When Gerry McCarthy tells us how much childcare costs for one child in Sweden, we gasp. €150 per child. “And it gets cheaper per second child, and third child,” he explains, saying that to send his two sons to childcare costs him and his wife Susanna €250 per month.

While Sweden is ranked as one of best countries to provide childcare, Ireland is consistently deemed to be ‘bottom of the class.’ That is because according to OECD, we invest the least amount in early years of any developed country, as a percentage of GDP.

While Sweden spends 1.9% of GDP on childcare, Ireland spends just 0.3%. As a result, Irish parents are spending between €600 and €1,200 per child per month, depending on which county they are living in.

Gerry who is from Dublin says he is aware that some of his friends are paying 10 times the amount he and Susanna pay for childcare each month.

Maternity and Paternity Leave

Gerry and Susanna live just outside Malmo which is the third largest city in Sweden with their three sons, Erik (8), Gustav (5) and Henry (1). Gerry works as a project manager while Susanna is a district nurse.

Speaking about the state benefits for parents, Susanna says when Erik was born, she was able to take 20 months off work.

Gerry explains how it works. “Parents are entitled to take 480 days off per child and this can be used by either the father or the mother. In most cases, its used by the mother. In the last two years, that split has been 70% women/30% men.

"390 of those days are at 80% of your pay (with a cap for higher earners at €45, 500). The remaining 90 days are on a lower pay of €18 per day, if you choose to take them. And these don’t need to be taken in the first year.

"The majority needs to be taken before the child is 4 years old, although you are allowed to carry 96 days over and use until the child is 12. As long as you give three months’ notice, your company is obliged to give you that leave.

Susanna adds, “So for me as a nurse, it allows me to request bank holidays as long as I do it far enough in advance. Also when you go back to work, there is a reimbursement of 80% of your normal pay if you need to stay at home because your child is sick.”

When it was time for Susanna to go back to work, Erik was guaranteed a creche space, which in Sweden they call preschool.

Susanna says “We did get his name down early because we wanted to get him into a preschool that was near to where we lived at the time. But there was no concern about getting a place, the concern was distance.”

Accommodating All Jobs

Even though Susanna works as a nurse, there was also no concern about hours. “Most preschools open from 6am in the morning until 6pm at night, to accommodate the different jobs and hours that people work.

"There are also preschools that are open out of hours, that offer care in the evenings or overnight for parents that work shift work.”

Gerry says, “You can’t just pretend that you work every hour under the sun to get care for your kids. You must provide your work schedule in order to get the hours of care that you need. And that’s for both parents.

"Because Susanna works as a nurse, sometimes she might start early and finish early. So the expectation would be that I would drop the boys off as late as possible and she would collect them as early as possible.

"Or if she is working at the weekend, and as a result, she has a day off in the middle of the week, it would be expected that the kids would stay at home that day.

"Because it’s a state sponsored childcare system (with some family contribution), the government are basically saying, “Your child will be minded when you are working because we want you to produce economic activity. But if you’re not at work, it’s not available to you,” which seems a fair system.

For example, out of all my friends, I don’t know one family that uses a childminder now, everyone sends their child to preschool.

"If a person is unemployed, they can send their children to preschool for 15 hours a week for the child’s development.” This is similar to the ECCE system in Ireland.

If a mother is on maternity leave, that is also taken into consideration. He continues, “Here children don’t start school until they are six. So if a parent is at home taking maternity leave or paternity leave, the older child can only be sent to preschool 15 hours a week.

This differs from region to region but it’s around that number. This was the situation when Susanna was on maternity leave with Henry and Gustav would only go on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for five hours each day.

Again it is a fair system but we did feel that Gustav would have benefitted from more hours. Because he was 4 going on 5, he was doing his numbers, letters, reading etc and he was really enjoying it and we felt he was missing out on more learning and social opportunities.”

Interestingly, the couple say that the preschool system is now so well developed in Sweden, it is considered the only version of childcare. Susanna says, “I remember growing up that there were childminders who would mind children in their own home.

"It was quite common back then. But now it’s rare. For example, out of all my friends, I don’t know one family that uses a childminder now, everyone sends their child to preschool.”

Career Progression

Susanna is soon back to work after her maternity leave with Henry. We ask her if her career has progressed in the same trajectory in the same couple of years. “I am where I want to be. I don’t think that I ever felt that I wanted to climb a ladder or something like that.

"Being a parent, I think your career takes an impact but personally, I don’t feel it is because we didn’t have a good childcare in place.”

Gerry agrees, “Yes being a parent naturally impacts your career. Even though there are great supports in place for parents that you are entitled to take, you are still aware of timings and asking for time off.

"For example, in the autumn, I’ll be on parental leave for one day a week as Henry starts his first year in the preschool. This is a great benefit as a father.

“I am very happy in my job and have no intentions of moving. But if I did, I would be very conscious that next year wouldn’t be a great time to move when I am availing of that entitlement. You need to be organised to avail of the childcare entitlements to the full extent. But we do feel very lucky to have those supports in place.”

In week 4 of our childcare series, we are focusing on childcare for children with special needs. In that issue, Gerry and Susanna will discuss their experience of childcare supports when their son Eric was diagnosed with autism at age 3.