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My daughter’s creche wasn’t working for her or us - but there wasn’t much we could do

As anyone using childcare amid a dire shortage of places knows, if your creche place disappears suddenly, your job might too

“I don’t want to go to that place!” my two-year old’s morning chorus rang us into each new day. It was clear my daughter’s creche wasn’t working for her or for us. We were under constant pressure from management to ignore expert guidance around potty training – the manager demanded we restart training two nights before I was due to deliver my next child, a time that was already going to be unsettling and disruptive for the toddler. What we understood to be a logistical pain – no nappy-changing facilities in the relevant classroom – was infuriatingly framed as “holding her back, developmentally”.

More concerning from our point of view was that a new administrative policy had been instituted whereby parents dropping off and collecting children could only speak to management, never to carers. “She had a good day”, or so I would be told by a woman I knew hadn’t really been near her. The policy really troubled me, but I knew I couldn’t do much.

As anyone using childcare in the many parts of the country that have a complete lack of places knows, you can’t complain too much because if your creche place disappears suddenly, your job might too. There are simply no alternatives. The immediate problem was resolved when, a few months later, we moved house and got a place in a new creche where our daughter was much happier.

Even if you think a private market is the best way to handle childcare, this idea collapses when supply is so limited that parents have no freedom of choice. There’s no competition in any meaningful sense, and you don’t need to be an economist to see why that is bad for standards across the sector. The power imbalance brought about by huge waiting lists makes for systematically disempowered parents. It is distressing for any parent to be concerned or worried about the place you send your little child five days a week – especially when there is no choice.

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There are many problems with the Irish childcare system. For one, few people get a full year’s paid leave – yet many crèches don’t take babies under one. Baby room places are scarce – the required ratio of staff to babies is tight (1:3), and there are strict rules around babies’ sleep settings that make it a financially inefficient service from the provider’s point of view. So, lots of facilities don’t take infants. But what’s supposed to happen in that window where the primary caregiver is expected to return to work and no childcare is available?

The manager of my current creche described a sad new reality where her name is now added to the list of people who prospective parents have to inform about miscarriages, because the waiting list crisis means people put babies’ names down as soon as they know they’re pregnant. A child I miscarried in August 2022 (whose waiting list place I forgot to withdraw) still hasn’t found its way to the top of the waiting list in the creche across the road. We’ve managed to get a three-day place for our youngest that will see him start the day I return to work. This is an act of kindness by a creche team doing everything to (at least partially) accommodate younger siblings of their existing cohort. I know I’m lucky to have a place at all, but, like most people in the workforce, I can’t work just three days. This is a large policy failure.

The expectation seems to be that parents badger relatives – usually grandmothers – into picking up the slack. This strategy is familiar. No affordable housing? Have you tried moving back into your childhood bedroom?

A public childcare strategy which implicitly compels retired grandparents into demanding care work is immoral. Of course, it’s mutually excellent for grandparents and children to spend lots of time together, but a properly subsidised, flexible childcare system – where taking your child out of paid creche for the day didn’t feel akin to punching yourself in the face, financially speaking – should facilitate this.

The alternative to grandparental (or paid domestic) help ordinarily implies further career damage for the parent who has already taken an extended (often unpaid) career break. In my case, I’m deep into my unpaid leave and returning to try to figure out how to do five days’ work in four days. It’s four rather than three because my husband is taking his annual holidays one day a week until we get a five-day place.

This whole scenario can be understood within the context of misogynistic ideas of work which undervalue labour traditionally done by women. This impacts working women (whether the nature of their work is traditional or not) and anyone who does work traditionally done by women (such as men in the care sector). This is why we see this lack of policy concern about gaps in the childcare system which mean that women’s careers bear the brunt of the mismatch between parental leave and childcare places. Equally, it explains the poor working conditions of carers and teachers, whether they are women or not.

Our new creche is wonderful and it’s a pleasure to collect a happy toddler every evening. I know it’s an extremely difficult, tightly regulated business to be in. But, if the private model is to continue, it needs to be properly subsidised so that there are enough places for the children that need them, and the staff can be paid competitive salaries that keep the best carers and educators in those roles.

Dr Clare Moriarty is an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at Trinity College Dublin

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