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The harsh reality of childcare costs when you're a working mum

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a close up of a baby: The harsh reality of childcare costs when you're a working mum © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd The harsh reality of childcare costs when you're a working mum

In Grazia's weekly series Christine Armstrong, the author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children, A Career And Stay Sane(ish), unpicks the myths around being a working mother and asks: is having a work/life balance an impossible dream?

Have you ever heard a man say "you know, after working full time, once I've paid for the nursery, I only have £50 a month?" Probably not. But how many women have said that to you? Maybe you've even said it yourself. Like Lyndsey:

"I thought I'd done well at work, I earn £35,000. But when I've paid for two nursery places, plus travel to and from the office, I'm worse off. How can that be? How can I work all month, leave my kids with strangers and kill myself to do a good job and come home and do everything for the kids and still lose money? I had no idea before I had kids that my career would be so badly hit by them. I am really angry about it. I want to work. I just want to be able to work and get something for it. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I don't know whether to give up or not."

Some stay with work for their careers, pensions and future prospects. For others, the combination of doing what previous generations of women did, looking after the children and the home, at the same time as doing what previous generations of men did, working, plus, for many, remaining connected to work electronically from when they wake until when they sleep is too much. 

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Defeated, they quit. Which is often misunderstood by senior men who shrug and call it a lifestyle decision: "she wasn't that committed, wanted to spend time with the kids" they say as they return to their 12-hour day made possible by their partners at home. Single parent households are hit even harder. Many can't even think how they would manage to work and care at the same time.

a woman holding a baby © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd

There are a couple of things that strike me about this issue. One is the silence of it. That no one ever seems to tell you before babies that you're likely to lose either a whole salary, as one of you steps out of work, or the best part of it, if you're paying for early years care. Which is why so many people invest in the best home they can afford and set up their lives as if they will continue with a double salary before they have kids and then get a real shock.

Reining that in is painful. The other is that the money never seems to work in the early years. Not for anyone. Even when I interview people who are well off, they feel it because they need a lot of help to cover the long hours. But most of us think it's just us panicking that we can't pay off debts, or pay into pensions or moving to an interest only mortgage if we can.

The shocking thing though is how little serious focus this issue gets from the main political parties. They're always meddling with the details of childcare: vouchers, 15 free hours, 30 free hours for 38 weeks a year from three if both parents work… No one seems to be looking at the fact that women are effectively being taxed, often at 100 per cent of their salary, from the end of maternity leave until their child turns three. Just think about that for a moment: 100 per cent of women's income going into childcare for more than two years. And wonder why we have such an awful pay gap (which isn't to say there aren't other reasons, there are, but this is a big one).

The reality is that we've moved from a male breadwinner model, where women stay at home and care, to a world where both parents largely need to work. To support that, we need to modernise our system of childcare, school calendars and working hours to make it possible for families to both work and care. And if we're serious about equality that shouldn't so weaken the financial status of women so much that they are horrified to find themselves a part of conversations that go like this:

One day we were talking and this mum was wondering whether her husband would "allow" her to have a new cooker, when another mum says in this slightly too practical tone, "just buy it on the Visa card and give him a blowie when the bill comes". Everyone laughed but I knew at that moment that I had to go back to work.

So how does New Zealand compare?

According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) childcare costs in New Zealand are among the highest in the world, with Kiwi couples spending an average of a quarter of their incomes on childcare. (The UK tops the list.)

Measures have been put in place by the current government to ease financial pressures on parents.

In July 2018 paid parental leave was increased from 18 weeks to 22 weeks, and in July 2020 it will go up to 26 weeks.

In 2007 the Helen Clark-led Labour government introduced 20 hours per week free childcare for three and four year olds.

As a single mother of two preschoolers at that time I remember the huge difference it made to my life.

Similarly, Auckland mother of one Nicole says that when she and her husband moved their daughter, now six, to an ECE-registered kindergarten after she turned three, their costs reduced significantly.

"Suddenly we were paying $44 a week for four full kindy days, when we had been paying over $200 for just three days of private daycare. It did help considerably in that [financial] area."

However, there is still a period of more than two years where parents have to foot the full costs of having their child in care while they work.

Nicole, who returned to work five years ago when her daughter turned one, says there were times when she and her husband wondered whether it was worth her going back to work at all.

"We were paying around $85 a day initially which was quite high - and we had to provide lunch. This also went up while we were there, but I ended up leaving work after six months, and took six months off working altogether. The timing of my return hadn't been right for our family."

Second time round, Nicole took a lesser-paying job with hours that better suited family life.

"I was on significantly less income, but the costs of care remained the same. This meant the small extra I was bringing in was pretty much just going toward bills and petrol.

"At times we definitely realised that what we were paying in childcare was significantly reducing my income and we questioned whether it was worth it."

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