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Looking after the children full time at home or going back to work ... do women really have a choice?

In the first of our investigative four-part series on childcare, Kate Shanahan asks how irish mothers have found themselves torn between the office and the home

In the first of our investigative four-part series on childcare, Kate Shanahan asks how irish mothers have found themselves torn between the office and the home

The mother collecting her child at the upmarket creche felt a prickling of alarm as the owner appeared at the door to hand her toddler back to her. It wasn't that her offspring looked unhappy, or uncared for, more that the woman greeting her was not quite what she had expected.

Impeccably groomed, her hair a blow-dried helmet, she was also carrying a miniature dog under one arm. Given that this was the kind of establishment that parents nearly had to provide references to get a place in, her fears were not based on expectations of cruelty or neglect.

It was more that as a parent she knew that people who spend all day getting down and dirty with kids, should at the very least look a little dishevelled. Structured days (there were even French classes for toddlers) were no substitute for the kind of spontaneous fun that she had had in her own childhood.

The problem with the whole childcare debate is that as parents we should know what's best for our own children. But everything, State, employers and society, conspires to tell us otherwise.

Motherhood has never been so over-valued – witness the concentrated coverage of celebrity mums and their babies.

Meanwhile, mothering and parenting comes a poor third to economic pursuits.

What's been described as the "maximum private responsibility model", has left Irish parents paying an average of €8,000 per year on childcare per child, with many struggling to come up with this money after tax.

Secure

Choice doesn't really come into it for the grey-faced parents you can sometimes see on the early-morning run trying to beat the clock as they lead half-asleep children into city-centre creches. As the recession continues to impact on job opportunities, it's a brave parent who opts out of work, on the basis that their partner's salary will remain secure.

Research carried out to assess what age group of women rushed to join the workforce during the Celtic tiger years came up with come surprising results.

Women with young children were the ones who helped fuel the boom by remaining at work. They did so even though they did not have access to proper structured childcare.

In some cases they depended on relatives, in others they shared childcare with another mother. Once their children reached school age, the school as babysitter model emerged. Then they either got after-school care, which is in itself unregulated, or again depended on a more informal network.

The larger creches are a more recent phenomenon and, if truth be told, a less attractive option for many parents. But what they do offer is the 'safety-in-numbers' approach. At least they did, until the Prime Time Investigates reports.

The very light touch regulation that we are now complaining about was also the same development that forced smaller, more family-run establishments, out of business back in the Nineties. Those who calculate the costs and ask why would people pay for expensive childcare instead of minding their own children fail to look at the larger picture.

Once children start school, other arrangements can be made, but if you leave the workforce for three to four years, you are effectively dropping off a career ladder never to return.

Back when I first returned to work after maternity leave, an older female professional gave me the benefit of her experiences. She told me that she had never taken time off because her children were sick, no one in the office ever knew that she sometimes slipped away to use the phone so that she could talk her children through their homework.

If she had been up all night with an ill child, she slapped on more make-up and put on her best front. "Nobody wants to know what you had to do to get to work," she said.

Another working woman shared her horror stories of negligent au-pairs, the nanny with a booze problem, and then capped it all with the tale of the day she left her daughter bawling behind her as she left home for an early morning start.

"She ran out after me in her bare feet, it was snowing, the minder was shouting, "Go, just go" at me while my daughter grabbed my leg screaming, 'Mammy, please don't leave me'."

Heartfelt

Both of these women still wore it as a badge of honour that they hadn't given up work, no matter how bad they felt.

Ask any working mother and she will tell you about her 'wobblies', the moments when it nearly all comes apart.

Sometimes, it's a combination of an unhappy or sick child, on other occasions it's the sheer grind of trying to please work and home, and feeling that you are falling short on both counts. But they soldier on in the belief that some day it will get easier.

There's also the illusion that all women are in satisfying jobs that help them suppress what ever angst they might be feeling about leaving their children. Yet survey after survey shows that most working mothers would like more flexible working hours, and some would throw in the towel at work in a heartbeat if they were able to.

One of the problems of the one-size-fits-all approach is that while women's organisations were lobbying for good affordable childcare, some women simply wanted to have the choice about whether they would work inside or outside the home.

More than half of Irish women in couples who have children under three, choose to remain at home. Many of those will have tried other options, but eventually found that work and children are an uneasy combination.

Talking to women about their experiences of job-sharing bears this out. Heralded as being the sign of a family-friendly workplace back in the Nineties, it soon became one of the worst options for working women as potential job sharers had to find their own partners. Many discovered that far from working part-time, they were fielding calls at home, dealing with disgruntled fellow employees, clients and employers.

The mantra, "don't go part time or job share" was one piece of advice working women passed on to each other on the basis that "you'll just be doing a full-time job for half the pay".

Flexi-time was another false raised hope. A female lawyer, who eventually moved from a large practice into a more family-friendly area, explained how her colleagues would freeze her out if she attempted to leave early, eg at 7pm, even though she'd come in early and worked through lunch.

One of the most startling rows I witnessed while working in broadcast production was when a young researcher said she wished she had school plays and sports days to go to, like some of her married colleagues. "How would you react," she asked our then boss, "if I told you that I needed to leave early to go to my yoga class or to meet friends?"

She was, she added, tired of the way working mothers felt they had some sort of honorary martyred mammy dispensation. It would have taken a thesis to explain to her why her colleagues with children got so angry at these sweeping generalisations.

Women with children are also the ones who put their heart and soul into work, and any concessions they might receive are usually repaid in double. But her sincerely held views were also a reflection of the belief that if you choose to remain at work, and pass the responsibility of childcare onto others, why do you need to rush home for those special moments?

The bald truth is that unless it's a close family member or an exceptional individual, real quality 'caring' is best done by a parent.

Other people can mind your child, ie make sure they eat, sleep and don't come to harm, but only a parent can bring them up.

No one else is as patient or as loving. In devaluing parenting, we have ghettoised childcare by making it just another economic variable and, like the care of the elderly, open to abuses.

Every now and then a scandal will emerge to prick our complacency. And we will call for inquiries and legislation, and none of it will make any difference.

The phrase, "I'd go mad if had to stay at home all day", is one many working parents will identify with. We have all said it at one stage or another. But it also reflects what we as a society think of when we look at the life of those who work in the home. It doesn't carry the same cachet as being a productive member of the workforce.

TURNOVER

It's seen as boring, repetitive, frustrating. If we think like that then it's not too far a leap for those who 'love working with children' to also make. The high turnover of staff in creches, for instance, has been attributed to the fact that young women with qualifications are leaving to follow a better career path. They don't want to be stuck working in factory-style creches where interaction with children has been replaced by assembly-line style care.

One childcare expert looking at the Prime Time footage made the point that the lack of reaction by the other children as their peers were being shouted at and manhandled indicated that they were not shocked by it. In other words that it was not a scene out of the ordinary, which is heartbreaking in and of itself.

Imposing fines and stiffer regulations won't keep our children safe, supporting their parents to have real choices around work and childcare just might.


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