All 3 main political parties in the U.K. seem to be falling over themselves to offer “affordable childcare” and “wrap-around” childcare. That way both sexes can have a career and the government can get more tax revenue and pay less welfare support. So popular is this mantra that “affordable childcare” is the purported solution for everything. Celebrity business woman Karren Brady’s solution to lack of female FTSE 100 board members? Affordable childcare. How to tackle lack of social mobility? Affordable childcare. How to get people off benefits? You guessed it – affordable childcare. It is incredulous that one social policy is supposed to do all of this. Even if it could be the solution, or part of the solution, what of the further problems it may cause? A generation of children, who become de facto parentless for the majority of their formative years.
Child psychologists have been banging on about the importance of the early years in child development for ages. Yet; somehow the message has not filtered through clearly to people. It is very unpopular these days to espouse the needs of young children over their parents’ employment and career progression; but this does not negate the fact that the first few years of a child’s life have an important bearing on its future.
The science is clear. Cognitively, social mobility has ended before it has begun. At school start, children can already be differentiated by social class with those in higher social classes having better vocabulary and readiness to read. From an emotional perspective, attachment theory speaks of life long consequences of difficulties in early parent-child relationships. From a psychiatric perspective, almost 75% of adult mental health problems are in evidence by age 18 years, 50% by age 15 years (Kim Cohen, 2003). Intense research has focused on earlier and earlier periods in child development and indeed yielding associations between how a child is at age 3 years with later psychopathology (Maughan et al., 2005). Whilst genetics will undoubtedly play a part, most genetically sensitive studies (studies that take into account the effects of genes by using twins and family members) of conditions from depression to personality and intelligence, still indicate significant environmental contribution with early environment purported to be a “sensitive” or “critical” period where environment is particularly important.
To me, parenting is one of the hardest and most important jobs in the world. Successful parents should be revered and given a gold medal in my book. Following the devastation of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a teenager whose mother, a doctor, had been killed was interviewed by the press. She commented “I want to be like my mother”, the interviewer said “A doctor?” she said “No, a great mother.” I love that quote. Being a doctor and a mother myself, I would far rather be remembered as a great mother than a great doctor, and mothers (and fathers) should be proud to identify themselves in this role, rather than solely for their occupation which seems so much so the case in our current society.
Although I personally believe that I am the best person to provide the care for my children and believe that parenting does involve sacrifices, I do not believe that parenting is about giving up your whole life for your children. This is neither necessary nor healthy. It typically ends up in resentment, over-involvement or some invested expectation in their outcome. Therefore, I chose to continue to work, but put limits in place to ensure that I was still there for my children. For me, this meant that I left work at 5pm every day[i] (my husband at 6:30pm most days at my insistence) and fully engaged with my children for an hour or two before bedtime (no phones, no screens, and no distractions) and spent the entirety of the weekends and holidays focused on them. No musical performance, school play, sports day, parents-in-school/ nursery activity for either child has ever passed without parental presence. This is very hard work as every working parent knows, but I think it is possible to generate enough quality time this way to sustain children’s needs. After four years of this, I went part time so I could pick my children up from school at least part of the week, but I have always continued to work.
By disentangling the importance of early parenting from the fear that this may mean requirement of parents to give up their careers, I think we would achieve a greater consensus in support of the value of early parenting. However, any support of non-parental childcare must come with the caveat that this does not negate the need for parenting. Those that chose to work, need to fit in the same quality parenting on top of their work roles. Childcare is not parenting, neither is reading the paper at the weekend while the children watch TV, or the crèche at the ski resort. If no ‘parenting’ is happening in the working week, it needs to be done at the weekends and in the holidays. Managing parenting and full-time work can be a hard ask, however given the rise in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services throughout the U.K., we can not afford to neglect the parenting message when we talk about increasing childcare.
My view is that there are better solutions to work-life balance than extensive childcare.
Rather than “affordable childcare”, we should be focusing on pushing for achieving a 50:50 split in domestic responsibility with our partners, flexible working hours, job-share, well-paid, high status reduced hours jobs, family-friendly policies and innovating on new ways of working for both men and women.
I believe that the decision you make as to who looks after your children in the early years, is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life as a parent. The quality of the childcare is paramount whether it is provided by the parent, child-minder, relative or nursery. By quality, I do not just mean “safe”, but supportive, nurturing, stimulating, engaging and child focused. Many people think that as babies and toddlers “do not do much” that all they need is to be fed, watered, changed and kept out of danger. This is so far from the truth. At this age, brain development is happening at its most rapid rate ever and this is the purported time that environment will have the greatest impact. Quality is paramount; affordability is secondary.
Unless you believe that you can eat lots of cake and not get fat, then the idea of the government providing affordable “quality” childcare is laughable. Since when has the government or any private company been able to deliver “quality” on a shoestring? An acceptable product or service perhaps; but never the highest quality. I’m all for saving money; I pick meat out of a fish head to make fishcakes; yet, when it comes to childcare, I’m not doing budget or flat-pack.
I’m savvy enough to realise that not all that is attached to a high price tag is high quality. In fact, in my view the bulk of expensive stuff is not worth the money. However, where a truly high quality product or service does exist, it generally is not cheap. There may be the odd exception, but when it comes to nurseries, I cannot imagine that there are anywhere close to sufficient “affordable high quality” state or privately owned nurseries to provide for the demand.
Provisional results from Ofsted on “Overall effectiveness: the quality and standards of the provision” of active early years providers at their most recent inspection (June 2013) found only 12% of 67,708 providers to be outstanding. If affordability is taken into account, it is likely that this percentage will fall below 10%.
My son’s Ofsted outstanding nursery is costing me a wapping £1,580 a month. I am happy to pay this princely sum because I know the value that I am getting[ii]; however, I am certain this is not what the government means by “affordable”; given that a doctor’s substantial salary was wiped clean by having 2 children in childcare at this price. It is also not as though the nursery is serving the children caviar for tea, but the majority outlay is to retain excellent and experienced staff. It is likely that like my children’s nursery, a significant proportion of the 12% of “outstanding early years’ providers” are not affordable for the majority of parents. Reflecting on these statistics one can only imagine the political parties’ election pledges of “affordable high quality childcare” are pie in the sky.
I have no problem with affordability, the lower the price the better, the more government subsidy the better; but the emphasis needs to be on “high-quality” childcare before we can even think about affordability.
I cannot fathom how affordable childcare is going to lead to the ascent of womankind. I do not agree with Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) that there are scores of able women out there who slack off on their careers waiting on “Mr Right” to come along and give them babies. Rather the opposite. My generation (born 1975-1985) of successful women were outsmarting their male counterparts throughout school and University and equalling men on pay through their twenties. For me, it was only at the time of pregnancy and childbirth with my first child that the realities of the unequal society we live in slapped me in the face, and at the birth of my second child that I realised that my pre-natal ambitions of becoming a “Professor in Child Psychiatry” were toast. Lack of ambition, “leaning in” and “affordable childcare” were not the problem. As a female colleague of mine put it “I didn’t think I needed to be a feminist as things were equal, until I had a baby and then I realised that they weren’t. Then I was too tired to be able to do anything about it.”
If we are looking on women to shatter-glass, we are talking about the high flyers. The fact stares you in the face. For the majority, THESE WOMEN CAN AFFORD CHILDCARE! It is NOT affordable childcare that these women need. Instead, high-flying mothers are faced with inflexible corporations that value an ethos of face-time over productivity, demanding the lives of their employees (male and female) to be at their mercy. Fortunately for the senior male employees seeking favour for promotion, they usually have a wife that has subsumed the entirety of the parent role so that they can be ever available to their male bosses who also have wives that allow them to be ever present at work to oversee the tyranny. A survey of top executives in the U.S.A found that while 84% of men were married with children, only 49 percent of the women were (Mason, 2013). That statistic says it all.
High flying mothers (and fathers) who wish to see their children are forced out at this stage to the detriment of the nation’s economy and investment already made in this talented pool of people. Amongst my peers, Christina, a high flying lawyer took a redundancy package. This was despite a tax-payer funded law degree from Cambridge University. She is doing contract legal work on an ad hoc basis, but by no means utilising her full qualifications and potential. Kerry, a London Business School MBA graduate turned down a 6 figure salary at a multi-national to look after her children. She had a tax-payer funded humanities degree from Oxford University. Daisy, an executive at a major internet company gave up her 6 figure salary to look after her children, despite a degree from North Western, U.S.A. The cynical will interpret this to mean “We shouldn’t waste money on educating women”, but these women are better at their jobs than a majority of men. They could have participated in growing the economy and contributed to better decision making in mixed-sex boardrooms, had they been given more options.
They are all great mothers with really lovely children, so who can blame them for downscaling their career ambitions for the sake of their families. The decision to give up a career is ultimately a “personal and family decision”, but I believe that outdated societal roles, laws and policies have a huge part to play in this, pushing women between a rock and a hard place when making their “personal decision”. The wasted talent is there for all to see if people would stop turning a blind eye and calling it a “personal decision”. Most women given the choice between a bullet to their head or the head of their child would choose a bullet to their own head. This does not make the act a “personal choice”. Women’s roles and ambitions have changed, but men’s roles and ambitions remain exactly the same. If women were to adopt the same attitudes as men regarding their careers, ultimately, the children would suffer so I am glad that most women have not seen “masculinization” as the solution to inequality.
It was at the point of my second pregnancy, at the realisation that my career ambitions had to change that I felt supremely conned by the message that I had heard loud and clear at my high-flying all-girl’s school: “aim high”, “achieve”, “women can succeed in all walks of life now”. I wondered whether at the neighbouring boy’s schools they had teachers telling them “you too can have a loving relationship with your children”, “you can get to know your children and be the most important person in their life” and somehow, I didn’t think so. I wondered why, as a woman of substantial salary, albeit lower than my husbands, I felt immense pressure to be the parent that was there for my children and to subsume the childcare responsibility role? Many men in my position, such as Mr Blair and Mr Clegg (famous for having more financially successful wives) clearly had no such problem. It doesn’t matter how much women earn or how successful they are, society still seems to view childcare (whether the direct provision or supervision) as the woman’s domain. I know for a fact that my children’s school and nursery will call me first, rather than my husband, for anything related to our children, even though they have both our numbers. He will only get a call if I am unavailable.
It is no wonder that men, including many of our own beloved husbands, are blissfully happy with their lot. Fearful of the coming tides of change that will inevitably drag them out of their offices and into the kitchens, they offer up childcare as the solution, more and more and more of it. At what cost to children and family life?
At present many a successful woman is saying “No” to this, opting to take the hit on their own careers. This is the “White Elephant” in the room; the last hiding place of “sexism”. It is not just the white haired man sitting opposite women in the boardroom that is ignoring the taps at the glass ceiling. It is also the greying man snoring next to them in the bedroom. Whilst most men are doing more with their children than their fathers, the majority are way off doing 50% of childcare.
In conclusion, I hate “affordable childcare” because it is merely the sound-bite solution politicians are offering to sweeten voters (largely female) who are concerned about equality. It is neither realistic nor the real solution that we seek. Social mobility will not be aided as unless childcare is free, the supermarket checkout lady will still be unable to afford it. Retaining excellent women will not be helped if women wish to be actively involved with their children. With affordable childcare, a majority of middle class families may break even with salary covering childcare, a minority of middle class families may have more money in their pockets; but at what cost to family life, parental and child wellbeing? Extensive childcare passes the buck from women to children, when ideally this load should be shared between women, men and society. Thankfully, times are a-changing. I feel that I am at the start of a new generation of women with increased power in the home and workplace who will insist on change and with the advent of shared parental leave; one can only hope that this is the start of a flood of legislative change that may mean that my daughter, as well as my son, will fulfil her ambitions.
I repeat: We should be focusing on pushing for achieving a 50:50 split in domestic responsibility with our partners, flexible working hours, job-share, well paid, high status part-time or reduced hour positions, family-friendly policies, and innovating on new ways of working for both men and women.
Kim Cohen, J., Caspi, A., Moffit, T.E., Harrington, H., Milne, B.J., & Poulton, R. (2003). Prior juvenile diagnoses in adults with mental disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 60, 709-717.
Maughan, B. & Kim Cohen, J. (2005). Continuities between childhood and adult life. British Journal of Psychiatry, 187, 301-303.
Mason, M. (2013). In the ivory tower, men only. www.slate.com, June 17, 2013
[i] You might say, “Well, you are lucky that you can leave your job at 5pm, but I can’t.”; but the truth is that you “can’t” in my job either (prior to having children, I was regularly at work till 6:30-7:30pm), but I just did. Did my employers care? Hell yes! Did I care? Well, yes of course, my glowing career prospects were severely tarnished; but offer me the choice again of “tarnished career prospects” and “absent parent” and I will make the same choice again. My husband is a banker; and “Yes”, even they can leave on time if you nag enough. I told him to go to work as early as he liked, 5am if need be, but to leave on time to preserve time with HIS children.
[ii] What difference can quality make? I learnt the hard way. Having experienced sending Big Sis to a nursery that I was dissatisfied with, which later received an Ofsted “satisfactory” report, and then changing her nursery to an Ofsted “outstanding” nursery the difference was marked. I will give you just one example but there were many others: Big Sis was bitten or scratched by other children in her class at least 10 to 15 times in her 18 month career at her first nursery. Other children in her class were also being bitten and scratched and we parents almost had to form a line to sign the incident forms when we collected our children. We would be told that a new toddler had been admitted to the class who had not yet been “socialised” by the nursery but that they would get the child under control soon. Only then, they would admit another “unsocialised” child. Eventually I had to sign an incident form saying that Big Sis had bitten another child (although she never bit anyone at home), and to tell the truth, I was rather glad that Big Sis was retaliating rather than being a teething ring for the other children. After Big Sis transferred to the Ofsted Outstanding nursery she was bitten once and scratched once in a period of 28 months. She didn’t bite anyone. Lil Bro, who has only known the outstanding nursery has never been bitten or scratched and has never bitten another child at nursery. He has bitten his sister at home so it is not as if he is a particularly placid non-biting child. In my experience, biting is a very normal aggressive reaction in children and most children in the 0-3 year age group will do it at some point. Initially when Big Sis was being bitten at nursery, I was sympathetic to the nursery as I am aware that “all children bite”, however, on witnessing how much less this type of behaviour was occurring at a well- run nursery I am pretty sure that the level of biting was related to the nursery’s care.