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Creative Child Care

Tim Elliott
October 5, 2006

They used to say it takes a village to raise a child. These days, with the economy and workforce going around the clock, a village just isn't going to cut it - you're going to need a day-care centre, several grandparents, assorted in-laws and the occasional night nanny.

Many working parents rely on a mix of formal childcare (day-care centre or family day-care), friends and grandparents. Day-care is, of course, a big part of this, with 753,000 under-fives attending some kind of formal childcare last year.

This may sound like a lot of kids, particularly if you picture them in one small space, but for an increasing number of parents, conventional childcare, with its attendant drop-off-and-pick-up ritual, is no longer an option.

"Centre-based care only meets the needs of families who work normal hours," says Judy Radich, national president of Early Childhood Australia. Radich also cites issues of availability, especially in inner-city suburbs, and affordability (the cost of child care has risen 61 per cent in the past five years).

"Choosing who will look after our child when we're not there is a complicated issue," she says. "We all have different values and standards, different timetables and different budgets."

But if the child-care conundrum is ruining your life, fret not. From night nannies to workplace creches, there are ways of keeping the kids, your career and your sanity. You just have to get creative.

Workplace creche: Nicole Webb, Allison Lee and Monique Fenech

When 38-year-old public relations consultant Nicole Webb moved offices in March, she and business partner Allison Lee came up with the idea of a workplace creche.

"We were looking around and found a site with 250 square metres, but we really only needed 200 square metres," says Webb, whose daughter Ciara was born six months ago. "I was thinking of sub-letting the extra space but Allison, who's got two young kids, said, 'Why don't we turn it into a creche?' "

The creche is staffed three days a week by a qualified nanny and attended by two six-month-olds: Ciara and the daughter of senior account manager Monique Fenech. In March next year there will be another, with the arrival of Lee's second child, at which point the nanny will go five days a week.

Because only employees' kids attend the creche, no special permits were required. "We just had to make sure our insurance policies covered us," Webb says. "We also made sure our nanny had childcare qualifications, had been through a first-aid course and a police check."

The creche costs the company about $60,000 a year, Webb says, "once you take into account foregone rent and the nanny's salary. But the advantages are enormous. For a start, I couldn't even get into a centre in Balmain or Rozelle, despite putting down deposits when I was 14 weeks pregnant. And because it's my own company, I didn't have the option of taking maternity leave."

Having the babies on site also means Webb can breastfeed when she needs to and look after Ciara during the nanny's lunchbreak. "When you have a newborn, there's that whole guilt issue of work taking you away from the baby. But here I don't get that. I can cuddle Ciara when I want to and work doesn't suffer."

Fenech is also a big fan. "First of all there's the physical benefit of not having to drive around doing the drop-off thing, so I don't have to leave earlier in the morning. And if you have to work late or a meeting goes overtime in the afternoon, you're not freaking out."

And the noise? "It's OK," Webb laughs. "There's the occasional meltdown, but nothing we can't work with."

Night nannies: Dean Stafrace

One job wasn't enough for 30-year-old divorced dad Dean Stafrace, who teaches at Melbourne's Copperfield College during the day and DJs at night.

"Because of the DJing, my nights are pretty hectic," says Stafrace, aka Toyboy, who uses a night nannying service to help care for two-year-old Dylan and four-year-old Briana every second week. "I do about two to three clubs a night, Wednesday to Friday, and get home about 6am. I'm so tired by the time I get home it's ridiculous."

Stafrace used to get his brother, sister or parents to babysit at night. "But in the end that got really stressful because of the dropping off and also because they weren't so reliable. I felt obliged to fit in around them if they got sick or had commitments."

So he bit the bullet and called Night Nannies.

"They come out to you and mind the kids in your home at night. It's great because they work around you. I get the same nanny each time, Fiona, who stays every second Friday and Saturday night. In the morning she wakes them up, feeds them, changes them and takes them for a walk while I catch up on sleep."

He pays $450 for the two nights, but says it's worth every cent. "It means that when I do see the kids during the day I'm not grumpy, that I have the energy to go out and do normal stuff with them."

It also gives him peace of mind. "A couple of times I got a friend to mind the kids, but they freaked out whenever there was a crisis and I'd have to talk them through it on the phone."

Stafrace's nanny is not only first-aid qualified, but "she understands all the little cues, like what to do if the kids are upset and what routines they have".

Still, the process wasn't without drama. "I had to interview six people before I felt comfortable with one. Also, my daughter got a bit protective to begin with, like, 'I've already got a mum!' I just had to explain that the nanny was there so that I could play better when I was awake. Now they love her to death."

Nanny-sharing: Deb Potts and Eimear Clancy

Had she had the money, Eimear Clancy probably would have opted for one-on-one care for her daughter when she went back to work. But one year into her nanny-sharing "experiment", Clancy's a convert. "It's great!" says the 34-year-old management consultant, whose 19-month-old daughter, who is also called Ciara, shares a nanny four days a week with 20¿month¿old Charlie, the son of good friend Deb Potts. "You get the best of both worlds," Clancy says. "Our kids have the same regular carer, but they also have someone to play with. They've become like brother and sister, hugging and kissing when they meet up in the morning."

For Potts, who lives in Mosman and works in the city, nanny-sharing was just about the only option.

"I'd registered with all the local day-care centres but nothing had come up by the time I had to go back to work when Charlie was nine months. Not even my work creche had a place."

Comparing notes, the two friends discovered they were returning to work at the same time. "We talked about nannies," Potts says. "But they cost around $20 an hour and I needed one for 40 hours a week, which would have negated the whole point of going back to work. Sharing made it do-able."

Finding a nanny through word of mouth, they then nutted out the ground rules. "Having a shared philosophy is crucial," Potts says. "You have to be really similar in what you want for your kids. We discussed everything in advance: how much TV they could watch, foods they could eat."

The kids are always minded at Potts's house, allowing Clancy to drop Ciara off on her way to work. "We're pretty relaxed," Clancy says. "If one of the kids is sick they still share, unless it's really serious."

The nanny arrives at 8am and stays until 6pm. "And if someone's late from work, it's not the end of the world: the nanny won't shut down! Whoever's late just pays the extra, or whoever gets there first takes over."

It's all about give and take, Potts says. "When we first started we planned on having a meeting at the three-month mark, just to see how things were going. But we were so happy that we forgot all about it."

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