August 5, 2007
Sarah feels awful dropping off her daughter every morning. The child’s only eight months old, but what can Sarah do? She’s in a trap. She works, but most of her cash goes on childcare.
She spends â‚¬925 a month on the Ladybug creche. That’s â‚¬11,100 a year. It’s more expensive because little Savannah is under 18 months. Next year, it will come down to â‚¬850 a month, but with four-year-old Troy’s after-school care at â‚¬500 a month, it’s practically not worth her time working.
She’s caught in the two-income trap. Sarah’s dilemma is a reality for thousands of young working mothers. According to a new report by Fas and the ESRI, women will overtake men working in business, finance and the law in five years. (www.esri.ie).
If you’d like to see the human face of this report, go to the gates of a creche in any suburb from the first week of September. There, you will see some of the thousands of young working Irish mothers, caught in the limbo-land between trying to forge a good career and trying to be a good mother.
If the ESRI and FaÂ¤ s are right about the advancement of women into the professions, we are either going to have fewer children or we’ll need an influx of poor, women immigrants to look after our kids.
The average Irish middle-class mother – from an apparently strong double-income household – is trapped, and inadequate childcare is the main source of incarceration.
This dilemma has been evident in the US for a number of years but is only now becoming a normality here. It is documented in a US book called The Two-Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi.
According to the authors, double-income middle-class families in the US are flirting with bankruptcy at an alarming rate. They are getting into debt and financial difficulty considerably easier and earlier than single-income families did in the 1970s.
Warren contends that the double-income family, with mothers going out to work, is the reason that costs have gone up to such an extent. Warren contends that, financially at least, they would be better off if the mother stayed at home.
However, as a working mother herself, she is the first to point out the equality dilemma, which is that society has educated thousands of women who want more out of life than to slip back quietly into the kitchen as soon as the children arrive.
This is the dilemma facing hundreds of thousands of middle-class Irishwomen, as they grapple with the delusions of the equality dream. They were told they could have it all: great careers, great marriages, great sex, great children and that they would look beautiful at 35, cellulite-free, angst-free, sugar-free.
They could feel fit and still be able to flirt with other men. They could be sexy yet secure, achieving yet loving, independent yet communal. They would effortlessly juggle the spin cycle with the business cycle.
But it didn’t work out like that. Today, 44 per cent of Irish women between 25 and 34 have university degrees. We have the highest proportion of highly educated young women in Europe and, as the average mother is having her first child at 30 years of age, we have the highest proportion of young mothers facing the same dilemma: should I stay at work and juggle children and a career or should I turn my back on everything that I believe in and throw in the towel?
In our rush to move from a traditional to a modern society, where women can achieve their full potential, we forgot to ask the basic question: if all the mothers are now going to work, who’s going to replace mum? Who is going to stay at home, run the house, look after the children and make the whole place tick? This is hard work and someone needs to do it.
In the Ireland of the past, when professional urban women started going out to work, poorer younger women, typically with lower education and career expectations, came up to Dublin to look after the children. This is not happening any more.
So where are Ireland’s new professional and ambitious mothers to get childcare? In other countries that encourage women to go out and work, the state builds, organises and runs a country-wide, childcare system.
In Ireland, this is not happening and without a decent subsidised system, it costs more to send an infant of struggling parents in the new suburbs to full-time child care than it costs to send a wealthy teenager to one of our top ten elite schools.
In the US, they solve this childcare dilemma by importing millions of poor women from Latin America who look after the children of working women. For this system to work, there has to be a significant and permanent income gap between the minder and the mother.
This means that the childminder needs to live in a completely different society within the society. In the minder’s parallel society, costs have to be lower, conditions worse and the minder’s aspirations for herself and her own children have to be permanently diminished.
The US solution is one approach we can take. In its essence, this approach resigns itself to the fact that for one set of women liberated, another set of women have to be kept down. This might be unpalatable for many Irish people.
The other alternative is the European approach of a massively expanded public creche programme, exactly like the national school building project. We’ve done it before, we can do it again, but it involves planning and higher taxes.
If we try to muddle along – as we are doing now – the cost will be borne by young working families who are caught in the two-income trap.
We will be left with the bizarre situation where thousands of working mothers are liberated by the possibilities of their careers but incarcerated by the realities of their young family. This hardly makes sense.