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Dublin: 11°C Saturday 26 September 2020

Column: Why am I working purely to keep my foot in the door?

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the land of working parents – there’s not much of the pay cheque left after crèche fees, commute and (caffeine) subsistence.

Claire Micks

WHY DOES THE average person work? Duh – to make money, obviously. There may be other ancillary benefits around social interaction and job satisfaction and the like but, let’s face it, the main reason any one of us gets out of bed each morning is in order to earn a crust.

But what if you continued to work and to earn, but no longer managed to bring home that crust? What if half your income was gone before you ever even saw it and your take-home pay was suddenly reduced to a few crumbs? Why, on Earth, would you bother? Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the land of working parents.

By the time crèche fees, commute and (caffeine) subsistence are covered, I don’t come out with much at the end of each month. I continue in the workforce, despite having two kids aged three and under, in order to use my brain, to maintain my sanity and because I happen to be lucky enough to have a job I enjoy. To me, the ability to rejoin civilisation for part of each week and reconnect with that other part of me that existed long before I had children is invaluable, and that connection with the outside world is as important to me as my pay cheque.

But for the moment at least, financial gain is not the primary motivator. Because it is simply not lucrative to work outside the home and pay out a couple of grand each month in childcare. Very few of us women earn enough to leave much change out of that scale of direct debit. So for many, ‘The Toddler Years’ are spent simply biding their time until those costs reduce, and learning to accept that for the moment, at least, we will effectively be slaves to our own childcare costs. Terrified of stepping off the career ladder, we slog it out in the knowledge that things will get better in the future. But have no doubt – we’re broke. And the Government is doing very little to help us.

For many women, with the arrival of Child Number Two, bang goes their financial independence and their ability to work outside the home, without their having much real choice in the matter. Indeed, manys a family stays at just two children because, unless you’re Cheryl bloody Sandberg, the costs of childcare for three would just be completely unsustainable.

Will they give us a break? Lord knows we need it.

The Government eventually announced last week, amid much fanfare, that new affordability of childcare ‘proposals’ were being brought to Cabinet. Very vague. Mention in the media of tax breaks and subsidisation but a noticeable absence of specifics. Still though, it gives us working parents a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, someone will finally do something to lighten our load. And recognise, in some small way, the inevitable frustration that comes with having half of your after-tax income going on an entirely necessary expense to your attending work in the first place.

For the benefit of all of us out there who see our dry cleaning bills go through the roof courtesy of baby puke and projectile dinners. Who handle midweek mornings with military precision and feel as if they’ve already put in a day’s work by the time they actually reach the office. Who get to see their kids at the two worst ends of the day – tired, cranky and resentful of their absence – and who spend the winter months just praying they don’t get sick. In simple recognition of those of us who, despite all those challenges, continue to log in each and every day, perhaps, eventually, they will see fit to give us a break. Because Lord knows we need it.

There was another recent unrelated story around how Ireland has the second-lowest rates of female membership of PLC boards in Europe. Whilst this is not a new story, it always seems to be projected with some element of surprise. We have somewhere between 8- 10% female board membership, whereas Norway, for example, has over a third. And no doubt this ‘revelation’ has the politician’s scratching their (predominantly male) heads. Yes, strange that, in a country where circa half of the one million women active in the labour market have children, and where we have one of the highest costs of childcare in the world, that very few women reach the top? Sure, why wouldn’t we stick it out for years on end? The guilt, the exhaustion, the endless tantrums alongside the complete absence of tax relief or any (real) subsidisation?

Granted, we have the free pre-school year. But that is one year out of approximately four between the ages of, say, age one – when a child typically starts childcare – and, say, age five, when a child typically starts school. And it only covers three hours a day. During term time. Whereas the average child is in childcare for at least 8 or 9 hours all year round. So by my estimates, the free pre-school year covers about 6% of your likely childcare costs aged 1 – 5 years. By any stretch of the imagination that could hardly be described as significant, despite how often it is wheeled out as the Government’s stock answer to our working parent’s unsustainable load.

Expensive and restrictive childcare options are leaving parents in an impossible situation

Equally, as standards and regulation of childcare inevitably increase after recent scandals, parents can’t help but worry that the cost of any of these (very necessary) improvements in the system will inevitably come out of our own (virtually empty) pockets – and then you end up feeling guilty because you can’t afford for your crèche to improve the service it provides to look after your own flesh and blood. How’s that for a moral and economic dilemma to royally mess with your head?

If you choose to work part-time, or if that’s the only work you can secure, you also run into difficulty because many crèches either won’t offer part-time places, or, if they do, they do so at a premium. So whilst your child may be in the crèche for only 60% of the working week, you can end up paying 70/80% of the standard childcare costs because it’s simply uneconomical for a place to be held for a child part-time. Again this militates against encouraging women to remain in, or return to, the workforce.

For the avoidance of doubt, other European countries are different. If I have to hear my sister bang on one more time about what a great pre-school system they have in France, or hear about my mate in Germany’s brilliant experience of the local kindergarten, I swear I’ll vomit into my P60. Even in the US, which has been widely referenced of late as having similarly exorbitant childcare costs to our own, only this week Obama announced an expansion of their child care tax credit.

Working parents of Ireland, mugs are we.

We pay tax and create further employment – that should be encouraged, not penalised

Brendan Howlin acknowledged last week that Irish “childcare costs are very high” and said that the Government “wanted to allow anybody who wants to participate in work to be able to participate in work, and that includes women”. Oh, thank you Minister, that we are being allowed to participate in the workforce. How very noble of you. What a privilege to be allowed continue to contribute to the economy which we helped build in the first place.

A woman who works outside the home pays tax on her earnings, indirectly or directly employs the person who minds her children whilst she works, both those women are more likely to spend more outside the home because they are earning independently, and indeed because they get out of the house on a daily basis.

I’m no economist but even my three-year-old could probably see that it just makes such sense to encourage women to remain in employment, even if it means the Government throwing a few quid our direction to lighten the load. So why has nothing been done yet? Enough talk lads, enough studies, enough proposals. More action please. Before we just throw in the towel altogether. Because this just isn’t paying. On any measure.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read her columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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Claire Micks

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