Farming out a generation fails us all
Promises of childcare support are good. Better still would be the freedom to make the choices you feel are right for your family
Last week, "latch-key kids" came back into our consciousness. Perhaps you haven't heard that term since the days of Adrian Mole, but, apparently, they are a concern that will be addressed in the "affordability of childcare" package that went before Cabinet last week.
Of course, it is welcome news to all Irish parents that it looks like something will be done to help working parents. Only the week before, after all, the Irish Independent reported that you'd need to earn €30,000 a year to keep two children in child care, but mention of "latch-key kids" sounded alarm bells.
The package up for consideration will, reportedly, look at offering tax breaks and childcare subsidies to working parents. It will also look at putting money into after-school activities to tackle the issue of "latch-key kids" whose parents work beyond school hours, and potentially increase the subsidised pre-school year to a two-year supplement.
Which all sounds supportive and well and good, but the worry is that it tackles only one side of the issues around being a parent and being a person who works. What they seem to be supporting is the work, and the idea of doing more of it, rather than addressing the great need for people - and women in particular - to work outside the home to some extent, but also have the financial support, and actual time, to take care of their children.
What this smacked of was more focus on farming out kids and no bigger thinking about who is the best person to rear them. Certainly, working parents need more financial breaks in order to make working economically worthwhile and, certainly, most mothers will say that they want to keep their brains and skills alive in the years when their kids are small.
But, at the same time, a lot of them will tell you that they're missing out on those years - missing the dinner times, missing the homework, herding them up the stairs to baths and bed no sooner than they're in the door from work and childcare. And what a lot of working mothers find hard to admit - to each other and even to themselves - are those moments when they wonder what was the point of having these kids if they never see them. And this, perhaps, is what the "affordability of childcare" points of concern don't address.
A UK Department of Education report, published last year, stated that 54pc of mothers working in the home would like to take up some sort of paid work, if they could afford to. So far, so much of an argument for subsidised child-care. There's no reason why women shouldn't want to work before and after having children and there should be some effort made to make work pay for women who become mothers.
However, that's only one side of the coin and the other side is ignored at our peril. The same report found that 37pc of working mothers said that they'd prefer to stay at home, again, if they could afford to. Which is to say that their scant bit of income extra to child-care costs at least contributed something to the house kitty, but obliterated their job as a parent.
Further, 57pc said that if they could afford it, they would work fewer hours and stay at home more. Which is to say that if child-care was affordable and available to a part-time worker, that's what 57pc of women would opt for. Only 27pc of women said they'd choose to work more hours if there was more child-care at a cheaper price.
Essentially, what women wanted was to be two things: a worker and a mother, while our child-care solutions seem to speak only to the working part of life. And fails to acknowledge for a second the guilt of the working mother, who, if she has increased child-care options available to her, but no increased work-motherhood balance, will only grow more dislocated from the things that count, such as homework and dinners and the "I'm bored" refrain of the school holidays. And more guilt-ridden as result.
Both of my children attended creche in their early years. I returned to work when they were each six months old and I was happy, and they were happy, and it worked for us. It helped of course, that the creche was excellent and it felt like a home from home, and it also helped that the nature of my work was relatively flexible.
What I heard in the years before my older daughter started school, however, was how children demand more of you as they get older, not less. Almost invariably, too, this was delivered with a note of impatience. They wanted to talk more, I heard, they wanted you to listen and to take time and, God, the homework and the schoolyard strife and the play-date politics. And don't get people started on the school holidays, the greatest dread of the working parent's life, as they exhaust every child-care option going. The early years, where they don't complain about your absence, they're the golden ones, I was told.
It's all a bit depressing, isn't it? The constant stream of stress about where and how we can farm out our children is wearing as hell. And it comes as no surprise then, when I hear young, intelligent women - who like children perfectly well - saying that they're reluctant to take on motherhood. We have set up parenthood - and motherhood specifically - as something to be suffered, as such a scourge on our personal fulfilment, that we can't expect them to long for it. We should never kid them that they can have it all, but when it comes to rearing your own kids, does it have to be all or nothing?