Economically "inactive": How does childcare impact mothers' ability to re-join the labour market?

Categories: Blogs, Data Insights, Inequality & social inclusion, World of work

Written by Ana Corina Miller 23 November 2020

The ongoing debates about state provision of childcare have traditionally excluded the potential impact that informal childcare may have on the mother’s labour force participation. The situation for working mothers in Northern Ireland is particularly bleak. The early learning programmes offer no flexibility in timetabling of the small amount of free weekly hours (12.5 for children of pre-school age), or in the choice of provider1. This rigidity makes it more difficult for working parents to avail of the benefits of the programme and in some cases more expensive, as they will have to supplement this free care with half-day nursery or childminder costs, which is typically more expensive than a full day.

Mothers generally weigh the aspects of work and time spent at home differently to child-free women and most fathers. A preference for staying home after childbirth increases the minimum wage threshold a mother is willing to accept in order to participate in the labour market. On the other hand, a mother’s preference to return to paid employment increases their willingness – and often their need - to access childcare. If in the first scenario a mother’s preference to stay home is related to keeping or achieving a more comfortable financial situation and the cost is her forgone wage, the second scenario brings about the childcare cost that the mother must pay to be able to return to paid employment. The childcare cost could therefore be associated with the trade-off between stay home and return to paid employment.

However, not all mothers access formal, paid childcare in order to return to work. Our analysis reveals the presence of a co-resident grandparent (a grandparent living in the same household as the mother) was associated with 16% greater probability of employment for single parent mothers and 10% increase for mothers in two parent households. These results remain consistent even when we consider grandparental health.  Mothers with co-resident grandparents had 12% higher probability of being in full-time rather than part-time employment than mothers without. The presence of a co-resident grandparent was associated with increase in employment by at least 15% among mothers with primary-school age children. This result opens up the discussion of what is the true economic cost of grandparents providing cost-free childcare and if this informal “arrangement” is sustainable for the next generation, given changes to the state pension age (SPA) which are happening in the UK and in the rest of the western countries.  Policies that raise retirement ages might increase older cohorts’ labour participation rates at the expense of young women’s, through childcare availability.  From an intergenerational perspective, at family level, a grandparent’s sense of responsibility might act as a burden on both their mental and physical health if they are providing both informal childcare and working in older age. This in turn would imply a need to support both young children and dependent grandparents, hence placing an added burden on families [1]. Studies suggest that although both women and men could be affected, the emotional and physical burdens fall more heavily on women who traditionally provide a greater proportion of the caring and practical support and assistance [1, 2].  In such cases, the addition of caring for grandparents would prove a further impediment to maternal employment rates, rather than improving them. 

1In Northern Ireland, children of pre-school age are children aged three and in some cases children aged at least two. This entitlement is spread equally over the 5 working days a week during term time, are provided only by nursery and primary schools with nursery units and some voluntary and private providers excluding childminders, subsidised by the Department of Education, and regarded as early year’s education and not childcare places.


[1] Bowen, C., Riley, L. (2005). The sandwich generation: challenges and coping strategies of multigenerational families. The Family Journal, 13 (1), 52–58.

[2] Schlesinger, B., Raphael, D. (1993). The woman in the middle: The Sandwich generation revisited. International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 23, 77-87.

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