The invisible children

Luckily, I’m past the stage of needing to use the Parent & Child parking spaces at the supermarket. I still play the game of “spot the invisible child”, though: eyes peeled for that strange phenomenon afflicting people who nab a convenient place presumably on the basis of owning a parent, or having once been a child.

There are ripe pickings for “spot the invisible child” in politics, too. On a more serious level which I’m not qualified to discuss, there are severely disadvantaged youngsters, whether through poverty, neglect or unmet special needs, whose plight too often goes unmentioned. On a level that affects me personally, though, along with millions and millions of others, are the children in the current hot topic of “childcare”.

To listen to politicians and most media coverage, you’d be justified in thinking that it’s an issue which applies only to tots. There are endless reams of thinkpieces on the harm or otherwise of paid care for babies and toddlers; endless (and fiendishly complex) policy wrangles around entitlement to free childcare (or is it early years education?) for the 3s-and-unders.

And then, once those same tots hit school age, any suggestion that their wheareabouts outside lesson time might be problematic becomes harder to spot than a babyseat in the back of a souped-up Fiesta  (whose driver couldn’t possibly be expected to walk across the car park to the cashpoint).

Childcare, it seems, is only really something which the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) can conceive as being of concern to parents until their offspring toddle into Reception.

There are occasional salvoes about Breakfast Clubs! and After School! and Holiday Sessions! all with costings and logistical underpinnings which make Labour’s current manifesto woes come across like an excerpt from A Beautiful Mind and which combine to convey the impression that it’s not really that big a problem; that such things are nice-to-haves, rather than vitally necessary for the majority of us needing or wanting to combine work with parenthood.

It goes without saying that childcare costs are prohibitive for many families with very young children, and that this is a significant barrier to many women returning to work after maternity leave. Solving, or at least easing, this, however, is of limited value if the same woman then feels compelled to leave work a few years later when someone needs to be at the school gate at 8.55 and 3.20 each day, or the only holiday clubs are between 9 and 3 and she works 8.30-5, an hour away.

Subsidising her preschooler’s childcare is great, but it’s of little help when she’s then faced with 6 weeks of summer holidays and an eleven year old (thinking of no-one in particular) who can’t be relied upon to find a matching pair of socks, let alone be home by himself for ten hours a day.

Living away from family, I’ve experienced first hand the difference that affordable on-site wraparound care can make. In my case, it has literally been the difference between being able to return to work or not. Being fortunate enough to have an employer who takes the question of work-life balance and family commitments seriously, I’ve likewise learned how flexibility during holidays and illness can make combining work and care responsibilities possible. Even with these advantages, reaching the end of primary school with my eldest feels a bit like falling off a cliff; talking to other parents, I know I’m not alone in this, and yet it never even seems to warrant a mention.

I’ve yet to hear a single politician outline seriously how they’d strive to ensure the advantages of childcare and flexibility I’ve been able to access thus far would be made available to all parents, not just a lucky few.

As for any acknowledgement we’d care at all how things will work at eleven and over? It’s empty space, as far as I can see.

The fact that so many families muddle through due to grandparents on hand, or mothers (and it is almost always mothers) being forced out of work and/or into low paid or local roles shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a system that’s working. Achieving equality in the workplace and assessing the needs of those who need to balance earning and caring responsibilities needs to go well beyond the nappy years.

I remain passionately in favour of families choosing how best to structure their finances and employment to meet their own changing needs, but restricting employment options can’t be a good thing when so many of us will work for 30 or 40 years after our children start school, both on a personal level and in terms of maximising tax and NI intake.

There are not as many opportunities for cute photo ops with winsome toddlers, sure. But there’s definitely a bigger picture to see here.







3 thoughts on “The invisible children

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m self-employed and ten weeks pregnant with my first. My mum died when I was young, my mother in law is fully disabled. So I’m looking at doing childcare alone. Being self-employed means that my income is unpredictable. Some months I can earn £200, others £1500 which will make any Maternity Allowance I get feel futile. Please keep writing about parenting. I have many worries about how I’ll make it all work, and I need to know what to be aware of. Thanks for sharing everything you have done. 🙂

  2. This is such a huge issue. Where we live there is (expensive!) wraparound care for before and after school provided by a private company but they only look after children under 12. So basically once they leave primary school there is no childcare provision. A friend of mine had to give up her job last year when her son started secondary school as she doesn’t have any other help from grandparents etc, he could no longer use the wraparound care and local childminders also couldn’t take him. Technically I think childminders look after kids up to 16 but her experience was that nobody wanted to provide care for her older child. There was no way that she could leave him on his own every evening until 6pm never mind how she would juggle the holidays. Complete nightmare. Sadly I don’t think there is an answer right now and I can’t believe that nobody is tackling this problem!

  3. Thanks for this, with my eldest child due to head to primary school next year we are finding childcare is getting harder to sort out. We are just about coping with nursery – I’m now part time and my husband and I have opposite days off – as nursery is 51 weeks a year at least we have continuity butI’m dreading all the school holidays. I work 13 hour shifts, who does school holiday childcare to cover those? Even the tiny toe hold I have on a rung of the career ladder may be lost and we will be barely able to pay the bills with me working more school friendly hours. Not everyone has family who are able to provide such wrap around childcare, as you highlight this issue needs addressing.

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