The whole issue of childcare has been on my mind again recently.
I’m one of the lucky ones, in that – for now, at least – it isn’t an issue for me. I am the childcare. I’m here to take the children to school each morning and collect them at lunchtime/3.20 respectively. I’m here whenever we get the dreaded call that one of them is unwell. My husband and I no longer have that ill-tempered hissing standoff when it becomes apparent that one or more of the children will have to stay at home; that fraught under-the-desk text exchange as 5.30 approaches and neither of us is really in a position to leave the office in time to get to the nursery before it shuts.
There were other factors at play when I gave up work, but beyond the cost and the quality, the logistical considerations of childcare played a big role in our eventual decision. I may be a stay-at-home mum now, but I have the badges (and the scars) of being in a two-earner household with two children in nursery and no family on hand. I know the desperate tug of being unable to take time off while being unable to send a child in for the day; of unpredictable long days, travel and a partner who is often literally unreachable during office hours and childcare which, though adequate in quality and extensive in hours, just didn’t really meet our (and our children’s) needs.
It’s tempting always to brandish the badges and the scars when talking about work and childcare, but it’s counterproductive. I know well that we were lucky not to have to factor in zero-hours contracts, night shifts, health considerations, public transport or minimum wage pay-packets. That we were lucky to be “we”, and always to have had another parent on hand, no matter how inflexible their work requirements. That we were lucky, above all, to be able to opt out of the whole thing altogether for a few years.
The discussion shouldn’t hinge around the personal, but about the culture of work and childcare which is tending, increasingly, to insist that the latter is there purely to serve the former. Superficially, increasing the hours of school nurseries, for example, from 8am to 6pm to give parents more flexibility, as Liz Truss (among others) has called for is a step in the right direction in facilitating the two (although when we had those hours at our private day nursery, magically, they were never long enough). So is addressing the cost, which for many parents makes working unaffordable. My fear is, though, that the current debate does little to address the fundamental imbalance, the fundamental disconnect that working parents face: having to leave the “parent” side of themselves to one side when working.
Treating childcare like some kind of left luggage facility, where encumbrances can be safely stored out of sight and out of mind while the owner gets on with other things, causes as many problems as it solves. What about the circumstances when a child can’t go to nursery or childminder or school, or where a parent is put under pressure at work to do additional hours? What about the transport crises or other emergencies where no-one gets there to pick up until long after the setting has closed? What about the effect on children of consistently spending almost all of their waking hours away from home, only seeing their parents in small, stressed segments at the start and end of the day?
The push to get mothers back into work at pretty much any cost seems to be a unified one across all political parties, and I agree that no-one should be disbarred from employment purely because they cannot afford or access decent childcare. Nor do I think that childcare away from the home is inherently bad. All three of my children have benefitted hugely from time spent in dedicated settings, doing things I have neither the experience nor patience to do at home. Childcare alone can only be one part of the solution, though; one part of a balanced approach to childhood and family life.
At present, as a nation, we rely hugely on informal help from those around us to make childcare and work…work. Grandparents prop up many working families, unpaid and largely unsung. Parents who don’t work, or work part-time, provide slack in the system for friends, neighbours and relatives. If we force through expansion and take-up of childcare at the same time as using policy to increase employment among older people and mothers, we must pay more attention to the gaps around the edges of even the best childcare. We must ensure that employment rights are enhanced to allow parents to leave work or take time off at short notice, to leave bang on time, to be able to prioritise children over deadlines when necessary, to be, in short, a parent, without the taint of being a skiver and without fear of consequence. The trend in employment rights is, of course, in completely the opposite direction, with many mothers in particular finding that having a child pushes them, without remedy, out of the workplace altogether.
Children deserve more than to be treated as a nuisance; as baggage. We can find a way to demand that employers accommodate army service and time as a magistrate. Isn’t it a shame that we seem unable to approach reconciling employment and childcare with the same maturity and determination?