Child care

Australia’s dual-working dilemma

The gentle rocking on his shoulder woke him from his sleep. Bleary eyes blinking up at the woman waking him. The first rays of the day gently stream through the closed blinds, lighting tracks through the room as the young boy dressed. A white undershirt, a maroon woolen jumper, navy-blue trousers, and a tartan print tie adorn his small figure. His school bag lay strewn across the floor, books and half-packed lunches, little toys and charms escaping the zipped confines. It was hardly six in the morning, his day was already well underway.

21-year-old, Jayden Weeratunga. Photo: Cailin Lucken.

After school, his grandmother, affectionately called ‘Nanay’, is waiting for him at the school gate, a grin across her face and arms open for a warm hug. Nanay cooked their dinner as he sat on the brown leather couch with his Pop, bright colours flashed across the television screen as Homer strangled a gargling Bart. He giggled, his Pop staring down at him before giving a fond pat on the head. As the sun finalised its decent, his mother took him home. A warm bath, cuddly pyjamas and a kiss on the head goodnight.

“I never really saw them … they were just the people that took me to school and took me home from my grandparents’ house,” says 21-year-old, Jayden Weeratunga. “I think the most we did was a family dinner every Sunday, just going to a restaurant occasionally.”

It was normal for Jayden to go a significant proportion of the day without seeing his parents, relying heavily on his grandparents to take him to and from school.

“We never really hung out that much, it was more my grandparents that would take me out to do things,” he says.

Graphic: Cailin Lucken.

It is not just the Weeratunga family that experienced a lack of quality time and child engagement because of parents’ work commitments.

According to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, seven in 10 families with children under the age of 15 will have dual working parents. This has increased significantly from 40 per cent in 1979.

Additionally, the proportion of dual working couples with full-time hours each has increased by nine per cent in just 12 years.

This has seen the rise of families like the Weeratunga’s, who rely on family members or after-school care systems to supervise children while parents earn a living.

Impact on children

North Perth Psychology Centre director and founder Donna Stambulich says the impact on children is diverse and depends on individual factors.

“Younger children may at first feel separation anxiety when their parents are away for long hours. This can manifest in practical terms in clinginess or temper tantrums,” she says.

“Once the children are a little bit older, they may actually develop feelings of independence and resilience.

“They can also experience loneliness or stress when left to their own devices for extended periods of time.”

Dr Stambulich says working parents can have both positive and negative impacts on children.

“I think working parents can serve as really good role models. They teach their children about the importance of hard work, responsibility and setting goals,” she says.

“On the flip side, if parents are experiencing high levels of stress or dissatisfaction, which lots of parents do, it can negatively impact on the child’s perception of work.”

Donna Stambulich

Jayden says the way his parents worked changed how he perceives family life and a work-life balance.

“I think after the experiences I had growing up, I definitely want to be more present in my child’s life, whenever I have them,” he says.

“It’s my goal to get a job, say working from home or with a flexible arrangement so that I can have time for my kids.

“I think that is the most important thing for me, making sure to be there for my children.”

Jayden says the upcoming generation of parents are choosing family over work.

“I think parents nowadays would rather prioritise their children and try not to follow in the footsteps of their past,” he says.

In Western Australia, there are more than 88,400 families accessing Child Care Subsidy-approved care in 2022, according to the Department of Education.

Families accessing subsidy approved childcare in 2022. Graphic: Cailin Lucken.

A typical day in the life of Grace Herdsman and her 18-month-old daughter, Harper, revolves heavily around childcare.

Harper is woken when the sky is only a light haze of greys and blues. She is bathed, dressed, fed and strapped into the car seat, beginning her journey to daycare. She will wave sadly and blow a kiss to her mum through the windows of the daycare, already looking forward to when she will see her face again in the late afternoon.

Harper can spend up to 10 hours in daycare at a time.

“She’s generally there for seven to 10 hours give or take, depending on the shift I’m working,” Grace says.

Occasionally, Grace is required to travel past the city for work, a far trek from her southern suburb home in Baldivis.

“I have no other option, really,” she says.

“I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of time with her and that, honestly, other people are raising her just as much, if not more, than I am.”

Graphic: Cailin Lucken.

According to the Australian Department of Education, the proportion of children accessing CCS-approved childcare services has risen by approximately 65,000 between December 2021 and December 2022. This is an increase of 31,000 families accessing childcare services.

Assistant childcare educator Rebecca Fisher says this is not an uncommon occurrence.

“There are so many children that start at 6:30am and they’re there until about five or six. They’re tired.”

Childcare educator, Rebecca Fisher. Photo: Cailin Lucken.

She says full-time hours in daycare can affect children’s physical health.

“You can tell that they’re getting sick more often, they’re unhappy. We’re calling their parents to pick them up, but they can’t because they work so far but it’s very hard on them,” she says.

“There are babies here for 10 hours a day. It’s horrible.”

Madison Tynan, a 22-year-old early childhood educator, agrees children can have difficulties while in daycare.

“I find some children can be so emotional because they miss their parents and they’re really struggling to regulate their emotions while being away from their parents,” she says.

However, Madison says not all children show these symptoms.

“Other children are obviously so used to the daycare setting that they kind of see us as like a third parent and they’ll come in and they’re happy because they’re used to the routine,” she says.

Grace says she sees both the good and bad impacts on Harper after long days in childcare.

“You can see positive and negative. Negative would have to be she comes home really sooky, obviously tired and very attached. Positive is that she’s obviously learning and socialising,” she says.

However, sending children to daycare for long periods throughout the day does not just impact on the children themselves, according to Grace.

She says dropping Harper off at daycare impacts her perception of herself as a parent.

“I am providing for her, but it also impacts how I feel, she’s not learning everything she has learned, from me,” she says.

Madison says she often sees parents struggling to leave their children in daycare.

“I’ve had parents come in crying when their child is crying, and they just can’t leave the house. It’s really sad,” she says.

Madison Tynan explains the impacts some children face while in childcare. Photo: Cailin Lucken.

Rebecca agrees that childcare can be just as difficult for parents. “It’s hard for the parents too, I think some educators forget that the parents put them in there for a reason,” she says.

Grace’s advice for parents is to ignore what other people think.

“Don’t let other people’s opinion – if you should stay home, if you should be going to work – affect your choices and what you’re comfortable with,” she says.

Relationships WA, a branch of the federated national organisation Relationships Australia, is a not-for-profit community organisation providing information and assistance to couples, families, individuals and communities.

The organisation’s education team have curated information sheets for parents on how to balance raising children with life.

Donna Stambulich says it is important for parents to make an effort with their children.

“I think communication, effective communication, between parents and children is just as crucial in these households. Parents really need to be making an effort to stay involved in their children’s life, even if their work commitments are demanding,” she says.

“Sometimes it can be spending quality time over quantity.”

This step towards quality time has been adopted by the Eadie family.

Maysun Eadie explains what her life was like as a child. Video: Cailin Lucken.

A young adolescent, blonde and tall, adorned in pink, sits happily on her velour chair. Maysun Eadie would watch her hard-working single mum walk out the door of the house, blue scrubs on and hair up in a tight bun. A kiss on the forehead and a wave goodbye. She would return well into the night when Maysun was sound asleep. Now, Maysun enthusiastically recounts her childhood with a grin on her face.

“I wouldn’t see her after school. Sometimes I’d stay up until she got home,” says Maysun. “She would work a lot of late shifts.”

Maysun Eadie with her cat, Maple. Photo: Cailin Lucken.

Despite how little time Maysun had with her mum while growing up, she says she wouldn’t have changed any aspect of her childhood.

“Obviously it would have been nicer to see my mum a little bit more, but at the same time it makes me who I am today.”

“Who knows who I would be if it was any different,” she says.

“It doesn’t affect me negatively today, so I wouldn’t.”

And now, as her mum sets aside the scrubs and dons her best business attire, Maysun smiles.

“I see her all the time now, every day. I’ll get home from work at 5:30 and she’s already been home for two hours. It’s awesome,” she says.

Photos: supplied.
Maysun and Mum.

“I love her schedule now. She loves her schedule now. It’s amazing. And that’s awesome that she’s been able to get to that place where she is able to work a more casual job and she’s happy in it.”

It is not uncommon to catch Maysun and her mum huddled on the couch watching the latest episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, gossiping and having a snack at the end of a long day. Maple and Grizzly, fluffy ginger cats curl comfortably in their laps, a loving purr escaping their sleeping feline forms.

Grace will collect a giggling Harper from the front gate of a colourful daycare centre, a playful grin on the little girl’s face as she is swung into her mother’s waiting arms. The toddler will be loaded into the car, content to be back with the person she loves most.

Jayden will spend his late afternoon at the dining table with his parents, the chatter of the day resonating through the spacious room, smiling over a piping hot dish of his father’s famous risotto.

“What it has taught me now is to never take the time you have with your parents for granted,” he says. “I think you should try and spend as much time with them as possible.”

Maysun Eadie remains grateful to her mother.

“One day you will turn around and appreciate what your parents did and understand that what they did makes you who you are today. It is negative sometimes, but it can turn around and be a positive.”