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The Hidden Costs of Childcare

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

Like many parents, I’m guilty of complaining when my daughter interferes with my work life. Whether its needing to pick them up from day care unexpectedly, a routine doctor’s visit, or even if they need to stay home sick and someone needs to look after them… the stress and logistics around how to cope with the generally unrelenting expectations to keep up at work can be overwhelming. The thought of not having them in day care at all, at least part time, is enough for stress levels to go through the roof.

Quality and affordable childcare is an amenity that is highly sought after and vigorously debated over in the “western world”. As the cost of living increases, the pressure to earn enough money and keep your job is stressful enough without having children to support and nurture. As you can imagine even if you don’t have kids, working while at the same time looking after your child, is nearly impossible, so most of us are glad if the opportunity arises for childcare.

However what I have started to notice is that my mental model, and that of many friends and colleagues, has been warped to prioritize work and treat our children like a hinderance to my productivity and my career. Childcare is a necessary but ultimately guilty relief to many parents. While understanding that we all need to earn a living, I’m starting to find it increasingly frustrating that we must design our lives around work rather than the other way around.

A symptom, not the cause.

While I’m among the first to admit that childcare is immensely helpful and even if life was utopia and we didn’t have to work, some form of childcare would still be nice…. but given our currently reality, it doesn’t address the underlying issue, the issue that creates the paralyzing need for childcare in the first place — our work ethic and our obsession with productivity and economic growth as well as spiralling costs of living.

These things put insane amounts of pressure on parents to juggle family commitments. It makes them more susceptible to continuous exhaustion, stress and anxiety which on a good day results in households with less empathetic, caring, patient and present parents, and on a bad day results in broken marriages, substance abuse, domestic violence and child neglect. The effects of this on the individual, their children and society as a whole need no explanation.

Ironically, the provision of childcare, reinforced by our own mental models, actually makes it less likely our work ethic will change and instead will perpetuate the status quo. Hear me out.

Economic growth

In what looks like a win for progressive attitudes, many companies, especially in the absence of government support, are beginning to provide the option for employees to bring their kid’s to work, or even have their own day care facilities. Some are starting to provide paid parental leave, and still others are even providing the opportunity for female employees to freeze their eggs, or breastfeed at work. As you might expect, many employees in turn are incredibly thankful for this, especially in countries with weak social systems. After all, they are given the choice to start a family while continuing to work.

However, the provision of childcare (and many other benefits) is not done out of altruism or sense of community, but rather because it is beneficial to the economy and to business. With accessible childcare, more people can enter or return to the workforce and faster — especially women. Employees are also less likely to leave the company, essentially knowing that their security is tied to their employer. Even welfare or socialist states provide such benefits because they understand the threat falling birth rates will have on their economies in the future.

In other words, these “benefits” are designed solely to maintain the status quo by keeping you and the greater business running at the same or higher level of productivity, ideally with absolutely minimal impact to the bottom line. However, we wouldn’t need many of these benefits to such a degree, childcare included, if our society was not so focused on extracting every last ounce of time and effort from the worker. However, we don’t do much to help ourselves…

Our mental models

Our mental model towards work, perpetuates an unhealthy work ethic, one that focuses on hyper-productivity and speed. Childcare is probably one of the few benefits that most people would jump on should they get the chance, because it would allow us to keep working (and feed our unhealthy attitudes towards work). Other benefits including more holiday, or parental leave (especially paternity leave) that require time away from work are not only more rare for companies to give (because the return is less immediate), but also more rarely taken by employees even when they are provided. Either our own work ethic, or that of those we work for or with has such a strong influence on us, that many feel compelled to keep working and propel themselves towards burnout, even if we have an option out.

To make matter worse, there is a prevalent feeling in some western countries that ‘no one owes you anything’ (but somewhat ironically, many employees feel they owe everything to their employer), a reverence for “the self-made man” and general suspicion towards any form of help that might actually relieve some of your stress. The archetype, for example, of the single mum who raised three children while completing a degree and working two jobs, is more frequently praised rather than questioned despite the the vast majority of whom will never turn their hardships into success stories. Likewise the father that chooses to take parental leave is often derided as being without any ambition or drive.

As a society we seem to have come to value hard work, “hustle” and endurance as traits of good character that will lead to success, and we tend to define success in terms of financial gains and the status that comes with it. We even tend to measure contribution to society through having a (paying) job and the less you work the more you are seen as a slacker. As parents, we pass these mental models of ours on to our children (who we are so desperate to squirrel away in order to work) who continue to learn that work is more important than anything and the stress it can bring is normal.

Where to from here?

The need for childcare is universal, but access to it is not. Rightly so, discussion tends to revolve around accessibility/ affordability. However I cannot help but feel that we also need to focus discussion on why we so desperately need it in the first place. When you think about it, why do we think its normal not just to need but also to want to put our kids in day care for the maximum amount of time possible, to exchange a relatively large portion of our very finite time on this planet that we could otherwise spend with our family (and live more fulfilled lives), for work? Many people love their job, I understand this — I like what I do too, but I’d argue that vast majority either don’t or are apathetic. Even those that do might actually also like their family or want a fuller life outside of work.

Yet with the mounting pressure of today’s society, it is no wonder then that birth rates are declining. Fewer people in developed nations are choosing to become parents and prevalent reasons are that they can’t afford it or do not believe they can successfully juggle a family with their careers. Those that do choose to start a family soon understand the need to send their children to childcare.

Given this situation, childcare is a necessity and it is a shame that it is not a universal right. Some of the wealthiest countries in the world barely, if at all, provide any form of meaningful assistance to parents. However, like most other “benefits”, unless we tackle our society’s unhealthy work ethic, the prioritization of economic growth, and recognize the impact that is has on societal well-being, its only perpetuating an unsustainable system.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that instead of prioritizing economic outlook and viewing parents as just workers that make more workers, we need to start questioning more the structures of this system that fail to support and sustain parents and humanity in general, or better yet change the mental models that built the structures that got us into this mess in the first place.

Oh, but that’s right, do you know who has a significant impact on our mental models? Our parents.

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Austin Mackesy-Buckley

Austin Mackesy-Buckley

An Agile Coach and dad who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences of work and life.