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'Your mammy brain and working woman brain should not be in the same room': Work and childcare after Covid

The Citizens Assembly has recommended a publicly-funded childcare model in future to address the high cost parents face.

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, only around one in seven employees in Ireland worked from home in some formal capacity – either usually or all of the time.

An ESRI study found that working from home was “not a common feature of employment” in Ireland up to 2019. 

Of those who did work from home some or most of the time, couples with children were more likely to remote work than lone parents. 

As we know, the pandemic forced an immediate and, so far, lasting change to how a great many of us work. 

With the closure of the childcare sector for various periods, and parents in many cases unable to arrange for family members to look after children during restrictions, many were forced to juggle working from home with providing full-time childcare.

Some had to still pay creche fees at a time when they couldn’t even access that childcare. High creche fees are the veritable elephant in the room when it comes to parents’ discussions around childcare heading into the future.

At the same time, the childcare sector is facing a precarious few months and years as providers say they are reeling from revenue lost during the crisis – as many parents kept their children away due to Covid fears – and urgently seek continued government supports to stay viable in the future.

Is a publicly funded model the answer? That was certainly the solution arrived at by the Citizen’s Assembly on gender equality last weekend

It said that Ireland should “over the next decade move to a publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of quality, affordable early years and out of hours childcare”.

It also recommended that the State should increase the share of GDP spent on childcare from the current 0.37% of GDP to at least 1% no later than 2030. The government has so far signalled its intention to “consider” the recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly so there’s no guarantee – as of yet – that these will be followed through. 

Another uncertainty remains around exactly when there may be a large-scale return to office work in the coming months and, with the demands around childcare dependent on how parents return to work in future, parents will face choices around care for their children going forward into a post-Covid world.

What are parents saying?

Various studies have pointed to the high cost of childcare in Ireland, running into thousands of euro per child per year. Childcare costs in Ireland are higher than in many other OECD countries.

While some cited the cost of childcare as a prohibitive factor, there was a general sense that many will favour returning their kids to a childcare setting regardless of whether they’ll be working from home or not post-pandemic. 

Lorraine, a mother of two from Dublin, said: “I worked remotely for a long time while my children were very small, long before Covid. We had very little money, our house was in negative equity and we were crippled by our mortgage, so childcare was a ‘luxury’ that was beyond us. I did 5am shifts at work to try to balance out the working day against my mother duties.

It was hell. I did it for years and learnt the hard way that really, your mammy brain and working woman brain should not be in the same house, let alone the same room. It’s unhealthy for everyone involved, you and children. I would not wish that on anyone. So yes, when we return to ‘normal’ post-Covid, I will most certainly be employing a childminder to care for my two kids after school.

Others also pointed out the stresses and strains of working from home are such that it’s impossible to both keep working and look after children at the same time. 

“Parents are not in a position to mind their kids while working,” one mother said. “Their employers won’t let them for starters.”

A father who has been remote working alongside his partner for the last year – while also caring for their toddler – has said it’s been extremely difficult. 

“We try and alternate who looks after him depending on how busy we are,” he said. “But it takes a strain.”

Marie, a mother of one also in the capital, echoed these sentiments.

She said: “Yes I will continue to use childcare even if I’m working from home when we ‘return to normal’ as it’s not possible for me to care for my child while working. One of the two will be compromised and unfortunately what I found in the very first lockdown, it was my daughter who suffered. Therefore, I will continue to avail of afterschool care as it is best for us both.”

Linda, a working mum of two also in Dublin, said that she’d be sourcing childcare after the pandemic but only for one of her children. 

“I haven’t had childcare for a year, and it has aged me, so yes, I will be embracing childcare after Covid,” she said. “But only because of my toddler’s age. My older girl can sort herself out.”

Whether a parent will decide to source childcare into the future all depends on their specific situation, along with the age of their children.

Jane, a mum of three in Dublin, told us: “Never mind after the pandemic what about the summer. Currently mine come home at 3 and play on the road.

“I don’t see the point of paying someone to sit in the sitting room while they play outside. Then again yesterday I actually nearly lost it as I was on a call and they were screaming outside my window so I had to ban them to their bedrooms. I won’t send them to aftercare again.”

Another set of parents said they both work from home and – despite the difficulties – they will continue to keep their toddler at home in the future. 

“I work shift work,” the father said. “My partner works 9-5. It’s not easy but we can manage when working from home. It’ll save us a fortune.” 

What about the ‘vulnerable’ childcare sector?

Last month, Early Childhood Ireland said the sector would be “in jeopardy” without an extension of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) through to the end of the year. 

It said that demand had “drastically reduced” for childcare places during the pandemic, and the resulting loss in income had placed many providers in an unstable position. 

Early Childhood Ireland’s director of policy Frances Byrne told The Journal that the pandemic has left a “precarious and vulnerable” childcare sector and that government support would be essential going forward. 

“We welcome the lengths the government have gone to to help fund the sector,” she said. “When parents are not sending their children in for a variety of reasons, government had to do that. But providers are very worried for the future.”

Byrne said that there was varying drop off rates in demand for creches across the country when restrictions were eased last September. Some creches were still operating at 80% while some were as low as 20%. 

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“Providers are asking ‘am I going to have 100% capacity come September?’,” Byrne said. “When the population has been vaccinated and restrictions are lifted – what will the re-opening of society look like?”

In these questions, Byrne said that “all the ramifications about staffing come into focus”.

If there are less children in creches, and they aren’t operating at capacity, then the funding to hire and retain staff also falls. A return to offices won’t be recommended by government until Covid is sufficiently suppressed and large swathes of the population are vaccinated.

And even then, it’ll be likely up to individual employers on whether there’ll be a wholesale return to the office or the kind of hybrid models of a few days at home and a few days in the office that people may want in future.

This is all adding to the uncertainty for childcare providers, Byrne said.

“Parents are not clear at all about what they’ll do,” she said. “They’re waiting for decisions from their employers. No one is certain. And there are too many unknowns.”

She said that creches offer as much flexibility as they can. But that to offer the kind of flexibility that parents may want in the post-Covid world may be unsustainable. 

She said: “Creche providers are very limited in the flexibility they can offer. If you were to say we only need the child looked after some mornings, creches will try to accommodate that but they’ll be at a financial loss.”

Staff retention may be difficult in this sector in a post-Covid world and Byrne said there was a clear public interest in the government providing adequate supports to keep the sector functioning into the future.

“We can’t have a situation where providers fall off a cliff [in terms of government supports ceasing],” she said. “We’ve asked for the EWSS to be maintained until the end of the year.

But we may need supports beyond that. We have said we have to move to a public-funding model in line with what is in offer in the countries that do this best – in this case, our beloved Nordic friends. Otherwise we’ll be left in the vulnerable situation we are now – high fees, low wages and a precarious sector. It’s not in anybody’s interest. 

‘Flexibility is key’

Going forward, Orla O’Connor from the National Women’s Council of Ireland said that the kind of flexible working options being mooted in the future will be essential to support women and parents into jobs while supporting the need for childcare.

Alongside that, sustainable and affordable provision of childcare would also be essential particularly for low-earning families.  

“It has been concerning to hear women saying to us that they’ve been under so much pressure in relation to Covid, is it worth going back into those especially low-paying jobs while at the same time paying so much for childcare,” she told The Journal

O’Connor emphasised the importance of “options and choices” and the kind of flexible working possible in future may allow parents to make decisions around alternating working from home while also availing of childcare.

“In the absence of proper care services and if there’s an option to work from home, women may take it,” she said. “We can’t look at this whole area of paid work in isolation from what supports are there for people to do that. We can’t go back to the same extent where grandparents provided all of that care.

They do want that work-life balance, but work needs to pay too. A high proportion of women are in low-paid employment. Women are weighing up what they can earn and how it will cover childcare fees. It makes a strong argument for public childcare. It needs to be public so that parents aren’t paying the types of money we’ve seen – it’s unsustainable.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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