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.