Monday 16 September 2019

'I felt like I was breaking my family up'- Irish mums reveal how three kids can end your career

New figures show Irish women are more likely than their EU peers to quit work after having a third child. Jessie Collins asks why

There for the cuts and bruises: Deirdre Kelly with her kids Fionn (7), Sabha (5) and Ruadhan (3) Photo: Justin Farrelly
There for the cuts and bruises: Deirdre Kelly with her kids Fionn (7), Sabha (5) and Ruadhan (3) Photo: Justin Farrelly

'My wife's career survived the birth of our first child, but not our second," wrote the then UK KPMG Chairman, Simon Collins, in 2014 when discussing the lack of gender diversity in top roles.

And it seems, in Ireland, though many mothers do manage to hang on to their careers after their second, with 70pc of us staying in the workforce, it's number three that seems to be a deal-breaker.

Good quality of life: Sharon Mullins with Katie, Ellie and Matthew Photo: Andrew Downes/XPOSURE
Good quality of life: Sharon Mullins with Katie, Ellie and Matthew Photo: Andrew Downes/XPOSURE

Data published this week by Eurostat showed just 56pc of women remain in the workforce once they have more then two kids.

This compares with 85pc of working mums of three in Sweden and 83pc in Denmark. Unsurprisingly, these countries are also the ones with the most heavily subsidised childcare, with working parents paying an average of €300 a month for a full-time creche space - approximately two thirds less than what is now considered the standard pay for the same service here in Ireland.

But is finance the only contributing factor or are there are other forces at work? Anecdotally, many women report that it's not just the financial burden, but the stress involved in juggling a household and a career outside the home, with women in Ireland still carrying the burden of domestic chores, never mind the mental load of organising after-school activities, pick-ups, drop-offs, camps for school holidays and time off for sickness being just some of the prohibitive issues.

Deirdre Kelly (42), who lives in Lexlip and has three children (7, 5 and 3), tried to initially return to part-time work after her second child, but having a third completely ended any possibility of restarting her career in administration.

"I'd looked into childcare, and the difference I would have been making wouldn't have been worth the hassle," she says. And the more she delved into the practicalities of returning to work, the less attractive it seemed to become. "For what I would have out of it, it wouldn't have been worth it, financially and for the strain of it all."

The average price for full-time care in a creche is about €900 per child. While some creches offer discounts for second and third children, this is usually 10pc at most.

Without any discount, this could mean paying around €1,800 for two children under three. Add a third kid to the picture and even if one of them is covered for three hours a day in the ECCE scheme (which kicks in at age 3), you'll probably be paying at least another €700, bringing your childcare bill to around €2,500 a month. You'd need to bring in a salary of at least €50,000 in order to take home any more than €200 a week.

If childcare had been cheaper, Deirdre believes, things would have been different, particularly in helping to facilitate more part-time work. But another deciding factor was her desire to provide for her own children a similar upbringing to the one she herself had enjoyed.

"My Mum was at home when we were kids and you remember coming home and having your dinner and being there for the cuts and bruises. That was important to me."

Frances Horan (41) from Clarinbridge in Galway, worked in finance and also stayed home after her third child. Her husband's job, which involved a lot of travelling, was a big factor in the decision to quit working outside the home.

"It was just going to put a lot of pressure on us as a family, trying to get everyone up and out in the morning. Also my second child was a terrible sleeper and that caused huge disruption. I wasn't awfully happy in the job I was in at the time either.

"It just made it easier on the family to be at home."

Not having family support locally made continuing at work more of a challenge, and working part-time was not an option at her company. "If I'd been able to work part-time, that would have made a huge difference."

Her children (11, 9 and 7), are now more independent, but the decision at the time wasn't an easy one. "It wasn't something we chose to do, it wasn't meant to be long term, it was difficult. The isolation was a challenge, living in the country, everyone still makes appointments to see each other. I didn't know anybody until my youngest went to school." Now that her children are older, she is thinking about going back to work.

She's looking for something in education that would fit around her children's schedules, because a part-time job, as she points out, "just isn't going to pay you for the cost of having your children minded".

Sharon Mullins from Galway is mother to Kate (10) Matthew (7) and Ellie (4). She went back to work in telesales after her first two children, but found, after her youngest and third child was born, trying to return to a full-time role just wasn't going to work for her.

Her motivations were personal as well as practical. "I did want to be that Mum at the school gates dropping off and picking up my kids. I wanted a good quality of life."

That said, her mortgage (her husband, a builder, works from 7am to 7pm) was based on two salaries, so having no income was not an option. After having child-minders for her first two children, she decided not to return to full-time work after her third maternity leave and instead began working for an online skincare company a few hours a day and also in the evening. "It's hard to balance everything - children are expensive and you need money, but I couldn't do what I do if I was working for an employer - they'd probably fire me! It doesn't matter if the children are sick or if I'm sick, I now can be there," says Sharon.

Of all the women who voice their experiences, the ones who have chosen to stay at home are also quick to admit it is something of a privilege and not everyone has the luxury.

That sentiment chimes with the recent findings by Amarach for the brand Sudocrem, which showed that almost two out of three of today's mothers (63pc) would prefer to stay at home to raise their children. Many mothers, it seems, are working under duress.

Nicola Hardy (37) from Mullingar and mother-of-four to an 11-year-old, six-year-old, five-year old, and four-month-old, feels it would be different if there was more flexibility on offer in the modern workplace.

A behavioural analyst, she is currently on maternity leave with her fourth child but is returning to work in January. She took a year out after her third child, partly for financial reasons but also because she says she felt under pressure to be at home with her growing family.

The logistics of trying to find childcare that worked for all her kids at their different stages was eye-watering. "There was no standalone service I could access and I felt like I was breaking my family up.

"If my husband had been able to take time out from work, it would have made a massive difference.

"It is very hard going back after maternity leave. I was out of touch. It would have been easier to stay in the safety of the home in some ways."

She is quick to point out that her job is facilitated by the fact she has a flexible, understanding employer.

"I can work from home if one of the kids is sick, there is that security there."

Ireland often comes out at the bottom of the table in the EU with regard to working conditions.

A recent study by the UK-based Focus Expert Market found countries like Finland and Estonia rank the highest in terms of quality of life in raising a family (Ireland doesn't even feature in the top 20), not just because of cheap childcare but they also had the highest paid annual leave allowances, with Norway and Germany also ranking highly due to their comparatively low average working hours.

Many of these countries also have a more unified childcare system with pre-school and after-school part of one programme, and held in the same buildings.

"You are constantly up against it here," says Nicola. "It is really like having another job to be a parent, and often there just isn't room for both."

Irish Independent

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