Gerard O'Regan: 'Expensive childcare takes an emotional toll on the parents battling to get by'
Who is gonna mind the baby? Or the exuberant toddler? Or the over-energised five-year-old? In other words, who will help look after this latest generation of Irish children, given that so many of their mothers and fathers are ensnared in the vagaries of the workplace?
There was a time when a woman with children, holding down a job outside the home, was dubbed a 'working mother'. But she was the exception rather than the norm. The prototype Irish family was husband out in the workplace, wife back at base caring for their offspring. That seems in the long ago and less enlightened times.
Nowadays, the percentage of Irish women combining a career with child rearing continues to zoom upwards.
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Underlining the modern parenting ethic is that there is 50-50 input from both mother and father. At least that's the theory.
But it is not just in relation to matters such as breastfeeding that maintaining absolute equality between the sexes is difficult.
Statistics show it is the female partner who usually foregoes a promotion - or resorts to part-time work - once children come along. This is not especially unique to Ireland. In Sweden, with one of the world's most advanced childcare systems, it is mostly the woman who downplays career ambitions, at least in the short term.
A famous catchcry of the 1960s was the saying, 'women can have it all'. As the feminist movement gathered pace, icons like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer painted vivid pictures of a new dawn. Child-rearing, combined with a job that brought emotional and financial fulfilment, should be in the grasp of all women. But as many a couple will admit, it's all easier said than done. When both parents are employed full-time, they can find themselves on an endless treadmill. With the pressures of the workplace and pressures of parenting chasing one another, there never seems enough time for almost anything.
There are many reasons why women have moved away from the traditional full-time mothering role. There is the understandable desire to pursue a career. But for many there is a more grinding reality - a pressing need for that monthly pay cheque. In an era of rocketing house prices and hefty mortgages, the second salary is often a necessity rather than a luxury. And so a multiplicity of minding arrangements is called upon.
There is a vast network nudging the next generation through the complexities and challenges of simply growing up. For example, grandparents are increasingly put into action; this is the era of the grey-haired buggy pusher.
Yet there seems to be a serious disconnect somewhere along the way. Affordable and, most importantly, quality childcare can be difficult to come by. A central conundrum rarely addressed is how much a childminder with real commitment should be paid.
What is the worth of somebody who will go the extra mile, ensuring those in their care are looked after and stimulated to the optimum? Evidence suggests wage levels for many in this sector are low; this is a barrier to attracting the right person for a job of inestimable importance.
Yet many couples are already at their financial limit. A rise in labour costs would inevitably push up the price for crèche users. The recent decision to increase parental leave for fathers is a step in the right direction. But a real easing of the financial burden seems a long way off. It would require massive government investment, by way of tax reliefs, or direct payments to parents.
All the while, too many mothers and fathers remain time-poor, and fatigued, in the battle to just get by. They fight their way through morning traffic snarls, having risen at some unearthly hour, to get baby or toddler suited and booted for the day ahead.
They live in fear of the unexpected. A sick child, or a minder who fails to arrive on time, can be a nightmare. Then there is the evening race home, so that what might have been a relaxed day of parenting is compressed into a couple of hours.
Meanwhile, they battle with a nagging feeling deep in the sub-conscious. Are they doing right by their kids?