Downturn is bad for creches but good for parenting


Stay-at-home parents are brushed off as being financially privileged or economically disadvantaged, writes SARAH CAREY.

QUICK CHECK first: Did the sun rise? Traffic on the streets? Can you get online? ATM machine still works? Phew. The budget passed and the world did not collapse.

So, let’s move on to the National Women’s Council. What were they thinking last week? They issued a press release that would provide material for about a dozen columns. Let’s start where they did with this quote from their survey on child benefit: “The effects of child benefit being cut for me would mean I could no longer work as I could not afford childcare; this would be a disaster for my physical and mental wellbeing”.

Great. The National Women’s Council communications department decided that of all messages they need to convey, the most important was that minding one’s own children is a physical and mental disaster.

I accept that housework and childcare has no status. From my own experience I know it’s challenging and isolating. But you’d think the NWC wouldn’t be the ones to throw stay-at-home mothers over the cliff.

If this is their attitude then why not rename the organisation The National Working Women’s Council? Or more properly The National Working-Outside-the-Home Women’s Council. It’s always the same. Public discourse on women and children inevitably descends into a discussion on the cost of childcare. It’s completely one-tracked but hardly surprising given that public debate is dominated by working women.

The stay-at-homers are brushed off as being either financially privileged or economically disadvantaged. The notion that any respectable, intelligent woman might choose to temporarily forgo extra income in favour of minding her own children is rarely considered.

I remember my time as a stay-at-homer and apologetically admitting to my status. The kind might reassure me I’d be back doing something proper in a short while. The snide would imply that I must be well-off or simply idle. “Well for some!” they’d declare. I’d smile sweetly and then transfer them from the “neutral” to “enemy” zone in my head.

I think the sole exception was Liz McManus whom I bumped into at a function. “You know, you’re doing a great thing,” she told me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Pathetic I know but external validation for stay at home mothers is scarcer than a cheerful report from George Lee.

My experience means that something most unexpected has happened – I find myself in general agreement with Fianna Fáil policy on childcare. I know in an ideal world we would have universal free childcare. But this is not an ideal world and instead is one in which people muddle through as best they can. When organisations like the NWC call for the Government to help with childcare they are ignoring the reality that throughout our history the State has done its level best to put the greatest distance between it and children.

From industrial schools to today’s national schools, the State likes it best when it can offload responsibility for children on to religious organisations. The State pays the teachers, sets the curriculum and lets the boards of management at it.

There is nothing in our culture or governmental history that would suggest they would do anything different with the provision of childcare. The State simply abhors getting involved with children. I’m not judging that policy today, but simply observing it as a practical reality of the environment in which childcare policy is set.

The second driver of childcare policy is the knowledge that Fianna Fáil, the election-winning party, knows not to step on mines. From 2002 public debate featured increasing calls for tax credits for creche fees. Fianna Fáil resisted it because they knew what would happen. Tax credits for creche fees would enrage the stay-at-homers.

Why should their husband’s tax euros go into the pockets of the working mothers? It’s bad enough that Liz McManus can’t give all the stay-at-homers a personal self-esteem boost. If the State chose to subsidise the working mother we’d get the mother of all cat-fights. Furthermore, the Government realised that tax credits for creche fees would ignore the reality that the grannies of Ireland are doing a lot of child rearing. Since creche fees are so high many women fall back on the family to help out. I’m not sure how the grannies feel about being called out of retirement, but tax credits wouldn’t do much to help them.

And so we ended up with the Early Childcare Supplement. It was a fudge, and yet it was the only sensible measure that would help parents in the short term and treat all equally. As regular readers of this column will know I object to universal payments and I’m resigned to the means-testing or taxing of child benefit flagged in yesterday’s budget. Leaving that issue aside today, a non-judgmental equal payment for all children is the only solution. It puts all parents, and all mothers, on an equal status.

The supplement was inevitably targeted in yesterday’s budget and Lenihan has been forced to do what Fianna Fáil always avoided. There will be a free pre-school childcare year because he thinks it’s cheaper than paying the supplement. I’ve a feeling the payment will be gone before the places appear. Ironically the free market may solve the worst of the problems.

We have fewer people working and therefore less need for childcare. Who knows, maybe some people, mothers and fathers, will discover that minding their own children is not such a disaster after all.

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