Beyond the double shift

Up to now, new Labour has been determined that we should all work, work, work, including parents of

Would you employ Gordon Brown or Charles Clarke as your childminder? Do you trust them to know what is best for you and your child? In a sense you already do. Alongside their ministerial colleagues Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Hodge, these guys will shape future childcare policy, whether it be concerned with nursery provision or paternity leave. Children are a new Labour thing. Doing stuff for children, and therefore their mothers, is one of the big ideas of the next manifesto. Women who were against the war in Iraq, it is condescendingly thought, can be brought back into the new Labour fold if they are promised some extra maternity leave. Their partners, too, may get statutory parental leave.

As Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has said: "There's a lot of evidence that where both parents are involved in bringing up the child, that helps the child." He aims to make the system more gender-neutral. If it were in his remit to make pregnancy and birth more gender-neutral, he might be on to a winner.

As it is, the government is involved in something of a U-turn over its attitudes to childcare but it is not presenting it as such. Before, if you remember, it was all work, work, work. Gordon Brown's fundamentalist work ethic dominated the landscape. The answer to child poverty was work: single parents must work, disabled people must work, old people must work till they drop, and, even now, I see that the Chancellor thinks those phoning in sick should just stop malingering and get to the office.

Brown always had the bigger picture in mind. Lone-parent families were the ones trapped in poverty and therefore employment was the only way out. He may be deeply committed to lifting families out of poverty, I don't doubt that, but he is not there in the mornings when small children are taken tearfully away from their mothers by nursery nurses so that their mums can go and work on a supermarket checkout. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty here - all my kids have gone to nursery. I am just trying to point out that childcare is not merely an economic issue for parents but an emotional one, too.

More and more women with very young children now go out to work. Nearly 70 per cent of women return to work before their child's first birthday, against 21 per cent in 1981. Much of this work is part-time. But as their children grow older, half of all mothers with school-aged children are in full-time employment. This is partly because capitalism now needs us, partly to do with financial necessity and aspiration, partly to do with our sense of ourselves, and only partly to do with some skewed feminist ideal about "having it all".

Not so long ago, as Hilary Land, emeritus professor of social policy at Bristol University, pointed out recently, it was envisaged that women would stay out of the labour market for 15 years when they had their children; now it is much more likely to be 15 months. These changes are spoken about in odd and extreme ways. We have the Daily Mail-style moral panic about superwomen wearing testosterone patches, barely recognising their own offspring, but then suddenly coming to their senses, buying floral dresses, giving up their jobs and feeling terribly fulfilled by taking the children pony-riding. Or we have the feckless teenage mothers lounging around on benefits. Indeed, I often think that the only people who can really be stay-at-home mothers these days are the very poor or the extremely rich.

The humdrum reality of most women's lives - the patchwork of childcare, of dashing home, the little time they have for themselves - is not reflected in the current literature about investment bankers having affairs. Not all women who work have glittering careers, yet just about every woman I speak to certainly does not want to be dependent on her partner's income, even if he has one. This is just one reason why many women rush back to work long before they want to.

Is this finally being recognised by government plans to extend maternity leave? Yes, quite possibly. It is certainly recognised by business, which is terrified at the prospect of women taking a year's paid leave. Some men and some bosses see maternity leave as another form of malingering, which the state may choose to subsidise but they certainly do not want to. It is not an inherently conservative position to say that women should be at home with their babies if they want to be, any more than it is a progressive position to send them all out to work. That is why this government is having to rethink. It has put all its eggs in the work basket and now faces a regiment of angry, exhausted women and their maladjusted infants.

The latest research on daycare, for instance, echoes much common sense, but it is only just being acknowledged. While children who have attended nursery often arrive at school with better social skills than those who have not, sending them to nursery before the age of two and a half may not be so brilliant for them. Some experts suggest it may cause aggression and disobedience later on. It makes sense, surely, that infants benefit from one-to-one care, whether from a parent, relative or childminder. Group care does not work so well for babies as it does for rising threes because they are not yet social beings.

Professor Ted Melhuish of Birkbeck College, London, has echoed the findings of Professor Jay Belsky, an American colleague, who warned us against following the high levels of maternal employment and infant daycare that are the norm in the United States. We need to respond to such research instead of going into denial about it. Children need a lot of care, and that's a lot of work. Paid employment may not be the answer to every social ill - though that is a dangerous thought for this government. Liberation for women has to mean more than the double shift.

Madeleine Bunting, in her excellent book Willing Slaves, has written eloquently about how work damages our intimate relationships and can corrode so many aspects of our lives. Yet to concede this is not to push women back into the home but rather to see that women, who are at the forefront of these social changes, have been pushed out on to a tightrope with no safety net. If it is not for the state to bring up our children, then how can it be for the state to tell us that we must rush back into the labour market as soon as we can? In encouraging the working classes to behave like the middle classes, we have pushed their children into daycare while ours are with the nanny.

For all Gordon Brown's brilliance, we still suffer from an economic blind spot when it comes to childcare. We pay those who look after children as little as we possibly can and consider such labour to be of low status. One of the main problems with daycare centres is the incredibly high turnover of staff.

The provision of good-quality childcare is expensive, but someone has to pay for it and someone has to do it. Extending parental leave gives us far more options. The centralised government vision of rows of bonny babies in regimented cots is giving way to a more flexible approach of extended parental leave with childminders, grandparents, nannies and even, shock horror, actual parents caring for their own babies at home.

It is easy perhaps to read too much into Brown's own recent experience of fatherhood, but perhaps he has realised that children aren't as easily slotted in to adult strategies as he would like. His colleagues are also taking off their blinkers. All that is being mooted here is that the government should respond and adapt to the ways that women already organise their lives, instead of trying to impose childcare arrangements upon them.

It is a shame it has taken seven years for Brown and his fellow ministers to realise this. But that's the problem with these workaholics: like the babies left too long in daycare, their emotional development lags way behind their cognitive skills.

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