It’s that time of year when women like me find out if we can afford to go to work

With every child you have you learn many lessons. One of the lessons I learnt after trying to get my older two children into daycare is that by the time I was pregnant with my third I needed to make sure I had his name on some childcare waitlists.

So when I was four months pregnant I put my yet-to-be-born son’s name on a few these lists. At the time I didn’t know what gender he would be, what his name would be. He was marked as “baby” on a number of forms. I thought I would have no problems getting him in when he turned a year old – which will happen next year. But, as I recently found out, my son didn’t get a place in any of the childcare centres he had his name at. I was shocked. I asked how someone could possibly get a place ahead of me? The answer was always that the siblings of previous students got priority. Since my other two children were born overseas, this option didn’t really apply to me.


So here I am, with a six-month-old who as yet doesn’t have a childcare space for next year. I am of course not the only one in such a predicament. A recent Fairfax survey showed the extent of the issue. Depending on where you lived, wait-times for a childcare spot could be as high as three years. In the lower North shore of Sydney, the much-loved council childcare centres have a wait list that stretches 2.5 years. Which basically means if you didn’t have older children that attended these centres, don’t bother putting your name down.

In the area where I live, childcare centres don’t give you individual tours of the centre – instead you are taken around in groups. The last tour I attended had 30 parents, some who were still gestating their little ones. At the end of the tour we were told that there actually weren’t any spaces for the beginning of next year; but if you put your name down on the waitlist (for a charge of $40) you may get a space at some point – if you’re lucky.

And if you happen to be lucky enough to get in, you can expect to pay through the nose. According to the Fairfax survey the average cost of childcare before rebates is $118. I personally think that is a very conservative estimate. Around inner Sydney the average seems to be around $140. And you can expect to pay as much as $195 in Mosman. Yes, that’s $195 per day.

For many women it means they are either working just to pay childcare costs – so they can maintain their career – or they are actually working less (as a quarter of the women indicated they were doing in the Fairfax survey) in order to limit costs. Basically women are being forced to apply the brakes on their career so they aren’t out of pocket when it comes to paying for childcare.

And yes, it is almost always women who are responsible for finding (and funding) childcare if they want their career to stay on track.

Back in June when Bill Shorten was on the election trail he mentioned that “men in Australia rely on the women in Australia to do the child care and to organise child care.” His comments came under fire for being sexist and “prehistoric”. Unfortunately, his statement rings true for many. While there are fathers who contribute to the discussion of childcare, most of the legwork is done by women. And many families continue to treat childcare costs as coming from the woman’s pay packet – leaving some women to earn as little as $5after childcare costs have been taken out.

As the last election campaign showed, childcare is an issue that is on the government’s radar. The only problem is that no one seems to have come up with an adequate solution to it yet – despite many options being proposed. The current system caps the 50 per cent childcare rebate at $7,500 – which means many families have to spend at least part of the year paying the full cost of childcare. The government has proposed changes to the rebate structure but any changes aren’t expected to happen until the latter half of 2018.

Many also believe that the rebate reform won’t actually make much of a difference to working parents in terms of affordability. In fact, in some places the cost of childcare could actually increase despite a funding cash injection from the state government.

What is worse, despite the high fees at childcare centres, many childcare workers earn very little. This mostly female-dominated workforce earns as little as $20 per hour, far less than primary school teachers and private nannies – a situation that recently lead Victorian daycare workers to strike for the first time in 30 years.

So where does it leave a working mother like me, with no place to send my child? We can either not return to work, and let our careers stagnate, or we can look at the following options:

  • The father takes time off work – This is an option that families (and workplaces) should be doing more to make possible. I have a couple of female friends whose husbands are the primary carer of the kids while they return to work. When men earn more than their partners, it’s common to assume this means his career should be prioritised, but that kind of thinking hurts women both in the workplace and at home. As Anne Marie Slaughter points out, “we are never going to get to gender equality between men and women unless we value the work of care as much as we value paid work – or when both men and women do it.” Look into flexible work arrangements for both of you, and if you’re lucky, perhaps you can each keep a foot in the workplace and the home.
  • Family day care – where you leave your child in the care of someone who minds children in their home usually as part of a council run scheme – although this can also be hard to get in with many family day care schemes having long waiting lists.
  • Nannies – who are generally not eligible for rebates and are currently charging $25 – $35 per hour, but provide a personalised service for you and your children.
  • Or grandparents/other family members – if you can rope them into looking after your children this is perhaps the most cost-effective solution. Unfortunately, it’s not a solution that is open to many women, including me, so I am currently looking into family daycare.

Every government knows the economic benefits of enabling new mothers to return to the workforce. But the benefits are more personal and run deeper than that for women themselves.

For me it means being able to work in a career I’ve developed over a number of years as well as contributing financially to my household. It also means that I’m not “starting again” when my children are older after years out of the field.

We all have personal reasons why we want to go back to work, none of which we need to justify to anyone. The main thing we do need is support in looking after our kids while we build upon our dreams for the future.

This article was first published on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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