Not much of the last three years has happened as planned, and returning to Australia pregnant with my second child was no different to that. Our little family of three had been based overseas for my husband's job when we decided to return to Australia from the USA halfway into my pregnancy. COVID-19 was devastating the US and the months ahead looked unpredictable, so returning to Australia was the safest option for our family.
The busyness of settling back into life and all the admin and logistics that come with that was consuming most of my waking hours, alongside caring for our then two year old. We made it through hotel quarantine, me pregnant, hot, sore and also feeling discombobulated, as we said goodbye to one life and set about building our new one.
After deciding on a good hospital and obstetrician, topping our to-do list was enrolling our toddler in early childhood education and care.
I planned to enroll Hugo in part time care in Sydney where he could socialise, play and learn. In my eyes this was urgent because he had experienced three international moves in his two short years, and the pandemic had forced many early childhood centres to close down. With another child on the way, I was also looking for care for him so I could look after the baby, and keep myself going and the house ticking over.
I knew that early childhood education and care was not a free service, but I thought that, as our toddler was about to turn three and we were citizens who lived off one income, there would be an affordable option available to us. Two messages drummed through my head as I began calling providers - Australia has very expensive services, but early childhood education and care is vital for children’s healthy growth and development.
It was a complete surprise to find that I met none of the funding criteria that would allow me to affordably send our child to a service. The services which were subsidised by the state government because of COVID - an excellent initiative - were full and we couldn’t get a place. We had come back too close to the start of the year to get into anything local or free. Given we had only returned because of COVID and had a baby on the way, I had hoped we would be able to find a service which was, again, affordable and local.
The issue for us was my ‘stay at home Mum’ status. Also, being an ‘accompanying spouse’. I was someone who had not earned income in my name while living overseas but accompanied my husband and been the primary carer for our child. As I was the “house manager” (as a friend likes to describe the housewife gig), Centrelink did not provide any Childcare Subsidy because I had no income. Nor would I receive Parental Leave Pay, because I hadn’t worked in the previous 13 months, nor was I entitled to any benefits. I had tried to work overseas, but couldn’t obtain a visa. I had tried to find work returning to Australia, even though I was 5 months’ pregnant I figured it was worth a shot, but to no avail.
After hours - and I mean hours at a time over days - of phone calls, taking notes and gathering details, I worked out that by volunteering, I could access the subsidy for early childhood at a rate I could afford to send our child two days per week, 9am-3pm. I had helped a few Australian not-for-profits while overseas, so I decided to continue on with my unpaid work for them to access the subsidy. In my mind it was like I was being paid, because these hours reduced the cost of care.
I gave birth to a happy, healthy baby, and had a child in an excellent local community preschool. I volunteered, or worked, four-eight hours per week (with a few weeks off when I had my baby). I was determined to access the support system that I expected to be there. It has been a difficult and tiring way to access care that I know is good for our son, good for our family, and good for me. We were surprised at how little was in place to support our family when we returned to Australia because of circumstances well beyond our control. Personally, I was also stunned to be so locked out of accessing early childhood education and care because I was a stay at home Mum. Because I technically could continue to look after my son at home, I apparently had “no real need” for care but, in reality, I did need it.
If you would like to share your story please email Maddy at [email protected]