Tuesday 17 September 2019

Wendy Grace: 'How about supporting those who want to do the parenting?'

Government policy is not fair on parents who want to stay at home and bring up their children, writes Wendy Grace

'Government policy is not fair on parents who want to stay at home and bring up their children.' Stock image
'Government policy is not fair on parents who want to stay at home and bring up their children.' Stock image

Wendy Grace

Working parents are now paying an additional €1,700 annually in childcare costs in Dublin and €770 outside the capital, compared to five years ago.

Whenever stories like this break there is a rush from politicians and women's bodies to screech from the rooftops that the answer lies in subsidising childcare more without actually bothering to ask families what they want in the first place.

Research presented last week to the Economic and Social Research Institute by Dr Helene Turon, showed that if we increase creche subsidies it might not necessarily mean more women would work because, brace yourselves, some parents actually want to mind their own children.

She said that no amount of childcare policy will change the minds of households who are happy with their childcare arrangements, and most families in Ireland are happy with their choices.

The Central Statistics Office shows the vast majority, 70pc of parents, mind their children at home, with a minority, only 13pc, opting for creche. Surely these parents are just dying to get away from their sticky-fingered little monsters, and the only reason they are at home is because of excessive childcare costs? Well I'm sorry to break it to you, Children's Minister Katherine Zappone, but 82pc are happy with their current choice. How about supporting them for a change?

Instead, it's all about creating an economy that forces both parents to get out and work whether they feel that's best for their family or not. For women, the pendulum has swung now in the other direction. Previously, our only value was seen in our work in the home; now it seems our value is determined by the ladders we climb and the title on our business cards.

And let's avoid actually discussing what might be best for children. The largest ever study carried out on childcare in the UK found the most critical time for a parent to spend with their child is the first year of their life, yet we want parents back at work after six months, before a baby can even feed themselves or sit up unaided.

It would be less expensive for the State to support parents working in the home for the first year of a child's life than to provide one-to-one care in an institutionalised childcare setting. But let's just keep ignoring the evidence, the wishes of parents and, of course, the best interests of children. We will just keep funnelling all our resources into one option only, creches, while punishing parents who make other choices.

A few years ago I was offered a high-flying job in a swanky PR firm, floor to ceiling glass in the office, a Nespresso machine, free pastries in the boardroom, that sort of thing. I was even offered double the salary I was on at the time to take the job. I decided I didn't want to work 80 hours a week, I wanted to have a life and a family.

My story is not unique - it is reflected in the choices many women make.

In countries such as Sweden, which offers childcare and 480 days of well-paid shared maternity and paternity leave, the gender pay gap is not much different to Ireland. Why? Because not all women want to be CEO or a board member.

The shameful inability of businesses to become family friendly and flexible have meant those things come at the cost of so much time away from family, a sacrifice many women simply don't want to make.

Sadly, this is seen as a disservice to the sisterhood which seems obsessed with solely valuing women based on their career achievements.

We hear the Children's Minister waxing lyrical about 'supports for families' but only for those who wish to have anyone but themselves care for their own children.

Government policy is about making more of us into 'units of production' rather than what might be good for families. Who cares about quality of life or the precious time with our children we will never get back? Because when we die we will all wish we would have been able to work more and spend less time with our children, right?

So even though the majority of families don't want their children in a creche (no matter how much it is subsidised), government policy continues to discriminate in favour of creche care above all other options.

There is no reason subsidies should not follow the child, whether a parent chooses to use a creche, work part-time, full-time, stay at home, or have a childminder. Current policy is trying to do the opposite by forcing parents into the workforce and by making staying at home not financially viable. Not only that, it actually punishes families where one parent is at home, via tax individualisation to the tune of around €6,000 each year - and that's before you count the cost of the salary that parent is sacrificing to care for their child.

We have ignored the needs of parents and families and continued to mindlessly fuel policies that have created an environment where both parents have no other choice but to work just to pay the bills.

This isn't 'liberating' for anyone. It's simply trapping parents in a system they will find harder to get out of if we don't demand change and authentic choices.

The dual-economy isn't making life easier and it's certainly not making us happier - we are more anxious, stressed and time poor than ever before, and I'm pretty sure parents who find themselves dropping their small babies off at creche in their pyjamas and picking them up just before bedtime don't feel they 'have it all'.

Government rhetoric would have me believe I would have been more 'valuable' by taking the impressive sounding job title and spending my days (and probably nights) peddling mindless PR campaigns. And I'll get little validation from faux feminists who only see their career woman's world-view and nothing more, but the daily giggles and kisses I get after I come home from work at lunchtime is kudos enough for me.

Sadly, I'm not sure how much longer I will enjoy this luxury, as Ms Zappone seems determined to create an Ireland intent on taking away the choice from parents in how they want to raise their children.

Wendy Grace is a broadcaster with Spirit Radio

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