Perth mother Zen Wee told staff at her childcare centre she was pregnant with her first child before she broke the exciting news to her family.
It was late 2012 and she was barely 12 weeks pregnant, but confident that if she put her name down for child care straight away a place would become available at her preferred centre in Willetton, which was close to her home, by the time her maternity leave ended.
But in February this year when she returned to her job as a project business manager at the Department of Parks and Wildlife there were still no vacancies for her son Kurtis, who is now just over 12 months old.
Ms Wee and her husband Nicholas Cheang had to fly Ms Wee’s mother to Perth from her home in Malaysia to care for Kurtis, until a vacancy finally arose two weeks ago.
“It was really taxing,” Ms Wee said. “I couldn’t give mum an end date, she put everything on hold and we weren’t sure when she would be able to go back.”
Ms Wee said she was thrilled that Kurtis was now attending Willetton childcare centre, which she said was “perfect”.
Her experience mirrors that of so many Perth parents, for whom preparing the nursery, choosing a pram and deciding on a name is now accompanied by registering for child care.
Padbury mother Amanda Esterhuyse applied at a local childcare centre while she was pregnant and at another centre after her son Luke was born.
Eighteen months later both centres are still booked out, but she was able to get Luke into a third centre two weeks ago.
Until then Mrs Esterhuyse also had to call on her mother so she could return to work as a nurse one day a week, and she has decided against picking up an extra day’s work because of the difficulty with accessing child care.
She is now pregnant with her second child and facing the daunting task again.
“It is frustrating,” she said. “I was surprised. I really did not think it would take this long. It was lucky I had my mum, but there’s only so much she can do because she has other grandchildren.”
Both women were happy with the quality of care once they got it and said wait lists were not the fault of childcare providers, but evidence of a system that needed fixing.
The Productivity Commission agrees, finding in its draft report last week that the current system, costing the Federal Government $7 billion a year, was not flexible or affordable enough to meet the needs of families and to encourage more parents to work.
The commission heard countless tales from parents struggling to maintain their career while dealing with often inflexible and costly child care, while childcare centre operators told of growing demand coupled with pressures from the rollout of new national reforms.
Many said they were weighed down by red tape and paperwork and struggling to find and keep qualified staff.
As lists grow, a number of centres now charge a fee for parents to register their children. Some Mulberry Tree centres in Perth charge a $20 registration fee which is taken off the bill if parents accept a place at the centre, but is non-refundable if they don’t.
Lobby group The Parenthood has called for a ban on these fees, which executive director Fiona Sugden said was a “money-making exercise”.
Australian Childcare Alliance president Gwynn Bridge said maintaining these lists was time consuming, and charging fees would stop the problem of parents putting down their names and forgetting to take them off once they found a spot elsewhere.
The Productivity Commission estimates that its proposed overhaul of the system, which includes introducing a single, means-tested rebate and extending that rebate to include nannies, could result in at least 47,000 parents returning to work.
It believes its recommendations would cost about $800 million a year more than the current budget and suggests money earmarked for Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme would be better directed into child care.
Child Care Association of WA chief Rachelle Tucker hoped any future reform would address the fact the system was not providing the support that families need.
She urged caution on a recommendation to means-test all childcare rebates, which will leave families with a combined income of $160,000 or more worse off.
Rory Vassallo, a former CCAWA president and owner of 22 childcare centres until he sold them recently, said parents willing to travel “five minutes” would find child care.