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Opinion 'Formal childcare for small babies in Dublin is a fiction. It effectively does not exist'

‘Ask your Ma for help’ is not a good public policy for childcare in Ireland, writes Liz Carolan.

LAST DECEMBER, IN the final weeks of my pregnancy, I started phoning creches. I braced myself for hearing the eye-watering sums of money I would need to hand over to get back to work. I hadn’t anticipated finding out that formal childcare for small babies in Dublin is a fiction. It effectively does not exist.

All but one of the childcare places in my area refused to even take my name. One place offered a place for October 2022, when my then-bump would be nearly 2. It would cost more than a mortgage, and there would be no flexibility – the place was for Monday to Friday, for office hours, and I had to pay for every opening hour whether I needed it or not. I sent a very sizable cheque in a panic, and started blaming myself – I was too late, I had chosen my area poorly.

But it’s not just me. In Ireland we have decided that childcare is predominantly a private sector activity, and regulations governing carer ratios make provision for small babies unprofitable. So every year, 60,000 babies are born into a country with zero plan for how their parents can transition to work.

That means that tens of thousands of families every year scramble to cobble together something to be able to contribute outside of the home to the Irish economy and society and earn their own money. Or they are forced out of the workforce.

The average age for a woman in Ireland to have her first baby is over 30. We are competent adults, many of us have built lives and careers and relationships. We are professionals, we are students, we are young people starting out, we are people trying to rebuild careers in the midst of massive economic upheaval. Yet once our 6-10 months of maternity leave (depending on what you can afford) ends, the answer to our economic participation in Irish society seems to be “ask your Ma”.

But we don’t all have our parents, or they live far away, or they work, or they are not able for the lifting, or to be honest, they have done their bit and they would like to just get to be Granny and Grandad.

“Ask your Ma” is not good public policy. I am 37. I intend to be economically active, and to pay tax, for about the next 30 years. But that will depend on the 18-36 months that lie ahead. I want to work. My husband wants to work. You want us to work. If you are currently in your 40s or 50s, our taxes in 10, 20, 30 years time will help cover your pension. You also want that student to finish studying and start using their qualification, that hospitality worker who lost her job last year to start something new and employ a few people, and that young person to get their foot on the career ladder.

Flexibility is key too, and something that is difficult for the private sector to deliver. Not everyone works office hours; self-employment and contract work are an increasing part of the Irish economy, and not everyone wants to spend those early years working 40 hours a week. If we can enable each other to contribute during those few years in ways that work for our families, the benefits will multiply out to us all.

That childcare in Ireland is a nightmare is the unhottest of unhot takes. But what we have out there is total market failure, and one that is directly impacting our economy. As Stephen Kinsella pointed out this week on Twitter, the economics of early years childcare is “so clear it’s not funny” -  the existing ECCE scheme for older children returns between eight and seventeen euro to the economy for every one euro invested.  

Early years childcare is an investment and should be a public good, not an industry. We will all benefit when provision is accessible, affordable and flexible. It is very hard to imagine how anything other than public provision will get us there.

Liz Carolan is a working parent currently on maternity leave

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