What are working parents supposed to do between now and September?
It won’t have been Cheltenham-goers or second-home owners who derailed our efforts to beat the virus, but harassed working parents desperate for a childcare solution
A lot of recent attention has rightly focused on the needs of cocooners but working parents need a break too.
Golf clubs may be able to reopen in an early phase of the unlocking, solving a problem that has been keeping no-one awake at night. Except, perhaps, golf club members.
As they limber up for their long-awaited 18 holes at Portmarnock or Ballybunion, 930,000 schoolchildren are still languishing at home on their screens.
The odds of them getting to go back for even a few days have diminished rapidly since the promising noises of just two weeks ago, when Minister for Health Simon Harris suggested there could be some form of reopening before the summer holidays.
Despite the faux outrage on social media over the idea, the arguments in favour of allowing children briefly back into the classroom were about child welfare, not childcare; children would have gone back for a few days at most. But it’s also true that working parents are facing an intractable problem. What are they supposed to do between now and September?
Behind each of those 930,000 schoolchildren is a harassed caregiver or two, some of them remote workers who are now staring morosely down the barrel at a summer without their usual smorgasbord of stop-gap solutions – grandparents, childminders, crèches, camps, playdates.
That’s 88 days of bribing the children with Jaffa cakes to stay off the glitchy wifi and out of the room for the duration of your Zoom call. Another 88 times explaining that no, you’re not finished work yet, because it’s only 10.35am.
The problem is even more intractable for those who aren’t able to work remotely. How is the great unlocking, or even the slow, gradual, abundantly cautious unlocking, supposed to happen without childcare?
The recent stand-off between the HSE and unions representing healthcare workers displayed the magical thinking that is symptomatic of how many employers approach childcare.
A HSE memo circulated to senior officials reportedly stated that “if employees cannot work outside the home and cannot perform their current role remotely, the employee is still to be considered as actively on duty and available to work”. If they can’t work outside the home and can’t work remotely, where and how are they supposed to work? It’s the Schrödinger’s cat of childcare dilemmas.
While solutions for healthcare workers are being explored, those in the private sector are relying on their own ingenuity and their employers’ flexibility.
Research published by marketing company Core, which surveyed 1,000 people, found 69 per cent of working fathers approved of how their employer is handling the Covid-19 situation, and 66 per cent of working mothers, although the question wasn’t specifically about childcare.
Still, that left 14 per cent of working fathers and 16 per cent of working mothers who actively disapprove of their employer’s handling of the situation, plus another 17 to 18 per cent who are ambivalent or – yes, I am speculating – just too exhausted to think about it.
Other research by Behaviour and Attitudes (B&A) on behalf of Laya Healthcare found that 40 per cent of 1,000 workers polled at the end of March were “struggling” with remote working.
“It’s not that they don’t care,” one woman who wrote to me last week, said of her male bosses. But their children are older and many of them have partners who are at home full time.
“I’ve been on calls where they joke about how life hasn’t changed except from the view from their desk. Meanwhile I’m trying to keep my face neutral while making sure I’m on mute before hissing at a child to stop colouring on the walls.”
Another woman says her male colleagues get applauded when they ‘bring’ their young children to Zoom meetings, but she doesn’t feel comfortable doing the same. Part of it, she thinks, is attributable to the fact that women have been socialised not to bring their childcare issues to work because they fear – often through experience – it will be held against them later.
A third was enthusiastic about the approach of her employer, a tech company, which is encouraging employees to be open about their childcare issues, and giving them time off in the mornings to attend to homeschooling.
A lot of recent attention has rightly focused on the needs of cocooners who – through well-intentioned efforts to keep them safe – were subject to appalling paternalism and obfuscation about whether cocooning was mandatory, or merely a guideline. They richly deserve a break and some safe, socially-distant exercise. But working parents need a break too.
Nobody wants childcare facilities to reopen until public health advice deems it safe. But we need to dispense with the childcare magical thinking and get real. There were murmurings last week that childcare workers would mind children in the home of frontline workers first, and that would then extend to other children. It’s a nice idea in theory, much more difficult in practice.
It’s time for the Government to come up with nuanced, creative guidelines to employers about how to help their employees cope with care issues –facilitating open discussion; being flexible about leave requests; even allowing remote workers a paid hour a day to attend to their children’s needs. All of this should apply to care of older relatives too. The pandemic has shown that many of us are bound in a delicate web of care. If it snaps, everything falls apart.
In the absence of any official thinking on when it might be safe to start creating our own social bubbles again, people may be tempted to improvise – not because they want to flout the guidelines, but because they want to hold onto their jobs. They’ll organise playdates or private childminders. They might even call on granny.
If some solution isn’t forthcoming, the risk is that it won’t have been Cheltenham-goers or second-home owners who derailed our efforts to beat the virus, but harassed working parents desperate for a childcare solution.