Now that the children are a little older, I am finding that I finally have time to look in the mirror. This is a very depressing past-time as over the last 9 years, I appear to have aged 90 years. Bags under the eyes, lines traversing the face, spare tyre around the tummy and plenty of black hair turned grey! Some of these aspects I find acceptable (crows feet while not exactly welcome, are a sign of a life spent smiling) or readily remedied (thanks L’Oreal) – and I may finally get to claw back some benefit from that under-utilised gym membership. What I found very frightening was to see the piles of dyed black hair clogging up the plug hole of my bath every time I washed my hair. Hair-loss – extremely frightening. There was definitely a bit at my hairline which looked thinner than previously and I started to find the jokes that I had made about my husband’s retreating hairline less amusing. (When he had denied any hair loss, I had told him that he should tattoo his hairline and then we would have physical evidence of whether or not he was receding – funny I thought at the time, not so funny now that I am suffering the same fate!).
So when I next trotted off to the hair salon to get a hair cut; I wow-ed at the massive poster in the window which promised “Thicker, fuller hair could be yours” with a whole new product range targeted at thinning hair. Even for evidence-based scientists, rationality goes out the window when faced with fear and the potential of hope, however unlikely. The hairdresser was kind enough to doubt my need for the product but was only too happy to sell me the entire range given my disposition. He warned me “It works on your scalp so if you feel it tingling on your scalp, you’ll know it’s working.”
Over the next two weeks, I diligently used the entire product range, and indeed, soon after I felt a tingling on my scalp. “Ooh, I can really feel it working!” I thought to myself and liberally applied more product. The tingling got stronger. I inspected my hair daily. “Hmm” I thought to myself, my hair is looking fuller. More product slapping. Hang about, this product is starting to itch more than tingle now. That must be a sign of all the new hairs that are sprouting out of my scalp, because I know that when new hairs grow they can sometimes itch. More product. What fabulous hair I now have, well worth the itch because as everyone knows: “you must suffer for beauty”.
A week later, I was clearing out the detritus of school letters and notes that had formed at the bottom of Big Sis’s school bag. Oops, I have not yet paid the school dinner money. Thank goodness, I am in time to give permission to a school trip.
Then, I saw it and the penny dropped.
“There has been an outbreak of nits in your child’s class”.
It was quite something other than new-age, hair-growing potion that had been working on my scalp and my vain mis-belief had led me to tolerate it blindly!
For the next 3 weeks instead of gentle, herbal, hair-regeneration and scalp renewal product, I was in the chemist hoarding chemical agents, the more toxic the better. None of the homeopathic agents for me, I was for all-out chemical warfare and instead of wishing for hair growth, I was happily pulling out my own hair with a fine toothed nit comb shouting “Out damn nits!”
Vanity really doesn’t pay.
Yes! The kids are finally back at school and the extracurricular circus is almost organised. For those sensible enough to avoid enrolling children into a hundred and one activities, I salute you – because really, the logistics are too much! Having been rather gung-ho on the extra-curricular clubs when Big Sis and Lil Bro were little, I am now paying the price. The plan had been to shove them into as many classes as possible during the 3 days that I work and grandma looks after them. This was a vain attempt to stop said grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans for 3 hours each day. Instead, they were taken to some life-skill enhancing activity: ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess before 2 hours of grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans. Don’t ask me how come my beloved mother who locked me in my room until I could recite my times-tables at the age of 5 years, and who I had been counting on to knock some discipline into my kids has transformed into dobby the house elf.
Anyhoo, the unforseen pig of it all is that as the kids get older, the darn things get better at their life-enhancing skills and progress to different classes which are now OUTSIDE my 3 working days and the kids are back watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and being fed chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans on my work days, while I am left slogging them to ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess on days when I am in charge. Don’t even ask about the crazy timetabling because Big Sis’s swimming now clashes with Lil Bro’s street dance, and I have to fathom if logistically I can get from the piano teacher to the swimming pool in 10 minutes…(I’m thinking potentially possible if Big Sis plays piano in her swimming costume). Man it sucks.
The good news is that not only has daily life returned after the chaos of the holidays because the kids are back in their school routine again, but my blogging life has returned – (Yay!). I’m hoping that some of you may have missed me (yes – I am talking to you dear sister) and will pick back up where we left off for the fortnightly Friday blogs.
In explanation of my long absence, I am pleased to say that much fun was had the last 6 months indulging the fantastic and unreal opportunity to pen a parenting book. Bluebird, the life-style imprint behind the lovely Joe Wicks and his midget trees have backed and bought my story. Thank You! I am so looking forward to this crazy new journey which is a world away from cutting NHS waiting times.
They say that there is a book in all of us and many people harbour a dream of writing a book. Many of us have half written manuscripts in our dusty drawers or notebooks and hard drives of half-formed ideas. For decades I was one of them. My aged computer still contains very early drafts of a parenting book that I had the audacity to pen before even having children. Needless to say, these naïve and sentimental ponderings were a pile of crap and if the me of today had encountered the me of then, I’d have spared no hesitation in giving myself a tight slap and saying: “Have you ever met a child you twat?” Although I don’t think that you need to be a parent to give advice on parenting, an ounce of realism helps.
And so it turns out that although having children was the nail in the coffin of my treadmill professional career, being chucked off the treadmill gave me time and opportunity to explore other areas of myself and take a chance on an old and buried dream. It was the beginning of this new journey. What has been a heartening realisation is that while my having children was seen by my traditional profession as a weakness, for my writing it has been my greatest strength. I can only encourage others that if ever you fail because of a “weakness”, just change the story and it may turn out that your “weakness” is your greatest strength.
And if you have a dusty notebook or neglected files on your hard drive, maybe it’s time to have another look…
Whoa! Where did September go?
Apologies for going quiet for a month but things have been hectic, what with school start, new job and September being conference season for child psychiatrists. The last month has been about patch working childcare and prioritising, which sadly meant no time to blog. I’m hoping that it will calm down a bit now that October is here. Phew!
Unfortunately the new and hard won London NHS Consultant job has meant that I can no longer drop off the children at school on the 3 days a week that I work. I am not quite sure who worked out the logistics that school should start at 8:50 am, and work should start at 9am, because who in London can get to work in 10 minutes….? And which childminder would want to come for just an hour of work in the morning to take children to school?
Then there was the afterschool care. I am lucky that my mother has always taken the children 2 days a week after school. I say, “lucky” – but of course, luck has little to do with it. I purposefully moved home to the other side of London from my job expressly for this purpose so I have to endure a 75 minute commute each way. I just had one afternoon to fill, so a Nanny or Au Pair was not needed, and I had fought hard to get a part-time job to stave off this need for full-time childcare. After meeting a few young ladies over the summer that might have potentially been able to take the kids after school a day a week, I settled on one and sat on my laurels thinking the problem was solved. One week before school start and I text to confirm arrangements, only she has disappeared off the face of the earth. I suddenly felt immensely sick that just as I was about to return to “a career” where I had left off, I was struck down again by the nagging problem “who will look after my kids?”
I thought about starting a breakfast club at the school with a rota of parents or paying a parent of another child in Big Sis or Lil Bro’s class to take them. I looked into which other parents might be interested. And as each cock-a-mamy plan fell through, the same sinking feeling. It was then that I had my revelation. The solution was so simple that looking back I cannot believe that I didn’t think of it immediately.
Before I tell you the solution, I want to share with you an old brain teaser:
A teenage boy who grew up having never met his father has a terrible road traffic accident. He is rushed to hospital and straight into emergency theatre, the surgeons gather around ready to operate, but just then the lead surgeon looks at the boy’s face and gasps saying “I can’t operate, this is my son”. What has happened?
Before you make some sort of long winded reply about how the surgeon recognised the boy to be his son because they looked so similar, I will tell you that the answer is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Yes, a FEMALE lead surgeon.
And so, you can see how many of us can be blinded by gender stereotypes. Hopefully, you might fathom that my solution to my childcare problems was to make Banker involved. Yes – men can do childcare! He was made to drop the children at school, at least one of the days I was at work, and also told to make arrangements for the children to go to after school club once a week. Why should I be the only one suffering an ulcer over this?
Just as I was taken aback by my realisation that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, he too was surprised to be asked! I am amazed that he had sat through my endless rantings of “maybe we could pay so-and-so to take the children”, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his, and he could offer a solution. There ensued of course the typical grumblings… “important job”… “impossible” … “money” … “promotion”… “blah” … “blah” …”blah”.
However, I was lucky enough to know that one of his colleagues was able to wrangle a late start to drop his children off at school a few days a week. You see this colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children following a divorce such that he could have the privilege of taking them to school half of the week. So I pointed out to my darling banker that I was offering him exactly this privilege without the expense of divorce and custody battle. Bargain!
Humour aside though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility, why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. I for one would like some time off from the thinking and planning as well as the doing. And how come good divorced fathers are so great at arranging time off “important” work to be with their kids?
Contentious, but I will put it out there just for contention: Maybe if they had always done so they mightn’t be divorced?
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a professor. She asked me how my children were. Being conscious that my part-time status should not account for nothing, I bragged:
“Oh, my daughter is in the final of the Borough Poetry competition and my 5 year old son is playing chess”.
What surprised me was her response.
“Oh – you see, that proves it’s all “G””
(G is the behavioural geneticists’ abbreviation for genetic effect – yes, we behavioural geneticists actually do talk in terms of “G” and “E” (environmental effect) in common parlance rather than actual coherent words).
“Oh” I said, “I was about to say that it proves it’s all “E””.
Of course, we all know that both “G” and “E” play an effect in outcome, but it is funny to see how (even in two people that study it) our interpretation of science is coloured by our own personal view; or perhaps rather, we skew the science to suit our own needs and to support our chosen behaviours.
My personal view is that parenting matters. I would not have gone part-time and sacrificed career advancement if I did not believe that I would be making a significant positive impact on the outcome of my children. I am more likely to see positive outcomes in my children as being directly related to my input, rather than what would have happened regardless if I was there or not.
If you believe that outcomes are solely genetically determined, then parenting no longer becomes important, and you may as well excel at work and farm out childcare. Equally, if you have chosen to excel at work and farm out childcare, it would suit you very well to believe that “it’s all about G”.
So here’s the route to Big Sis’s poetry success and how come Lil Bro is playing chess at 5 years, and you can decide for yourself on the G and E in these instances.
Big Sis is good with words. She is interested in them and from as young as 3 years she would always ask questions about the meaning of words:
Big Sis: What does imagination mean?
Me: It’s something that you think about in your head.
Later, when I asked her to concentrate on colouring within the lines:
Big Sis: What does concentration mean?
Me: It’s when you use your head to think about something.
Big Sis: No. That’s your imagination.
At that point, I bought her a dictionary so that she did not need to rely on my lack of defining prowess; the point being that she was interested in words and their meaning from a young age and I provided her with the tools to pursue this.
In addition, I read to Big Sis (and Lil Bro) every night from the age of 1 year, until they could read chapter books for themselves, and I will still read to them more challenging books when we are on holiday. I will define (to the best of my ability) difficult words and ask questions to check that they understand what I have read to them.
I have a book of poems my sisters and I wrote when we were Big Sis’s age. My father encouraged us to write them and he had them bound in a fancy book. They are absolutely hideous (all basic rhymes and no substance – “I love school. It’s so cool.” – you get the tragic idea) but strangely appealing to young children. Sometimes I would get this book out and read them to the children.
When I found out that Big Sis was studying poetry at school, I went to Waterstones to buy TS Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. We have a well-loved cat, and so I thought that this would be an accessible poetry choice for Big Sis. Indeed it was. We read all the poems together. Lil Bro takes to Macavity, Big Sis to the Pekes and the Pollicles. We will soon be taking advantage of the return of the “Cats” musical at the West End.
In one poem, TS Elliot says “How else can a cat keep its tail perpendicular?”
Big Sis asked for a definition of “perpendicular”.
I explained that it means when something is at right-angles to something else. I stand up and demonstrate with my arms perpendicular. At that moment, our cat jumps out from under the bed with her tail up. “There look” – I say pointing, “that’s what it means to have a tail that is perpendicular.” Big Sis understands.
“But”, I say to Big Sis, “I think that Mr Elliot has another meaning when he asks this.”
“Show me what you look like when you are sad or ashamed of yourself.”
Big Sis, the master of drama, slumps and hunches over; slinking away.
“Now show me how you look when you are proud.”
Big Sis sits up straight and tall.
“Look”, I say, “You are “perpendicular” to the ground when you are proud. I think this is what TS Elliot means; he is talking about pride rather than the position of the cat’s tail.”
Later, Big Sis is practising ballet moves in the hallway.
“Mum!” She shouts.
“My leg is perpendicular.”
Lil Bro has always had excellent spatial awareness. One Christmas just after his second birthday I thought about presents to get him. Being Chinese, the first toys that come to mind are educational ones. I thought I would get him a jigsaw, something he could realistically manage like a 3-piece. His Aunty, who is also Chinese and so of the same “educational toys” mind set also buys him jigsaws – Thomas the Tank Engine ones; only, she has no children and so did not appreciate how many pieces a 2 year old could realistically do – and bought him 6, 10 and 12 piece jigsaws.
One evening, I was cooking dinner so I put Lil Bro at the table with the 3 piece jigsaws. He wanted the Thomas ones, so I put those out as well, just to keep the peace while I cooked. The next minute, I turned around and there he was sitting with the 6 piece puzzle completed. I nearly dropped my saucepan.
“OK, then clever clogs” I thought, here’s the 10 piece.
That was also pretty much consumed.
My Christmas present was a complete waste of money, he never did 3-pieces. By the time he was 3, 24-35 piece jigsaws were no problem. We even played “Jigsaw-offs” – infant versus geriatric; where Lil Bro and my mother would race as to who could finish an identical 24 piece jigsaw faster. Lil Bro was victorious.
By 4 years old 50 and 72 pieces were fine. By that time, I had emptied out several toyshops of their jigsaws.
At weekends, when Big Sis was at her swimming lesson, Lil Bro and I would sit in the coffee shop next door and eat porridge. The coffee shop had chess and draughts sets for customers to play with. To kill the time, I taught Lil Bro to play draughts and then chess. I am not the greatest chess player myself. I tend to take pieces with no overarching strategy; pretty much ending most games with no conclusion as my bishop and king chase the opponent’s knight and king hopelessly around the board. Still, by 4 years, Lil Bro knew how the pieces moved. I installed a chess game on to the ipad at home and encouraged the children to play it.
By chance, there is a chess club that runs in the same community centre that the children go to Chinese classes at (they go to be at one with being “Chinese” – their Chinese is even more hopeless than mine). One day, Lil Bro, aged 4 years said “I want to go there and play chess”. Given that the time clashed with their Chinese class. I said it wasn’t possible, but when it came to the summer holidays, I asked if they wanted to go to Chess Summer Camp for a week.
Big Sis was not keen.
I said to Lil Bro, “Your sister doesn’t want to go. Are you sure you want to go, even on your own?”
He said yes.
I went to check with the Chess Camp leader – wasn’t he too young?
The Chess Camp leader said some of the best players in the club were 5-6 year olds. Still, I wasn’t happy to send Lil Bro on his own and I eventually managed to twist Big Sis’s arm to go with him.
After a week of chess camp, and the initial enthusiasm, we carried on playing chess occasionally now and then. I didn’t think anything further on it. Then 3 months later, Lil Bro says to me “I want to go to chess club”.
Man! I thought. I wrack the local websites for chess clubs that are not going to clash with their Chinese class and are not too expensive. Finally, I find a cheap club on a Saturday afternoon at the local library. It’s good, but there is one teacher to eight children at greatly varying ages and abilities. Plus, smack bang in the middle of Saturday afternoon is not the most convenient time.
I get the chess teacher’s contact details. I ring around a few mothers I know whose children might be interested in chess. I set up a chess club for 3 boys after school in a local coffee shop.
So…what do you make of it?
My view is this: clearly, both Big Sis and Lil Bro have genetic predispositions to be good at certain things. I come from a family of mathematicians and engineers; Banker from a family of lawyers and linguists. Go figure that these genes are knocking about our chromosomes.
But can that be all?
What if I hadn’t been there to notice?
What if I had noticed but done nothing about it?
What if I had noticed it but derided intellectual pursuits and tried to knock it out of them?
I am pretty sure that Big Sis would still have enjoyed and been good at writing and Lil Bro would have found chess by himself at a later age. But would they have been in the final of a poetry competition at age 7 years, and been playing chess aged 5 years?
Do these things matter?
Might they not reach the same end-point in adulthood?
That is the more interesting question that is so hard to answer because of the lack of the counter-factual. But my view is this: if life is a journey and your outcome is your destination; genes will drop you off at the airport. If you are lucky it will be London City Airport, if you are not so lucky it will be Luton Airport Parkway. Parenting provides your back-pack: it can be empty; or it can be full of maps, restaurant and hotel reviews, travel guides, good books, a compass, a thermos of cocoa and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. It might not be everything you need, but it sure helps you on the way.
Ultimately, where you go from there is up to you.
It is ironic that for many of us one of the first major choices we have when we become a parent is about who else is going to “parent” our baby. If you are going down the nursery route, this decision often has to be made prenatally depending on the length of time you wish to take for maternity leave and the waiting list time on your local nurseries.
When I first went about looking for a nursery for Big Sis, I didn’t have a clue what I should be looking for. Inevitably, I made a wrong decision and I was unhappy with the nursery (Nursery A) that I initially chose for Big Sis. The problem being that when you are required to make this decision, you are still in the mind-set of someone without children, someone whose priority is themselves and their work. Not yet a parent, whose priority is their child. With this hat on, decisions regarding childcare are made with the priorities of cost, convenience and ease of getting to and from work, not necessarily the priority that you have once you actually ARE a parent.
I had chosen Nursery A as it was close to the tube station, was located in a beautiful Victorian house, was brand new and had designer furniture for children, a computer room, a sensory room, a music room and offered baby yoga and science lessons. I was given my own electronic fob to get in and out of the nursery building and on-line access to the nursery’s CCTV cameras allowing me to see what Big Sis was up-to from the comfort of my computer at work. Formula milk, nappies, sun screen etc. were all included in the fees meaning all I had to do was drop off my baby in the morning, and the nursery operating hours were long (early drop off and late pick-up) so I could meet my work commitments. Staff advertised themselves for evening babysitting sessions. Oh, and there was an organic kitchen on-site. Why wouldn’t any working parent choose this nursery?
It was only when I realised my mistake (that I had been woo-ed by aesthetics and meeting my own needs) and moved Big Sis along with Lil Bro to a different nursery (Nursery B) that I realised what a nursery was supposed to be about. The child.
Nursery B was further from the tube station, had more modest grounds, smaller and more old-fashioned classrooms, no designated music room or computer room, no electronic fobs or CCTV, late drop-off and early pick-ups (making getting to work on time pretty hard) and the requirement to provide your own milk, nappies, and sun screen (such that there were regular rebukes from staff when you forgot one thing or another). Yet it had a waiting list a mile long. Both nurseries had a similar fee. I realised that none of the “extras” were relevant. The management and staff at Nursery B were excellent. That is all that matters. Nursery B’s operation was aimed at the children, not designed to suit and woo parents. But how can you tell this when you visit?
Here are my tips for what to look for so you can get it right first time:
“What is the atmosphere like?”
“Do the children there enjoy going to the nursery?”
“What is the food like? Is it cooked on site?”
“What activities do the children do?”
“What are the facilities like?”
“Where do the children sleep?”
“Are the premises clean, safe, inviting and child friendly?”
“What is the policy for children with special needs/ allergies/ medical conditions?”
“What are the policies for if your child is sick?”
“What are the nursery opening and closing times and how many days of the year is the nursery open?”
“Do the staff appear warm, competent and knowledgeable?”
“Is there any outdoor space?”
“What are the fees?” – I don’t think you’ll forget this one. Remember to bring a hanky as the response will be eye-watering.
Check the Ofsted Report
I cannot stress the importance of checking out a nursery’s Ofsted report and rating. Ofsted is the government agency that inspects all schools and childcare provisions in the UK. They report on all manner of things from the built environment, health and safety procedures and management. This might all seem extremely mundane and irrelevant when all you want is lovely, bubbly, staff that are going to welcome and cuddle your baby, but for anyone that has worked for any type of institution or business before, the competence of management matters. Within the NHS, it is evident that competent managers can instil high service standards, efficient service and good employee morale. The reverse is also true, and this is as true for nurseries as the NHS. If you can, go for an Ofsted Outstanding nursery. Big Sis’s first nursery had newly opened and had not been inspected at the time Big Sis started, but when it was inspected, it achieved a “satisfactory” ranking (two levels below “Outstanding”) which confirmed my doubts about it and precipitated my moving her to Outstanding nursery B, which lived up to its Ofsted rating. Prior to experiencing first hand the difference between “satisfactory” and “outstanding”, I thought – it can’t make much difference – “good” is “good” right? Well orange squash also tastes pretty good until you try Champagne. As most people choose a nursery and stick to it, they never usually get to know just what a difference a nursery can make. If you feel you have made a wrong choice like I did, it is ALWAYS worth changing.
Experience the management
As well as checking out the objective management ratings on the Ofsted report, check it out for yourself. A well-managed nursery would ensure that the phones were answered promptly and that if they say they will get back to you, they do. How well organised and managed is the viewing that they give you of the nursery? How senior are the staff that are showing you around? If you do not think that these administrative things matter, then think about how much they would matter if your child were at that nursery. What if no one answered the phone when you were ringing the nursery to convey an important message about your child? What if staff tell you they will do something for your child, but they don’t? If senior staff are not there to show you around, are they ever there? The best functioning services are ones where administration and front line staff are both working efficiently under effective and accessible senior management. At nursery B the senior manager was on site every day and knew the name of every child.
Ask about staff turnover
In my mind, effectively looking after young children is not something that can easily be done if you are not happy (if you don’t believe me you can extrapolate this from lots of post natal depression literature). If a nursery has high staff turnover then I cannot imagine that the staff can be very happy working there. During Big Sis’s 18 month time at nursery A, her “mentor” or “Key worker” changed 3 times because of staff resignations. The nursery manager also changed 3 times. This discontinuity of staff cannot make for stable attachments and relationships with the children and indicate that there is something unsatisfactory systemically that is preventing people from wanting to remain employed there. If staff are unhappy in their jobs, how can they provide the highest standard of care for your child? The average time that the key staff had been in place at nursery B was 9 years. As the fees for both nurseries were the same, it was clear that where one had chosen to spend the fee on aesthetics and extras to woo parents, the other had chosen to spend on training, valuing and retaining key and experienced staff. I know which matters more to me.
Ask about incident forms and how they manage difficult children
Big Sis was bitten or scratched by other children in her class at least 10 to 15 times in her 18 month career at nursery A. 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 nursery B 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 (or lack of).
The nursery may not tell you, but it is worth asking about the level of incident reports as this is data that they are obliged to collect, so they should have it (although of course bear in mind that the very worst nurseries will have the lowest levels of incident reports, as they will be negligent on keeping up their reporting).
Examine how well the staff know the children
It is difficult to assess this. All nurseries will put forward their best people to do viewings with prospective parents. It is important to view as many staff as possible and be able to quiz them, and ask them questions, rather than limit questions to the member of staff showing you around, who will have been selected as knowledgeable. In real life, this person will likely have little to do with looking after your child as they are too busy showing other prospective parents around. Try and ask a random member of staff questions like:
“Do you like working here?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“How many children are in your class?”
“How many children are you directly responsible for?”
“How many children in your class have got food allergies, who are they and what exactly are they allergic to?”
Point at a random child and ask: “What’s this child’s favourite activity?”, “Who are his friends?”, “What makes him upset?”
If you have a child with food allergies like I have, it is absolutely paramount that all members of staff know who your child is and their allergies. I have heard of nurseries where children have been given foods that they are allergic to. Nursery B went the extra mile. Not only did all staff know Lil Bro and his exceptional dietary requirements, rather than excluding Lil Bro from cooking activities on account of his dairy, wheat and egg allergies, they bought him his own mixing bowl, and baking utensils. It’s this attention to detail that makes a nursery “outstanding”.
Interrogate parents of children that already attend
As well as confirming the standard information, find out how well the staff know the parents. At nursery A, the majority of staff, aside from the staff in Big Sis’s room had no idea who I was even though I dropped off and picked up Big Sis almost every day. I would have to say “I’m Big Sis’s mum” daily. At nursery B, everyone from manager, kitchen staff, to receptionist to teachers in other classes knew whose mother I was on sight. This is really good, and a credit to the management. You might think this is irrelevant, but it shows stability of staff and how aware staff are of the children in their care. Knowing who mothers and fathers are is important as it shows that they are interested in the children they are looking after and their families. Your child is not just “a child” that they are paid to look after.
Another difference that I found between the two nurseries was that many parents were coming from a very long way to drop their children at the nursery B, whilst most at the convenient nursery A by the tube station lived in close proximity. This makes sense, as if a nursery is very good, then people are willing to travel long distances to go there. If a nursery has many parents travelling a long way to attend, you can take it that this nursery is good.
Ask about the Early Years Foundation Stage
All childminders and nurseries are required to provide “early education” in line with the Early Years Foundation Stage document. If you want to be very mean and test the nursery’s knowledge, you can read the document and test them on it. I personally wouldn’t, but I might just want to check that staff don’t look at me blankly if I mention it .
These are just a few suggestions. In the end, you will have to make up your own mind, but bear in mind that early childcare is an important decision. Many parents spend much time and many sleepless nights researching and visiting a child’s secondary or primary school options, but just put their babies into the nearest nursery to allow them to get to work. I know; I did this. In addition, the research, visits and crucially the decision is often one made single-handed by a heavily pregnant woman who really would rather a sit down and a nap.
Yet if you work full time, like I did, your children will be spending more hours per year at nursery than at any future school in their life. Further, brain development is at its maximal in the preschool years, meaning the child’s learning potential from its environment is maximal at this age and may have long lasting impact on brain development. Time and time again, research has shown that it is not the “type” of childcare (childminder, nanny, nursery) that matters, it is the QUALITY (see my paper: Liang, 2013).
Shouldn’t choosing a nursery be a serious consideration for both parents rather than a quick decision made by a brain addled, third-trimester mum? Hopefully my tips will help.
Liang, H., Pickles, A., Wood, N. & Simonoff, E., (2012) Early Adolescent Emotional and Behavioural Outcomes of Non-parental Preschool Childcare. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology , 47, 399-407.
I can’t believe that Lil Bro is starting school next week.
The sleepless nights, the wiping up of bodily solids and fluids, the sleepless nights, the heaving up and down, the sleepless nights, the pushing here and there, the sleepless nights, the feeding and bathing, the sleepless nights, the changing into clothes and out of clothes, days are over. He can do all that by himself now, which has all led to this point: his departure in to the big wide world. Ok, so its only reception, but if what happened with Big Sis repeats itself, I am sure that as he turns to wave goodbye to go into his class I will get a glimpse of his future teenage self, waving a goodbye to leave home forever. That split second transformed into a movie slow-motion. That’s why I’ll be packing the hankies.
Parents up and down the country are laying out crisp, clean uniforms and ironing or stitching on names, and wondering where did that strange, squashy, floppy, bundle get to? How did ‘it’ possibly become someone that was going to inhabit these long trousers and enormous shoes? And the cheekiness of time to cheat you into thinking at times “Oh my God, my life is over, this is never going to end”; when in fact, it’s gone in a blink of an eye. You have become that annoying “well-meaning friend” whose eyes you wanted to scratch out as they told you “They grow so quickly, you must enjoy this time”, as you jiggled, bounced and paced around in your puke-stained pyjamas –turned-acceptable-day-wear, willing your baby to sleep. You look back with rose tinted glasses at those times. You remember those tiny, fat, irresistibly kissable feet that smelt of talc (rather than the smelly, sweaty, verruca prone ballet/ football feet they have become), and the little hands that reached upwards to be enfolded in yours and the clear eyes that looked at yours with nothing but innocence and love. It wasn’t so bad, the crying wasn’t so loud, the poo wasn’t that disgusting; you are now accustomed to a messy house and sleep deprivation anyway.
This, my friend is about the time that you absolutely need to reach for your contraception….!
Yes He Can. (Astronauts use Velcro to strap things down. They are mainly men. Sewage workers deal with excrement. They are mainly men.)
Can a man puree vegetables?
Yes He Can. (I have seen many men do this on Masterchef)
Can a man bottle feed expressed milk/ formula?
Yes He Can. (Vets and farmers bottle feed lambs all the time. They are mainly men.)
Can a man sterilise bottles?
Yes He Can. (Chemists and pharmaceutical scientists sterilise their equipment all the time. They are mainly men.)
Can a man do the laundry?
Yes He Can. (Commercial launderers (think army, hotels) are mainly men)
Can a man cook the dinner?
Yes He Can. (Most professional chefs are male – particularly the highly paid ones)
Can a man sing nursery rhymes?
Yes He Can. (Justin, Andy and all those other men on CBeebies)
Can a man take a child to the doctors?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man drop-off and pick-up at a nursery?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man wipe a child’s bottom?
Yes He Can. (I hope so at least, as it is easier to wipe some one else’s bottom than your own)
Can a man read the letters that come back from school?
Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)
Can a man buy a fancy-dress costume?
Yes He Can. (Many shop buyers and traders are men)
Can a man book a ballet class?
Yes He Can. (Many events organisers are men)
Can a man check a child’s homework?
Yes He Can. (If he has the intellect to be able to do the homework, he is qualified to check it)
Can a man book a dentist appointment?
Yes He Can. (If he can book his own appointments for work/ leisure, he can do this)
Can a man pick up an unwell child from school?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man iron on name labels on to clothes?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man sign a permission slip?
Yes He Can. (I presume he can write his own name)
Can a man test a child’s ability to spell?
Yes He Can. (I presume he can spell)
Can a man make an Easter hat?
Yes He Can. (Mister Maker is a man)
Can a man read with a child?
Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)
Can a man arrange a playdate?
Yes He Can. (If he can arrange his own leisure activities, no reason he cannot arrange someone else’s)
Can a man interview a nanny/ au pair/ babysitter?
Yes He Can. (Many men interview staff for jobs)
Can a man go to parent’s evening?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man watch a school play?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man give a cuddle?
Yes He Can.
There you have it. Confirmation, with observational evidence from a medically qualified doctor, trained in medicine, genetics, psychiatry and psychology. There is no medical, genetic, psychiatric or psychological reason why men cannot do any of the above.
Where men are not doing these things, there are only 2 reasons:
- Men don’t want to.
- Women don’t want them to (they don’t want to nag or fight with their partner/ they want control over parenting and the household).
Men are a highly skilled and under-utilised resource within the home. Their involvement should be encouraged.
It strikes me that if all men and women worked together to enact equality in their own homes, equality in society would follow.
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.