Childcare: The cheap, creative alternatives to a creche

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With costs soaring, some families are finding inventive ways to mind their kids

You’ll often hear Irish parents refer to the cost of childcare as being akin to a second mortgage. Even in the midst of a property boom this is no exaggeration: Ireland now has the highest cost of childcare in the world.

In the country’s most expensive area, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown in south Co Dublin, creche fees can be as high as €308 a week for one child.

What alternatives to parents have to full-time crèches and childminders? Necessity is the mother of invention, and some Irish families have resorted to wily and creative ways to cut down on their childcare bills. And in some cases a flexible working space, career overhaul, understanding boss or plain old-fashioned teamwork was key to making it all work.

Helen Walshe, managing director of Employmum (soon to be called Employflex), a recruitment consultancy designed to promote workplace flexibility, has worked with countless parents trying to strike a balance between home and work life.


“We started with the intention of helping mothers specifically coming back into the workforce but are now moving towards working with everyone” who would like to work flexibly, she says. “Savvy employers want to retain staff, so they are starting to offer flexibility so that parents can plan their lives accordingly. There’s a fear that ‘flexible’ work means working from home, but some workplaces have had such success allowing parents to start work at 9.45am.”

How can people approach this conversation with an employer?

“Go with a plan, and show them how a potential new arrangement can reduce their costs,” Walshe says. “We’ve placed solicitors and financial controllers on three-day weeks. There’s an assumption that three-day weeks are only for junior roles. And 30 per cent of people on flexible hours are male.”

Certain sectors are more amenable to flexibility than others, however. “A big chunk of the roles are in finance: we see a lot of two-hour-a-week accountant roles. A lot of mums work 9.30am to 1.30pm. A lot of legal secretaries do a job-share. In the legal, customer-care, sales and marketing areas we’ve noticed a positive shift.”

Yet necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and some Irish families have resorted to wily and creative ways to cut down on their childcare bills. And in some cases a flexible working space, career overhaul, understanding boss or plain old-fashioned teamwork was key to making it all work.

Solution 1

Split childcare with a friend (or open your own childcare facility)

Lisa Wilkinson is the founder and owner of the Elbowroom wellness hub in Stoneybatter, in the middle of Dublin. She and her children, 15-year-old Tuilelaith and 10-year-old Seán, divide their time between Dublin and Wicklow.

Wilkinson’s daughter, Tuilelaith, was born eight months after she signed the lease on her own yoga business. She had “worked until she popped” yet, as a self-employed single mother, had to return to work almost immediately.

“One of my first memories of motherhood was breastfeeding in the studio while welcoming people into yoga classes,” she says. “I was juggling feeding, working and sleeping. Sometimes I’d put her on a beanbag under my desk. You just do what you have to do to keep going.”

Because Wilkinson wanted to breastfeed for as long as possible she didn’t regard creche as an option. After six months she was sleep-deprived and starving, and found keeping the whole show on the road really tough. “I decided not to go with the creche option, mainly out of guilt,” she says. “I found the creche really inflexible, as well as extortionate.

“I limped on for a few more months, and then this miracle woman appeared in my studio with a baby pretty much the same age. She was a dancer, and was showing me how to combine dance and yoga as an activity. We realised we had a connection – we were pretty much single parents and a bit f****d.”

With that the two decided to share the caring of their two girls. Each would take 2½ days a week and work around their free hours. “We bought a twin buggy on DoneDeal and I stopped breastfeeding – I couldn’t hack it any more.”

'Join mum-and-baby groups, stick your neck out and ask people what they're planning to do. People are usually too polite to have that talk. Don't be'

After a while Wilkinson came up with an even more ingenious solution: to offer a childcare facility at the Elbowroom, and put her own children into it.

“Basically, we started off with daycare for toddlers,” she says. “When they were at school we started an after-school service, which we still run. It’s now going at full capacity, with wait lists full until 2021.”

Speaking as someone running a business, Wilkinson observes that facility providers need to offer a realistic wage. “You have to pay people enough to survive in a city like Dublin,” she says. “There are strict Government regulations about the ratio of children to carers, and it’s quite high, especially when it comes to babies. I’m not saying some people aren’t making a massive profit, because they are.”

She suggests parents ask around when looking for child-minding options. “Parents should get together in a big meet-up and pool their childcare. I guarantee there is someone in the same situation, and if you could connect in some way, you can go, ‘Let’s share this burden together.’ Join mum-and-baby groups, stick your neck out and ask people what they’re planning to do. People are usually too polite to have that talk. Don’t be.”

Solution 2

Tag-team with your parner (and get paid help from 5pm to 7pm)

Maria Macklin, an image consultant, lives in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, with her husband, Gordon Green, and children, 16-year-old George, 15-year-old Harry, 13-year-old Maud and 11-year-old Freddie.

The couple started their family in London, when both were working full time in high-powered jobs. Creche was the first port of call, but it didn’t suit the family. “I couldn’t bear to bring myself to drop them at creche, so Gordon did that and I did pick-ups, which was better for me psychologically,” Macklin says. “I didn’t like the feeling of them being institutionalised so young. I had no relatives to support me there, so I got a job in Dublin when Harry was less than a year old.

“Gordon had a job working for one of the London banks, and asked if he could do a couple of days a week from Ireland. We then took a decision that he would be the person at home. He could do as much in a few hours, or more, than he would have done in the office.”

In 2004 Green left his UK job, while Macklin worked full time. “It was working nicely: we were less stressed and spending more time together,” she says.

By the time Maud was born the decision was made that Green would do most of the childcare. “We had less money but definitely a better lifestyle,” Macklin says. “Gordon was doing a lot of mother-and-toddler groups, and he had a lot of interesting reactions. He also noticed that if he had an incident with a child in the supermarket, he got a lot of offers of help from other women. He loved being at home, and he even wrote a couple of children’s books.”

When they moved to Monaghan, Green amassed a few IT clients as a freelancer, and Macklin worked full time. With the occasional help of a childminder, the couple agreed that one parent always be “out on deck”. A fellow parent offered them some invaluable advice. “They said, ‘If you can get someone in to help from 5pm to 7pm it will change your life.’ And we got a woman in for the evenings, so when Gordon cooked dinner she could help with minding the kids and doing the housework. It means I didn’t have to launch into housework after a full day’s work,” Macklin says.

'We'll have to stop scrounging off people and their time, but so far it's like a big pot: everyone puts in what they can. Once you yourself are putting into the pot, it's okay to take out of it'

Even now, with the children at school, the tag-teaming continues. “We work the school hours, though when I have a client Gordon will do the school run and vice versa.

“We need to change the language we use around women and men in the workplace. Gordon still does all the cooking in this house and people say to me, ‘Aren’t you lucky?’ and, ‘Wow, you have him so well trained’. It’s so patronising, for him and for me.”

Solution 3 

Use family and friends (and a little help from Elmo)

Una Molloy is the creative programmer for Dublin's newest music venue, Lost Lane. She lives in Dublin 4 with her husband, John, and 20-month-old son, Atticus. Even working in the live-music industry, Molloy also knew she wanted to settle and have children. With that in mind she set up her own music agency, Turning Pirate, with a view to creating her own flexible working arrangement. Now she and John shoulder the childcare together.

“My husband works nine to five, so I thought, I’ll give it a go and see how long I can get away with not paying for childcare,” she says. “John gets up in the morning with Atticus, and does breakfast. I’ll potter on the laptop, and when John goes to work I’ll have Atticus for the day. If I need to make a phone call for work I’ll pop on some YouTube clips of Elmo. As soon as John gets home I’ll get stuck in and do another hour of work.”

Luckily, Molloy has family nearby who are willing to lend a hand. “My sister Deirdre has come to do the odd day when she has time, and I have another sister who has a couple of kids, so I occasionally offload on her. My mam is a huge help, and I have one friend, Sally, who lives in town and will occasionally take him out in the buggy. It’s a total mishmash of sounders that get repaid in dinners and takeaway, basically.

“I’m sure we’ll have to stop scrounging off people and their time, but so far it’s like a big pot: everyone puts in what they can. Once you yourself are putting into the pot, it’s okay to take out of it.”

When Atticus was born, Molloy found it hard to reach out to others for help. “I felt my family and friends had their own thing going on, and I didn’t want to bother people, but then people took me aside and were, like, ‘If you need help, let us help you.’ Luckily, he’s a lovely boy to hang out with, which I’m sure is a help.”

Solution 4

Start a child-friendly business

Deirdre Doyle is the founder of the Cool Food School. She lives in Greystones, Co Wicklow, with her partner, Mark, and children, 12-year-old Luke, 10-year-old Maggie and eight-year-old Charlie.

Doyle was working for a charity full time until she had a brainwave when her youngest son was three: set up a business that children could be part of.

“I did love my work, but after I had my children I was crying going into work. It was so not worth it,” Doyle says. “The whole idea of my business was that I would work around my kids. The business is designed to work around their hours, but there is the occasional need to work when the kids are off school. Over the Easter break, for instance, I did a cooking workshop, and the two younger ones were in activity camps, and the oldest one came to the workshop.”

Doyle and her partner had previously gone down the conventional childcare route: Luke had gone to creche as a baby, at a cost of €600 a month. “I knew, because my job wasn’t well paid, I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep my kids in creche,” Doyle says.

Now the Cool Food School is firing on all cylinders, which brings about its own logistical challenges. “Fortunately, our school has started an after-school club, and during the holidays I might leave the kids into Mark’s office for an hour, which isn’t great for him, either. If I’m going to a work-related thing in the evening I might meet him on the way, on the road. We’ll swap the kids over and I’ll go off to the meeting.

“For me, at the stage of my business, it’s not worth our while going down the conventional childcare route,” she says. “I did manage a barter system with one creche: they’ve allowed me to go in for an hour while I teach some children in their care, and they don’t charge me very much.

“For people who want to minimise the time their child is in childcare, work with your partner and see if either of your jobs are flexible, or can be done remotely,” she says. “The other thing to remember is that it’s all a temporary thing, and juggling everything isn’t forever. My oldest is 12, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Solution 5

Bring your child (and sister-in-law) to work

Róisín Murphy is an architect, designer and artist known to many as the expert on the RTÉ series Desperate Houses. She lives in Drumcondra, in north Dublin, with her husband, Dave, and children, 18-year-old Jay, 14-year-old Harry and 12-year-old Kitty.

As a young architect, Murphy worked alongside her husband, and brought her child everywhere. Changing the nature of her practice helped. “I stopped doing contract restaurants and commercial projects, and pushed my move into domestic architecture,” she says.

“A lot of the clients I was meeting were mothers and families, so when I asked if it was okay to bring the baby it was usually cool. When I was lecturing in college my mother would take the baby, and then Dave and I would take turns. It sounds sort of idyllic, but it did mean massive changes in the practice. I knew I couldn’t sustain it, and something had to give.”

By the time Murphy had Harry she was back working as a TV architect and property expert. And that’s when the fun really started.

“When I was doing Househunters in the Sun, that’s when it got tricky, because Baby 1 had learnt to walk and didn’t want to be put into his Moses basket. I thought, I’m really coasting here. My maternity leave was 10 weeks long. So the first baby stayed with Dave, and because I felt I couldn’t leave my second baby behind I took him to film in France and Croatia with me. It was a bit ambitious, all right.

“I had my sister-in-law come with me, and we made it up as we went along,” she says. “The TV crowd were great, asking what I needed. My brother was the director, and he directed Househunters in the Sun.”

Predictably, a baby plus a tight filming schedule called for a level of ingenuity. “We were hilarious,” Murphy says. “I’d nurse the baby while filming, and my brother would lock off the shot underneath my neck, so no one would see the baby. I remember people on the metro seeing this and wondering what was going on. Someone called me when the show aired and said: ‘I could see your hand on the buggy in the corner of the screen.’ A friend of mine is a sports journalist on Australian TV, and I remember her telling me, ‘The make-up girls take my baby when I film all my programmes.’”

Yet when her children started going to school Murphy concluded that she couldn’t “bring the circus all round the country”. “It was very much a case of, I have to choose family life and a little bit of normality for a while,” she says. Giving up regular work was tough, “because our income went down drastically. It was a big learning curve.

“My advice to parents is: use each other. Workplaces have a responsibility to keep families going and not to be pinned to the collar by work. A lot of my friends swapped childcare days, and I’d have picked up their kids on days off. We mixed and matched and helped each other out.

“We also had a really good playschool in the area that was around €40 a week. It was very much that thing: it takes a village. It was an arrangement that offered long hours or short hours when you needed it. It was all very organic and local and informal – perfect for us, really.”