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19 January 2022

Childcare costs put mothers in a bind, but free daycare may not be the best way out of it

Getting mothers of preschoolers back to work as soon as possible does not seem to me an unambiguously feminist development.

By Louise Perry

The Labour MP and mother-of-two Stella Creasy is determined to change the conversation on maternity rights. In an interview published on 16 January, she described her struggle to secure formal maternity leave for MPs, as well as universally funded childcare for children from the age of six months.

I’m following her progress with interest because, although I have just about managed so far by doing a lot of my work while my eight-month-old son is asleep, I have started to spend most of my waking hours worrying about childcare.

The UK’s childcare is the third most expensive in the developed world. On average, a full-time place at a nursery or childminder will cost almost as much as sending your child to a private prep school, while a full-time nanny can cost nearly as much as boarding at Eton. Right now, having a baby is one of the most stupid financial decisions you can make.

If Creasy had her way, my husband and I would now have the option of taking up a free daycare place – a policy that “pays for itself”, she says, since it allows mothers to return to jobs sooner and to work longer hours.

One problem with this proposal is that it’s incredibly unpopular. According to a British Social Attitudes study from 2012, only 4 per cent of Britons think the “best way” to organise family life is to have both mothers and fathers of preschool children working full-time. There is an age skew, with older people likelier to favour more traditional arrangements (with a male “breadwinner”, for example), but it’s not as extreme as one might expect. Men and women are roughly agreed on how to split childcare duties, contrary to a popular feminist narrative that portrays stay-at-home mothers as frustrated and miserable.

[see also: The UK has the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world]

For most parents in Britain, however, the traditional model is out of reach economically, particularly in the south-east. A family composed of two parents and two children under four needs a net household income of more than £85,000 for a “decent standard of living” in London, according to a research project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. To support a partner who isn’t working, you would need to be in the top 5 per cent of earners.

We find ourselves in a situation where most parents of small children must go to work, must spend a large proportion of their income on childcare, and then must compete for housing against other families who are doing the same thing. The supposed freedom that women have to go back to work after maternity leave has morphed into a necessity to do so. The economist and US senator Elizabeth Warren has described the difficulty facing dual-income families following the influx of middle- and upper-middle-class women into the workforce in the latter half of the 20th century:

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Families were swept up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for their most important possession: a house in a decent school district… Mum’s extra income fitted in perfectly, coming at just the right time to give each family extra ammunition to compete in the bidding wars – and to drive the prices even higher for the things they all wanted.

For selfish reasons, if nothing else, I’m glad women now have access to jobs we were once excluded from. But I’m sceptical of the view that higher rates of employment among mothers of preschoolers is an unambiguously feminist development.

There’s no doubt that getting mothers back into the workforce as quickly as possible is good for the economy, which is why our tax system penalises single-income households. As the chair of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Bill Emmott, put it recently on BBC Radio 4, countries that do not encourage mothers into paid work are “under-using” female citizens, and are thereby undermining their own growth.

But is it good for children to have their mothers more intensively “used”? The countless hours I’ve spent researching the effects of group-based childcare on young children have produced a clear answer, I’m afraid: it seems it does not benefit the under-twos, unless they come from an abusive or severely deprived home, and there is evidence of increases in aggression and hyperactivity longer term.

[See also: US formula shortages: shaming mothers for not breastfeeding isn’t the solution]

This is why the child psychologist Oliver James strongly advises against daycare for young children, insisting that a mother’s care is best. Failing that, “Daddy is better than Granny is better than Nanny is better than Minder is better than daycare.”

For working mothers like me, this makes for grim reading. While there are some women who are quite happy to get back to work as soon as possible, it’s more common among my peers to hear half-whispered accounts of guilt, regret and weeping in the nursery car park. Feminists are in a bind, since the representation of mothers in the workplace – including in parliament – can seem at odds with what might be best for their children, and what many mothers say they want: to spend more time at home.

Every morning, I walk my son past the nursery that has offered us a place. It’s in a large and beautiful 19th-century building that looms over the adjacent houses. Ofsted has rated it outstanding, and it has excellent reviews from parents. But I hate the sight of it. “It’s OK to put a baby in daycare,” a mother friend reminds me, “and to also believe that daycare is not the optimal model.” For all my reservations, I know that she’s right.

[see also: Why Britain’s childcare system is on the brink of collapse]

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party