When Karen O’Reilly was a young mother living in France, childcare bills were the last thing on her mind.
My children went through the nursery program and everything was paid for. I didn’t have to put my hand in my pocket at all,” she says. “Your kids start at the age of two and can stay there from 7am to 6pm. I was very lucky.”
She moved back to Ireland when her children were six and eight years old. Unable to find a job that would give her time to pick her up from school, she founded Employmum (which later led to a sister company, Employflex), a recruitment agency specializing in flexible work positions.
“I wanted a job where I could work 9am to 3pm and I realized there wasn’t really anyone in Ireland to help people find those jobs. That was really the aha moment for me,” she says.
“We started the company in 2016 and then founded it as Employflex in 2019 because at that point 30 percent of our placements were male. But yes, there are certainly more women looking for flexibility. That’s the modern world – the costs and issues of childcare really fall on women’s shoulders, and women are the first to seek flexibility in the workplace.”
The cost of childcare is an “absolutely massive” motivating factor for those looking for an internship through their agency.
“People sit down and do the math and say, ‘Will it pay me to go to work?’ Especially when all the money they’re going to make goes towards childcare. It is usually women who make the sacrifice. Childcare costs are the new glass ceiling for women in the workplace.”
Research by Newstalk in June showed that daycare rates in Dublin averaged around €1,276 per month, followed by Wicklow and Cork where prices are €928 and €857 per month respectively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that private childminders who look after children from home often charge €50-65 per child per day, with many recently increasing their rates to cover running costs.
There was some relief in Budget 2023 this week. Parents using the National Childcare Scheme will see their fees reduced by 25 per cent from January. The measure should save them an average of €1,200 per year and child, up to a maximum of €2,106. Children’s Secretary Roderic O’Gorman has pledged to halve the cost of childcare over the next two years. Despite this, Public Expenditure Secretary Michael McGrath conceded on Budget Day that childcare was “just too expensive”, echoing a 2019 ESRI report that found Ireland in the Economic Cooperation Organization group and Development (OECD) is among the highest costs of developed countries.
The forthcoming financial help will be welcome, but many parents are still faced with big bills and difficult decisions on how to organize their lives around childcare.
Are flexible working hours and hybrid working in the post-pandemic workplace really helping to reduce these childcare costs?
Maria Macklin, an image consultant based in Monaghan, lived in London with her husband Gordon and their two older children (George, now 20, and Harry, now 18). They worked in high-level jobs in the city.
“We never had time with the kids, and I never liked that,” she recalls. “We returned to Ireland in 2004 and Gordon told me he had heard about too many CEOs, CFOs and CTOs retiring not knowing their own children because they never had a relationship with them when they were younger . He didn’t want it to be him.”
He came out of full-time employment, while following the arrival of her two younger children, Maud, 16, and Freddie, 15, she continued to work full-time, commuting from Monaghan to Dublin.
“I would leave at 5:30 am and be back at 7:00 pm and Gordon would pick up the kids, do homework and put dinner on the table,” she says. “It worked well because we were all able to spend more time together.
“A colleague then suggested that the best time to get someone to help was two hours between 5pm and 7pm. This person was running around quickly, doing things like laundry and tidying up while we were having dinner and then helping to look after the little ones afterwards. It was an absolutely brilliant idea and the best money we’ve spent.
“Gordon loved being the main carer, but he noticed he was the only male in the mother-child groups,” she adds with a smile.
“His friends couldn’t understand why he did it. If he was in the supermarket and the kids were acting up or he had a mishap, the women in the supermarket would come to his aid immediately, assuming he was somehow incompetent. I think people need to understand that teamwork is important. We need to see men take these care jobs or things will never change.”
The couple’s decision meant their household became effectively a one-payer household; a situation that many can hardly imagine at the moment. Macklin concedes that the arrangement was much easier to implement a decade ago than it is today.
Many parents cannot count on the benefits of tag teaming with another parent. One of them, Vicki O’Callaghan from Cork, is a single mother to her daughter Ruby (8). Eight years ago she co-founded the organic clothing company for children babyboo.ie, with co-mother Michelle O’Riordan. For O’Callaghan, who previously worked full-time for the Irish examinerthe desire to be their child’s primary caregiver was a “key motivating factor” in starting the company.
Now she uses a childminder two days a week. She and O’Riordan will certainly offer flexibility to their eight employees. They often work from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and the arrangements remain a flexible feast depending on the needs of their families.
How much of that is specifically related to childcare? “100 pieces,” says O’Callaghan. “We have a few employees who don’t pay for childcare as a result – their partners work opposite to them.
“Like everything else, getting the flexible arrangements right [as an employer] There’s a certain balance and there has to be a give and take,” she adds. “You have to think about what works for the company, but we’ve found that our employees tend to be more productive here because they’re so grateful to be able to do that.”
O’Reilly says that in the post-lockdown landscape, it’s easier than ever for parents struggling with childcare costs to propose a more flexible work arrangement to an employer.
“Companies that have never talked about flexible arrangements before are doing so now, driven by a very tight labor market,” she says. “They come to our mindset and realize that if they don’t offer flexibility, they will lose people.
“For anyone who wants to have that conversation with their employer, my advice is to come up with a plan before you talk to them,” she adds. “Don’t go in with a vague notion of flexibility – present them with the specifics as an attractive option.”
In Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Deirdre Doyle had been working full-time in the charity sector when she realized her childcare situation (for Luke, now 15, Maggie, now 13, and Charlie, now 11) was unsustainable.
“The whole idea of my business was that I would take care of my children. The store is designed to work 24/7, but occasionally there is work to be done when the kids are out of school,” says Doyle.
Also motivated by a desire to educate families about nutrition, Doyle founded Cool Food School in Greystones when her youngest child was three years old.
This offered a degree of flexibility, but as Doyle reflects, becoming your own boss isn’t necessarily always a miracle solution to the childcare problem.
“I’d like to say it worked perfectly, but often it doesn’t,” she says. “What happens when you’re self-employed is that you always have to work when you’re needed. So when I go to teach in crèches, I have to do it during the day when the children are at school. At one point I was teaching at a local daycare and the children would come with me and go to the daycare. What ended up happening was that I did a lot of the work – paperwork or social media – at night.”
Not was also the mother of invention for Róisín Murphy, known to many as the architect of RTÉ Desperate Houses. In the early years of her career, she often had to bring her children Jay (now 21), Harry (now 17) and Kitty (now 15) to work. She also decided to move away from commercial architecture contracts towards more domestic projects.
“That meant you could bring your babies and nobody really objected, but even that was limited,” she says. “One baby was cute – two babies were impossible.”
Murphy says the conversation about childcare usually focuses on preschoolers, but she was surprised that the ongoing care older children need is also rarely acknowledged.
“When it comes to mothers and parenting, it doesn’t stop with the diapers and the crib,” she says. “I thought [at this stage] I would have that job done, but then you realize that teenagers really need their mothers, too.
“There’s this misconception that once your kid is old enough to go to school on their own, you’re kind of done and suddenly you’re off the hook. But the thing is, you’re never done.”
Murphy’s teenage daughter fell seriously ill last year, prompting the architect to take a year off work to look after her full-time.
“I found it really interesting – when life is difficult, women generally make the sacrifices. And it’s not easy. We really carry families. It’s so sexist in a way, but I think it’s true. Women usually bear the cost of raising children, which is simply not quantifiable.
“The thing is, childcare can be really good. If you have proper crèches and Montessoris, it can be of great benefit to children in many ways. The only problem is that it’s really undercooked here. It will not be treated as if it were a state level requirement.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/parenting/childcare-costs-are-the-new-glass-ceiling-the-women-creating-alternative-solutions-42026907.html “Child care costs are the new glass ceiling”: The women create alternative solutions