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.
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.
People ‘muddle through as best they can’ in this case because Fianna Fáil policy is an expression of certain interests. For those interests, this is the ideal world. Yet there is no compelling reason for people with other interests to refrain from demanding changes to State policy unless they think citizens should simply do whatever the State wants. You would think, to read this, that the State was some all-conquering transhistorical Master to be allowed to get on with acting out its mysterious desires unopposed, rather than an instrument of the people. What appears to Sarah Carey as a ‘practical reality’ is a predicament to be overturned, and not an immediate question of biting the pillow and thinking of the Young Scientists Exhibition.
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.
Childcare is work, whether performed by a worker in a creche or a parent at home. The only thing that diminishes the need for childcare is less children. It may not be a disaster for families on higher incomes not subject to the debt peonage of a double income mortgage, but for families who are subject to such a burden, the loss of a job is a disaster, in no way alleviated by the enforced obligation to engage in full-time unpaid work while mortgage arrears spiral.
In addition, the folksy idea expressed in the article that ‘the grannies of Ireland are doing a lot of child rearing’ and should probably be doing more is bathed in ignorance. For instance, as is usually the case in the discourse of the Irish Times, the children of immigrants do not exist. The corresponding ‘grannies of Ireland’ here have a hell of a long commute. Furthermore, anyone who moved out to a house in the commuter belt in the last 10 years is unlikely to have brought their parents with them, Clampett-style.
Having spoken to quite a few parents who use creches of late, I can give you my own impressions. Lots of parents cannot afford to stop work because they need to pay their mortgage. If one parent stops to look after the children, as might well be their ideal preference even if this led to substantial net decline in income, the perfectly rational fear is that the other will lose his or her job, meaning they will no longer be able to pay the bills. Yesterday we bumped into one mother who had just started back to work after six months maternity leave. She would have taken longer, but could not afford the unpaid leave. Much as she would like to spend more time at home with the baby, perhaps by going part-time for a spell, she didn’t want to do so because she feared, quite rationally, that if she were to go part-time in the current climate her employer would not take here back full time. (By the way, ‘The Granny’ in this case lives 1500 miles away)
So for many parents who leave their children in creches, the decision to do so is not simply a matter of personal choice, of favouring a sense of parental fulfilment over the status and consumer choices that come with holding a job. They do not have the luxury of that choice. And -forgive the cliché- won’t somebody please think of the children? One of the phenomena we will hear about, or not, since babies can’t speak yet, in a deepening recession is sicker children in creches. Everyone knows that creches are prime locations for transmitting viruses, but key to limiting the spread of viruses is keeping your child at home when sick. Problem is, many people afraid of taking time off work for this purpose, and unable to fly ‘The Granny’ in from mainland Europe or County Kerry will feel forced to leave the child in, heavily dosed with Calpol.