11 February 2015

The Public Purse

There are strong economic drivers for ‘better’ childcare. Childcare costs UK parents/guardians hard-earned cash for every hour used until free universal part-time places kick in for 3 and 4 year olds (earlier, at 2, for eligible parents) and a cost remains even then for full-time care if required. There are some parents who lose out financially by going back to work and having a child or children in childcare (and despite what the media would have us believe, many who persevere, for longer-term career development, despite this).

Okay, okay, already, by this point in this blog post, some readers will be ready to make One Of The Comments. Hold on, you’ll get a chance!

Would we be happier paying childcare costs if we had gold standard childcare? What would make us the ‘best’ in Europe? Well firstly, how to define ‘gold standard’? Words we use are: regulated, accessible, flexible. Childcare is expensive in the UK but quality is high compared to other nations in Europe. Universal childcare funding doesn’t automatically lead to reduced occupational segregation so to be the ‘best’ at it doesn’t just relate to the availability and quality of care, it is also crucial that the wider public understand the social and economic worth of childcare.

Not investing in childcare is not investing in women. It is women, in the main, who are able to return to work when childcare is available. It is women, primarily, who work frontline in the care sector and unless we place greater value on the work, the conditions, pay and the gender balance in the sector will not improve.

Yeah, yeah, you are reading this post but still have a fundamental objection to what I am talking about – it’s ok, your opportunity to make One Of The Comments will come.

This week, as we approach General Election season (AKA real life The Thick of It) the UK political parties are wheeling out their family friendly policies: More childcare! More time off and higher paternity pay for new dads! Ed Miliband isn’t  appearing on ITV flagship daytime show This Morning just to encourage more SAHMs to vote Labour because he's a great dad and it's nothing other than a personality contest. It is because, in the long term, childcare is a public good, for children, parents, the community and the economy.

I know, I know, but you’re an individual, and that’s different. Hold it in, for one more paragraph.

The UK does not currently have replacement level fertility (n.b.Scotland has the lowest level of the four nations). Would better (cheaper, more flexible, more accessible) childcare increase fertility rates? People are delaying having children and having smaller families, reasons that appear to be at the heart of this are cost, career and lifestyle choices. But find any story on a news website about child benefit payments and you’ll find 500 comments below it, the overwhelming number of these complaining about how this benefit should be scrapped. Child benefit is a cheek. Maternity pay takes liberties. Paternity pay is even worse. Is starting a family, one of the most personal of decisions, being influenced too heavily by the public's perception of parenting?

 OK, feel free to make One Of the Comments now* (*choose from any or all of the following):

You had the kid, you pay for it
I’m paying for other people’s children when I don't have any
I’m not allowed time off whenever I feel like it
Don’t have them if you can’t afford them
Childcare is an expense you have to suck up if you want a baby and a job
Women wanting their jobs back after maternity leave is a right effort all round
A comment of your own choosing to further demonstrate why one of the least deserving groups to receive any kind of universal benefit are parents and the country's next generation* (*here you might like to point out that there are certain 'breeders' who are even less deserving of help than others, and for whom sterilisation would be a better option)
A seemingly socially acceptable 'I'm not being funny but [insert insulting comment here]' variation on the above theme

As governments propose and bring into practice the policies that support the arguments around the greater benefits of childcare, how can we change the perception of the general public to raise the status of childcare and those who work in the sector? Well, I don’t have the answer, yet, but my PhD Literature Review might shed some light on this.

The issue is the perception of what ‘the public purse’ should and shouldn’t pay for, and the feeling that one person’s taxes are directly funding another’s ‘high life’ living. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I’m trying to find examples from real life to demonstrate issues, so here we go.

I’ve breastfed my 14 month old son to date. He was a huge baby (11lb+ at birth) with a huge appetite. I‘ve not had a negative comment about breastfeeding. Nobody has asked me to cover up a nipple or put a sheet over ‘it’ and I haven’t used a designated feeding space unless my little one was feeling fractious. It is exceptional, in my experience and the experience of the breastfeeding mothers I know, for a negative comment to be made. Breastfed children breastfeed a lot so there are many opportunities for comment should the general public be steaming with rage at the sight of a nipple. And I wonder if it is not because of equality that comments are kept at bay. I wonder if by breastfeeding I’m not seen to be impacting on the public purse.

I have, on the other hand, been made most unwelcome by customers in a café, on a day when it was pouring with rain, my baby was in his pram and I was visibly exhausted from walking him up and down the street to get him to sleep (hello to the two ladies in a café in Strathbungo who refused to even tuck a chair in to let me past let alone sit near them!). Was it because I was about to blow my child benefit/maternity pay on a decaf coffee?


Bonus Material!

These two small tales don't really bear as much direct relation to the above blog post but I also want to mention them because they happened and they were nice and you just don't get that much in life:

1)  The kindness that was shown to me in a well-known Swedish flat-pack furniture store.
I had a hungry, small (well, by his standards anyway) baby and I was in the middle of the café trying to settle and feed him. For ages. A male member of staff discreetly asked me if he could get me a drink from the self-service area. I offered to pay for it, he refused to let me.

2) The conversation of older ladies in a department store café.
I overheard them commenting, louder than they needed to because they wanted me to hear: “Isn’t that lovely to see? A young mum feeding her baby.” I think by “young” they presumed I am younger than I am – happy baby and a happy mummy, it was a double win that day! 

9 February 2015

Are you back at work? That’s great…

This going back to work business is nothing like as easy as it sounds. After you have a child, you don’t just ‘go back to work’ on a set date, at a set time and return to business as usual. Play does not continue as before. At first the novelty of it all and/or the immediate crisis management overshadows your ability to see past how the changes might be affecting you. You may be too guilty about the whole thing to deal with the impact of working plus parenting. By two months in, you are too tired to do anything about it and battle on.  At about the four month stage you realise you can’t really keep the charade up. By six months, something has to or likely already has changed. Oh and socialising with colleagues outside of work, no chance of that. It clashes, with everything. 

On returning to work after having a child/children, you spend a fair amount of time desperately trying to establish new routines, finding strategies to prevent you from losing your marbles entirely, and thinking about whether dual- or single-career parenting is really possible without beyond-full-time childcare. You find a small daily window in which to sleep, work out how and when you are going to access/share/juggle/pay for childcare, whilst ensuring that you and your family eat, wash and pay your bills.

As a family we are six months in from my return to work after our first child (Daddy went back after two weeks of paternity leave and week of saved-up annual leave. Although if some of the comments I've read this morning in response to this BBC news item are to be taken to heart, the cheek of him being able to do this is "beyond belief"). 

We had the additional issue of not having any childcare at all until last week. Even with 14.25 hours of childcare in place and although I mainly work from home, it still isn’t enough for me to study full-time, keep up my part-time job and take on the extra, often contract-based, work that comes my way (or in simpler terms, maintain a career with momentum to it) and be a mummy. Daddy is moving to a 17.5 hours per week job so he can take on a greater share of childcare and I can study and work in a more reasonable time frame, i.e. not from 6pm to midnight, from 7am to whenever-our-son-wakes-up-o’clock, and around ad-hoc naptimes (did I mention there is also a daily mountain of washing, a home to keep clean and a small person to entertain, educate, wash and feed?). If you are reading this and thinking, "Yes, but you decided to have a child," I urge you to return in the coming week and read my next blog post, about how society is undervaluing the potential impact of the UK's below replacement fertility rate.

We are quite happy with our new set up. It finally offers me the flexibility I need for my work and career and enables my husband to spend more time with our son who he (most importantly for us) now gets to co-parent more fully. However, there is a bigger issue, outside of our little family: one half of our parenting unit is about to half leave the labour market.

By reducing my husband’s working hours to allow us this balance (did I mention we will also get time to spend together, In The Same Room, during daylight hours?) we’re also reducing our need for childcare, which means we’re reducing the need for a member of staff in a nursery to care for our son. I know that if we all used more childcare, there would be more people employed in childcare which might raise the status of the profession, the availability and the quality and flexibility of early years childcare overall (although I can’t fault the quality of the nursery care my son is getting), but we didn’t have a child so that he could go into full-time childcare from the off; we wanted to spend time with him while he was small. We like children! That’s why we had one! 

We need, as do most families, fully flexible work and flexible childcare–which is still a long way off–that enables us to work and spend time with our child at a time of the day when we aren’t good for little other than eating and sleeping. So we find work and careers than can still grow and fit in around a small person and what childcare is currently available to best meet our needs and enable us to have a good family life. I'm having the continuing, post-motherhood career than many women before me couldn't and that other women and men have enabled me to have, through progressive legislation leading to changes in attitude. 

Our story is, in many ways, most parents’ story: we visited umpteen nurseries until we found one we were happy with and sat on a waiting list until a place became available (the delay compounded in our case by moving house around the time we wanted him to start and having to re-start the process from scratch after he had settled somewhere). We liked several nurseries. Then we read the inspection reports, or worked out how long it’d take to get there each day, or checked the prices and something cropped up. Our little one has gone into a council affiliated nursery close to our home. The fees are a third less per session than the fully private ones which means we’ve been able to put him in for three rather than two sessions per week. It’s within walking distance (childcare cost isn’t just childcare, it’s the cost of getting there if it isn’t on your way to or from work/home). Also, the only note on the most recent inspection report was that the afternoon snack wasn’t as healthy as it could be. It’s better than we offer at home a lot of the time! Nursery standards are high.

Our little one, despite the ordeal he has had to go through settling-in, is getting on very well (he has never been with anyone other than Mummy or Daddy for more than a couple of hours). For a fourteen month old person a five hour stretch away from who and what he knows must be terrifying. The staff have him settled, playing happily and he was asleep in one of their arms when we collected him on Friday, after his “best day yet.” At nursery they can give him what we can’t at home: messy play and other children being two examples. He is already more confident with our friends, more willing and able to stomp around, explore and assert himself. I am, as the cliché goes, ‘feeling much better in myself’ for him being there. So we’ve sorted ourselves out, six months after me officially ‘going back after maternity leave.’ Not six hours or six days after it, as might be believed.  

There is one other thing that I wish was different though: there aren’t any men in my son’s nursery. In all of the nurseries we visited, there were two male members of staff, both working in the same facility. We have a huge problem encouraging young men into a career in early years care. Until he starts school and maybe meets one of the rare male primary school teachers, outside of the home most of my son’s carers will be women, very well qualified, caring, affectionate women. There is no reason why a man cannot do this job.

Why are there so few men in childcare? When a friend of mine had a baby a few years ago, my husband wasn’t working and looked after the baby when required (like us, she had no other means of ad-hoc care other than to rely on friends). Everyone he met presumed my husband was the father, because why else would a man look after a child?

Why aren’t men caring for our children in nurseries? Is it the low pay in the sector? A misplaced, sinister suspicion about the motives of men who want to care for children? Because it is a ‘woman’s’ job? This brings me back to my PhD, where in a small way I hope to shed some light on this issue and suggest ways in which we can encourage more men in ‘women’s jobs.’

In researching why and how we need to eradicate gender segregation, I’m trying to demonstrate how these changes would affect us all, on an individual basis, in daily life, making our lives better (a friend recently asked, “Yes, but why do we need to do this? What's wrong with women doing some jobs and men doing others?” and I realised only practical examples can covey this, quickly, over a bottle of beer or a cup of tea).

So, in relation to men and childcare my example will be simple: I want to see a male member of staff picking up and cuddling my son at nursery when he cries. I want to see men taking turns on the rota to do my son’s mid-afternoon nappy change. I want to see a man stamping in the puddles in the nursery garden with my son. I want my son to see a man undertaking the hugely important professional caring role. I want see more men guiding our little ones as they start their lives. I want gender-balanced role models, in every sector, especially those our children have most contact with during their early years. 

And in turn I want everyone who works in childcare to know how valued they are by parents like us, who without them would have far fewer opportunities to develop and prosper after starting a family.