“Having it all” – response to Niamh Horan

I will say one thing for Niamh Horan, she’s brave.  Having sent Twitter into meltdown two weeks on Brendan O Connor’s The Cutting Edge on RTE One, she continued on her theme of women not ‘being able to have it all’ in the following week’s Sunday Independent.

But although she made a lot of women very cross, Horan is prompting a conversation that we really need to have and to keep having.  The kernel, the nugget of truth, which should inform this conversation is contained as an almost adjunct to a sentence when she writes that “capitalist culture doesn’t accommodate family.”  It is this culture which causes the problem which Horan interprets, along with many others, as women being able or unable to ‘have it all’.  And this is where the conversation stalls as women get cross and the conversation often becomes a heated debate, pitching the ‘stay at home moms’ against the ‘working moms’ (and I hate both those terms).  Meanwhile the men just stay quiet and continue to leave most of the childcare and domestic chores to the women.

Unlike Niamh, I have children.  I have had the experience of being a single parent, a so called working mother with two children in crèche and latterly a ‘housewife’ (another stupid term).  I surrendered, as opposed to retired, from the world of paid work when daughter number three came along and I just couldn’t juggle any more.  Our lives were mad.  Well the working bit was fine, it was the bits around the edges of the days and weeks that were mental.  Mornings rushing baby and toddler through breakfast muttering “hurry up” in a high pitched and increasingly maniacal voice.  By the time I arrived at my desk I felt like I had done a day’s work.  At the other end there was driving home having picked up the kids from crèche singing and talking incessantly in a bid to keep them awake.  Arriving into the house to be greeted by the detritus of breakfast.  It was only when I stopped that we both realised what madness it all was. And whereas I would take issue with Horan’s assertion that children suffer when women work, I do have some reservations about how some of our crèches are run.

I was very privileged that I could ‘retire’ and it was only possible because it coincided with the Celtic Tiger years and so my husband could work all the hours God sent while I kept things going at home.  We had ten glorious years and I feel very blessed and lucky, especially when as a single parent this was not a choice that was open to me.  In the aftermath of recession, most parents today do not have this choice either as they struggle to meet the cost of mortgages, childcare and all the other bills.

Equality means choice and all families should have the choice as to how they wish to live their lives.  We are now struggling to live in a world that was designed by men for men who had wives at home looking after the domestics and the children.  We need to make huge fundamental changes to how we organise the world of work.  Horan mentioned some of the measures we need to take such as better use of technology, remote working and more flexibility.  But we need way more than that.  We need compulsory paternity leave, we need care breaks, and career breaks for parents who want to park their career for a few years in order to spend time with their children when they are very young. And we need to actively facilitate the path back to paid work after that period of leave.

My big problem with Niamh’s assertions as articulated in her article is that she is framing this as a women’s issue.  This is not a women’s issue, it’s not even a family issue.  It is a society issue.  Because even those who never have children may well find themselves having to look after or support an elderly infirm loved one.

I am happy that Horan has prompted this conversation again but her focussing solely on mothers and making statements about “some women playing the system” doesn’t advance the conversation one bit and in fact steers it very deftly into a cul de sac.

I hope I will live to see real change happen so that my daughters will have all choices open to them – ones that I was just lucky to get.  What is interesting is that in order for this change to happen we must reach critical mass of women in the corridors of power – in Dail Eireann, in media and in boardrooms.  These women will drive the change if they are supported by men and women who want a better family life for all.

Meanwhile I hope that Niamh changes her mind about having a child in Ireland holding little appeal, whether she decides to have kids or not.  Because for those of us who wanted children and were lucky enough to have them it’s not only appealing but hugely rewarding.  That’s why we get so emotional when someone criticises the choices we have made, out of necessity or otherwise.


There is a saying, usually attributed to African culture that says “it takes a village to raise a child.”   Hilary Clinton borrowed it for the title of her book published in 1996.  In it she says “All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are responsible for deciding whether our children are raised in a nation that doesn’t just espouse family values but values families and children.
All of us, Hilary says.  That includes all generations, all genders, parents and non parents.  We all have role in raising the children of our nation.  I have been dismayed to see that in the two editions of RTE Primetime that to date have discussed the crèche situation following the broadcast of ‘Breach of Trust’ have had all female panels.  This may give the impression that childcare is just a women’s issue, which is clearly not the case.  It is not even just a parental issue. The care of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens is something we all should have an interest in.  Even if you hate children please remember they are our future.  They will be paying our pensions. 
I welcome the current discussion we are having as a result of the excellent expose by RTE’s investigative unit.  However I am dismayed by the regular (almost constant) linking of this debate with working parents and working mothers in particular.  Childcare should be about what is best for the child.  If we continually link the issue of full time care with the issue of women in the workforce we are doing our children a grave disservice.
One of the possible reasons that we have had the explosion in recent years of the ‘industrial’ (for the want of a better word) type crèche businesses is that society (our village) seems to want a custodial arrangement for children where they are fed, watered, changed and rested while their parents are at work.  These kind of crèches are fine in shopping centres where older little ones (usually they must be toilet trained) are can be dropped off for a hour or two while their carer does some shopping.  But I am very unsure that the crèches such as the type we saw in Breach of Trust provide what is best for our children, especially the very young.
I don’t say that lightly.  I am a mother of three and all of my children attended crèches – full time for varying lengths of time.  When my eldest was born I was a single parent living at home with my parents.  So I didn’t have the option of having someone coming into my house.  Therefore it was either a child minder or a crèche.  I chose a crèche.   
Anyone who has cared for small children will know what a difficult job it is.  It is emotionally, physically and psychologically testing and at times it is mind numbingly boring.  I know I sometimes snapped at my kids when I shouldn’t have.  I have shouted.  I may have even cursed.  But like most parents I imagine, when that happened I was always so horrified and so immediately full of remorse that I usually then smothered said child in affection.  Something I didn’t see happen in the Primetime programme. 
But it was precisely because I know how difficult looking after small kids is that I thought a bigger environment where they were not at the ‘mercy’ of just one minder would provide a safer environment. But towards the end of my time using a crèche I began to feel that maybe I was wrong. 
I hadn’t factored in the segregation of the children in large crèches.  In my experience these crèches have a baby room, a wobbler room, a toddler room and Montessori room etc.  This clearly makes it easier for the staff to manage but I am not convinced it’s best for the children.  It also means that these very young children can be spending up to 10 or 11 hours in the one room.  This is not healthy.  In fact one of the final straws that broke my own particular camel’s back was that my youngest (who was about 9 months) kept getting repeated ear infections.  After her third burst eardrum I asked our consultant what I could proactively do to avoid further infection.  He looked me straight in the eye and said “take her out of the crèche.” 
At the time I nearly thumped him.  How very dare he?   I was exhausted from working full time, with three kids (one a teenager and two pre schoolers in fulltime day care) but I loved my children and was doing my best.  I was very sensitive to criticism.
As I sat in his office, in shock, trying to contain to urge to run, he calmly told me that very young children’s immune systems are not strong enough to cope with being in a close environment with other ‘stranger’ children of the same age.  “There’s a reason children don’t start school till after 3 years” he said.
So if I had to make decisions about the care of my precious babies again I would probably plump for a good childminder.  A woman who could preferably come into my home or if not whose home I felt was a cosy, warm, safe domestic environment where I would be happy to spend a day.
I interviewed David Coleman some time ago and I raised this question as to what care is best for our children.  He was unequivocal in his response. “I think that it is way better for children to have a parent at home. I say that because, with the best will in the world no one is going to be able to care for your child with the same level of unconditionality as you do.” He went on to say it is a difficult role and not one that suits everyone “it’s got to be fulfilling for whoever is staying at home and if it’s not, then don’t do it.”
Of course not everyone has the full of plethora of childcare choices available to them and David readily admits that. But in a perfect world where all things were equal the second best option, he says is having a childminder come to your home followed by your child going to their home. Crèche and ‘leaving it all to an au pair’ complete the list in order of least ideal options. But David does stress that it’s all about the quality of care – you may have a great childminder or crèche leader which could work out very well for you and your child. And he reminds me “children are very resilient”
 So as we continue this hugely important debate can we focus on the children and their needs and not those of working parents.  Can we question if a large crèche with children separated into zones is really the best thing for our very youngest children.  And most of all can we remember we all have a responsibility to our youngest citizens.
Yes I do believe it takes a village to raise a child.  Our community is led by our politicians who we have voted into power.  We have a Minister for Children.  We had a referendum on children’s rights just last year.  But I am not sure that our government have accepted the old African wisdom on childraising.  I am not sure that they feel they have a responsibility to spend some of our money on ensuring that whatever option parents decide is best, that the care our children get is the very best and nothing short of that. 
 I think Hilary Clinton was dead right when she said “Children are not rugged individualists. They depend on the adults they know and on thousands more who make decisions every day that affect their well-being.”
We need to keep talking, we as working parents need to curb our extra sensitivity to perceived criticism, we need to keep searching for the best answers and to keep listening to each other and to our children.  Then we need to demand that childcare services are properly funded.