The cost of childcare is enough to give anyone a tantrum
So I had this baby in lockdown, I mentioned it, I think – this fabulous boy, sort of oniony looking, divine. He grew gently and without much fuss, evolving over the next two years into a kind of Bernie Sanders-type, gentle, fair, tender, made a lot of sense when you thought about it. The tenderness has been a big thing – he likes sometimes to very gently stroke my cheek and solemnly gaze, and has gone through phases of identifying strongly with mice. Which is why his recent… change, into a child who screams until he’s red at the suggestion that he, say, might put a jacket on, has felt particularly galling.
This is not my first tantrum rodeo. My daughter, too, “found her voice”, to use the parlance of the parenting books, at a similar age, a voice she continues to find most evenings and some mornings, too. But while I might have spent the minutes she was screaming harriedly panicking, today I use the time to rock quietly on the floor nearby and distract myself with the news. Which is where I was when I read about Jeremy Hunt’s plan for a £4bn boost for childcare in England. It sounded good, it sounded like he had listened to the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, who recently reported that three-quarters of mothers who pay for childcare say it doesn’t make financial sense for them to work. But then the screaming cut through again and I wondered what this boost would actually look like.
It’s a massive relief that childcare is on the political agenda
Stella Creasy, the Walthamstow MP who has been campaigning (sometimes with her baby in her arms) to show that childcare is an intrinsic part of a functioning productive economy, has likened Hunt’s plan to Help to Buy, the housing scheme that pushed demand with no supply, sending prices soaring. She points out that the only way the government will be able to fulfil their promise – to next year provide 30 hours a week of childcare for working parents of children aged from nine months – is by scrapping the staff-to-child ratios, which currently stand at one adult for every three children under the age of two. And, I know these people are professionals, experts, angels and far better than I am at coping with a room of people who barely come up to your hip, only eat plain pasta and have the willpower of an Olympian athlete, but still. Still – I would not wish a week in charge of five two-year-olds on anybody, however saintly. The tenderness I like, the reading Frog and Toad is good, the playing I endure, but the nappies, feeding, negotiating, cleaning, avoiding injuries and deaths, the tantrums… not for me. And to times that by five? The collective noun for a group of hungry two-year-olds cannot be written down, as it exists only as heat and noise, a low gargling howl.
It’s a massive relief that childcare is on the political agenda. When I was returning to work after having my first child and reeling at the reality of childcare in a country where it’s more expensive than any other developed nation, a friend took me aside. She explained wearily why the gender pay gap remains and the financial penalty from motherhood, and advised that I do whatever I could to stay in work, if only so that when my child was of school age, I didn’t have to start again from the bottom. I remember how shocking I found it then and, honestly, it still shocks me today, the clarity, the shame, the ripping away of choice, future, ambition, agency. So the spring budget feels positive. Hopeful, even. Women will be able to work.
But the Confederation of British Industry estimates that rather than £4bn as promised, the government’s plans will cost almost £9bn. Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed says, “Free childcare from nine months is brilliant, but only if there are childcare settings to be able to access this care – without the correct funding there won’t be.” Nurseries will have to close and increasing ratios will lead to burnout in carers, unable to cope with a whole gaggle of toddlers, especially, and with persistent apologies, if one of them is mine. If the structures – including proper pay for those carers – aren’t in place to uphold the new plan, the whole thing will tumble, potentially making the situation even worse than it already is, for the parents, for the nursery staff, and for the children, whose care and education in their first 1,000 days has a massive impact on their long-term health.
When I first encountered a tantrum that was not my own, I did my research. The NHS has a whole bit on its website, including a list of things to do – “Try holding them firmly until it passes” and “Find a distraction” and “Don’t bite back.” But what’s really helped, I’ve found this time round, is finding a kind of rational calmness and sanity that, for me, comes from work. From having somewhere else to go in the day and somewhere else to go in my head. Beyond survival, or ambition, the importance of work in upholding a self is crucial for a parent, if only to allow them to breathe through the next 10-minute fight about pyjamas.
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