Are long creche hours harming my child?

Q. I am a working mother in a business that expects me to put in long hours. As a result, my 18-month-old son spends long hours in his creche – 7.30am-6pm some days. My husband also works long hours and we try to share the drop-off and collection. I am not totally happy with the situation but my work won’t let me reduce my hours or have flexible working. Like most people we are caught into paying mortgages and bills. Ideally I would like to reduce my working week to two and a half days. I feel really guilty most of the time leaving him in the creche for so long and sometimes when I collect him he is tired and just wants to sleep. I find myself keeping him awake just so I can spend time with him. I wonder if I am doing the right thing for my son. Are all children damaged by long hours in creches or, as some people say, is it good for their social skills? I could possibly afford to give up work for a while but then would be unsure of getting back into my career, especially in the current climate.

A. As well as being about children’s needs, childcare raises big philosophical issues for parents about their values, and how they want to raise their children. Making the right decision is very personal and depends on a lot of individual factors. For some parents the ideal is to care for their children full-time in the home, for other parents working outside the home is a choice which keeps them involved in a meaningful career. Others don’t have a choice and work is a necessity for financial reasons. A crisis arises for parents when they discover they are not living in line with their values or strongly held preferences. As a result, you as parents are right to think carefully about what you really want for your son and to consider your best options even if they are limited.

The challenge of non-parent-friendly workplaces
Essentially, your question raises the challenges of non-parent-friendly workplaces. Many careers are designed so that they are incompatible with being an involved and “hands on” parent. They operate on the premise that the person has a “wife” at home to care for their children full-time and can result in many parents missing out at home.

The problem is particularly acute when both parents have careers that demand them to be away from their children for long periods of time. I think it is important that as a society we challenge some of the assumptions about full-time work and we strive to make careers much more parent- friendly for the benefit of mothers, fathers and their children.

Negotiate with your workplace

Despite the expectation of long hours in you and your husband’s workplace, there may be some room for negotiation that could make a big difference to you.
For example, you and your husband have the statutory right to parental leave which is now 90 days per child. If you agreed with your employer to take this one day a week, this would last nearly two years and mean your son has one of you to care for him two days a week (or four half days) during the important preschool years.

Alternatively, you could negotiate with your employer to do some work from home in the evenings which would allow you to get home earlier to pick up your son so you are there for dinner and bedtime.Or you and your husband could stagger your work days or work “opposite shifts” meaning that one of you always gets home earlier and  so reduces the time your son has at creche.

Of course all this requires some degree of flexibility on part of employers but many managers realise that accommodating reasonable changes actually increases their employees’ productivity. If you feel you have no scope for negotiation, you could consider alternative employment and/or take a break from working though I appreciate this might be a difficult decision in the current economic climate.

The needs of young children
In your question you ask about the needs of young children when it comes to childcare. This is, of course, very dependent on the child’s age and individual temperament. Generally, a child of 18 months fares best when he has one responsive and consistent carer who gets to know him well and understands what he needs. Many parents opt for a trusted childminder for young children, though many creches can also reproduce this loving environment by having a small group of attentive carers and a low turnover of staff.

Eighteen-month-old children primarily need a responsive adult carer and don’t necessarily benefit from mixing with groups of kids the same age. Regarding social skills, it is only from two and a half years onwards that children fully benefit from a quality structured preschool environment with small groups of peers.

Making the most of the time you have
Whatever childcare arrangement you can negotiate, the important thing is to make the most of the time you do have with your son. With the many working parents I meet, I try to help them create the routine of at least one special time each day with their children when you can relax and enjoy their company.

You mention that your child might be tired in the evening, but could that time be in the morning? Perhaps you could have a relaxed morning together when you slow down and take time to read or play games. Or perhaps you could use the walk or drive to creche as a special time to chat or sing nursery rhymes. Even within a very busy routine it is worth taking time to really prioritise and savour the most important parts.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.