that for a few years, it can feel entirely different when you return to it."

Erskine says there are other, more insidious, factors that may discourage mothers from taking extended leave.

"There might be the fear that your co-workers won't view you the same way, that you'll be considered to be 'unreliable'. There's also the concern that when you're away, the person who replaces you might do a better job, or be perceived to be doing a better job."

Erskine is a mother-of-two, and recently separated. She finds the business of combining parenting and work outside the home to be difficult and says for many women, there's a sense of guilt that their careers are getting in the way of spending as much time with their children as they would like.

"It's particularly difficult for those working mothers who find that virtually all of their income is going to pay the crèche," she says.

"It's not uncommon in Dublin for someone with two children to be paying €2,000 per month, and they're in a situation where they're dropping their child off in the morning and picking up in the evening and having to pay someone else to look after them. There's often very little money left over, but the reason they do it is because they're looking at the bigger picture and feel it's the best thing for their career. But there is guilt there, believe me."

It's a view echoed by another (unnamed) mother-of-two who works outside the home. "I feel like a hamster on a wheel," she says. "There are times when I feel like I'm a poor mother, while at the same time feel that I'm not doing my job as well as I could.

"We use a small, family-run crèche and while it's good to know my kids are being really well cared for, it's hard to hear about the little things, like certain phrases that my daughter said for the first time, or to know that they had a fall and cried out for me but I wasn't there.

"And yet, if I'm completely honest, there are mornings where they're playing up and I'm glad of the respite once I drop them off. I think a lot of parents would acknowledge that when kids are being difficult, it's a tougher job than any profession."

Conversely, 'Mary', a regular user of MummyPages' chat forums, says being a stay-at-home mother is not all it's cracked up to be, despite its obvious attractions. "It's bloody hard work," she says, "especially if you have three under four. I'm more exhausted at the end of the day than I ever was in my old job, and yet even friends who should know better say things like, 'it must be great to have the time to be able to catch up with all those box-sets'. I barely have time to sneeze, let alone watch television.

"It tends to be friends who don't have children who say things like that, rather than those who do, but I can't help but feel some mothers who work outside the home believe people like me are letting the sisterhood down. Maybe, they think what I'm doing is too close to their ideas about what a traditional housewife is, but I don't see it that way.

"I feel I'm lucky to be there for those great little moments of my kids' lives and while I may well be doing my long-term career some harm, it's a price I'm willing to pay."

While the announcement that the Government would stump up €80 per child to help with crèche fees attracted all the headlines on Tuesday, it has become clear - now that the dust has settled - that this assistance will not be made available to the majority of parents. Some estimates suggest only a third of working parents will be eligible to avail of the scheme. "As there's a requirement for children, aged up to three, to be in crèche for no less than 40 hours a week, that excludes a lot of people, especially those mothers who are trying to work flexible arrangements so their kids spend less time in crèche," says Erskine.

"And while it is an acknowledgement that parents have exorbitant childcare costs, it doesn't go nearly far enough to lift the burden.

"The scenario that currently exists where mothers who would like to stay at home and look after their children, but feel they have no choice but to go out to work, will continue. There's no doubt about that, and the Budget this week won't change anything."

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