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“Childcare for the very young feels like abuse”

Many parents have no choice but to outsource their children’s early development to nurseries. But at what cost?

The sign on the railings outside my son Herbie’s nursery states that it is open from 7.30am until 6.30pm, Monday to Friday. It’s a Montessori nursery near where we live in a grubby corner of west, west London, and costs as much as £1,300 a month for four days a week. It is expensive, but then most nurseries are. Herbie started there on his first birthday. He is now 18 months and has settled in well.

Our daily routine is one familiar to many working parents: the boy is up and dressed at 7am; I drop him off at 7.45am and head to work in central London; my wife, who has started her working day earlier, then leaves her office at about 5pm to collect Herbie at 6pm. This means that, on any given working day, Herbie spends at least ten hours in day care. Fortunately for him it’s just four days a week (my wife currently does not work on Fridays in order to be with him). And thank goodness for that: if Herbie were there five days a week he’d need to sign a waiver for the EU working time directive. As it is, he’s doing at least 40 hours – longer than the average Belgian or French working weeks.

What you make of our solution to the challenge of childcare and working life largely depends, I guess, on your outlook and economic circumstances. Rather, I should say, it depends entirely on these things, because the subject of childcare is a bit like Brexit: approach with caution.

So here goes: I hate it. I don’t for one moment believe that my son – who is younger than most of the contents of my sock drawer – should spend 40 hours a week away from his parents in a nursery, no matter how good that nursery (and I’m convinced ours is staffed by lovely, dedicated people). Nor do I believe that other children – some as young as three months – should be in childcare for so long.

Many parents of young children anecdotally tend to agree. But, unfortunately, just like my wife and me, the parents of as many as 550,000 other pre-school age children in England haven’t got much of a choice. If you live on a reasonable salary, have a mortgage and contribute to a pension, then the chances are that you need to have two incomes, no matter where you live in Britain. If you live in London, as we do, then the squeeze gets worse because you are accidentally competing in a property market that’s now a global asset class worth in excess of £1.5 trillion. In these circumstances, full-time work for both parents is, in effect, the only option, which means five days a week of day-long childcare for many.

And so on we merrily go, dropping our kids off, and collecting them again, hoping there’ll be no ill-effects. But can we be so sure we are doing the right thing? Consider the psychological damage of boarding school on the generations who were packed off as young as seven – a practice many people now regard as barbaric. What then might be the effect on a child of one, or younger, of putting them into day care?

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When I mention Herbie’s 40-hour week to Sue Gerhardt, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author of the bestseller Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain (2014), her first reaction is: “Ooh – ouch!” Gerhardt is known to have strong views on this subject. She points out that nursery for children between the ages of one and two comes at a critical point in their neurological development, when they’re learning how to cope with stress. This is something she believes parents are often best placed to help children with.

“If a child is stressed then those [stress] systems are not going to develop in an optimum way, and that can lead to worse physical health in adult life,” says Gerhardt. “From a developmental point of view, it’s very different for a two-year-old or a three-year-old to be in a nursery than a one-year-old. There is evidence you can quote for either side for two-year-olds or upwards, but for under-twos, unless it’s really high-quality [care] – which most stuff that’s on offer isn’t – that is really problematic and not doing our children a service at all.”

This is because nursery is a stressful place. For a start, there are a lot of other children, shouting, biting, and generally expressing their needs, frustrations and demands. The staff also have their own stresses and pressures, not least those derived from looking after so many kids. (In the UK, the approved ratio of staff to charges for children up to the age of two is 1:3.) Then these staff might be unwell, or unhappy, or move jobs or go on holiday, so the worker your child has bonded with might vanish from one day to the next. And even if your child isn’t in the nursery for 40 hours a week – maybe they’re there for just a day or two – they are with children who are.

The National Childbirth Trust, which every year runs classes for 90,000 new and expecting parents, notes that, according to scientific research, the first months of a child’s life, from pregnancy up to its second birthday, are vital because “children’s emotional and social capabilities are in development”. “This influential period will have an impact on children’s achievements throughout their lives, at school, in the workplace, in society at large as well as in their own future ability as a parent,” the NCT states on its website.

And here’s the thing: our childcare decisions matter. “It does have long-term consequences,” Gerhardt warns, “which we are beginning to see with a few studies but it’s not well known and people are not very aware that this might be the case.”

Referring to the influential multi-decade Dunedin Study conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand, which has tracked the lives of 1,000 children from birth in the early 1970s into middle age, Gerhardt points to the fact that many of the adults with anti-social behaviour and criminal records were among the “three-year-olds who had poor self-control – which is to do with [not] having lots of parental input with managing stress and managing yourself”.

But not everyone agrees with Gerhardt’s outlook. Michael Lamb, professor of psychology at Cambridge University and an internationally respected expert in child psychological development, rejects the notion that there might be a long-term impact from extensive periods of time in childcare for the very young.

“The findings suggest that the long-term effects are pretty minuscule and what determines a kid’s outcome is not whether or not they’re in childcare, it is the quality of the relationship to their parents,” Lamb tells me. He adds that today we often have a romanticised view of parenthood (with a corresponding Dickensian view of the childcare), when in fact a certain amount of the time that children actually spend with parents tends to be when conducting family chores, rather than on child-focused activities, which they will get in day care. Moreover, he points out that when you have “high quality care” with “relatively low ratios and high levels of [staff] stability”, the effects of transitioning to childcare and separation “are really very small and tend to be quite short term”.

Lamb believes that day care can become a “complementary experience” because it helps with socialisation and enables children to bond with other adults as well as their parents. And, for anxious parents, he points out that the beginning and end of each day – for instance bath-time – are the “high-dollar emotional moments” in a child’s routine, when parents can help their offspring wind down from the stimulations of their day in childcare, and also reinforce their emotional bonds – thereby helping them to avoid psychological pitfalls.

It’s all very reassuring. The trouble is, as Lamb and Gerhardt point out, not all  childcare is “high quality”, something that Lamb also repeatedly cited. “Not everywhere has a key worker,” says Gerhardt, “They might nominally have them. Is the key worker there every day? What happens when the key worker goes on holiday? Is sick? How many children does the key worker have to keep an eye on and get to know really well?” She adds: “From a developmental perspective, that kind of quality attention will enable the adult to regulate the child. It’s about establishing secure relationships and good self-regulation inside the body and the mind.”

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Kirsty Blackman, the 31-year-old MP and deputy SNP leader at Westminster, was forced to confront her own  childcare conundrums after being censured by the Commons authorities in 2016 for taking her two children, then five and two, into a committee meeting. While she welcomes various government initiatives both north and south of the border aimed at extending support of families with young children, she’s frank about the lack of choice most parents face when it comes to  childcare.

“If people choose to work full time and put a child into full-time childcare because that’s the best thing for them and their family, then I’m absolutely cool with that,” says Blackman over the phone – in between breaking off to gently placate one of her children. “I would like to see a situation where they could choose not to if that was what was best for their family. My concern is that the current situation means that there is no choice.”

For Blackman’s parents’ generation, it was usual for one partner to give up work for a period while the children were very young. But this is no longer the case. “I don’t know any couples who are my age that have children that can afford for one of them to stop working when the children are young,” says Blackman. “It’s totally different. The majority of that is to do with the price of housing these days, whether it’s rent or mortgages.”

From September 2017 all but the highest earners in England have been eligible for up to 30 hours of free childcare a week. Blackman would like to see the UK government look at making the childcare vouchers scheme more generous for parents with children under three. “I claim childcare vouchers and my children are not in a huge amount of  childcare so it’s pretty good for us,” she notes. “But for people whose children are in quite a lot of childcare it’s not going to anywhere near cover it.”

The costs are not necessarily just financial. And Blackman would like employers to have a more open mind about people returning to work after a longer gap than the typical maternity or paternity periods, and for them to embrace more flexible working patterns. “That’s another thing I think the government could keep working on. People have got a real concern that an employer is not going to look at them because they’ve got too long of a gap in employment.”

In August, the Commons education select committee published a report with the Social Market Foundation that sharply criticised the government’s lack of support for parents of infants. One of its co-authors, the Labour MP Lucy Powell, insists much more ought to be done to eradicate what she calls the “Cinderella years”. “I’ve long called for more support in this crucial period from zero to three, with a joined-up system of early education and care support that offers parents universal free hours from one to five,” she tells me. “Alongside more flexible and better-paid parental leave so that both mothers and fathers have choices and the ability to share care and manage a career.” Powell adds: “If we’re to ensure a modern support system for families while closing the developmental gaps that are already stark pre-school, we must have a major redesign of our childcare system so that it is fit for purpose.”

One thing that most people do seem to agree on is that stressed-out parents do not make ideal parents. And what is one of the biggest sources of anxiety in our culture? Money. So if childcare were more affordable then parents might not have to work so many hours each week to pay for it, ironically reducing some need for it in the first place. Likewise if employers could be more flexible about employment or parental absences, then parents could make different, more child-focused choices about their working patterns during the first years of their children’s lives.

“If children grow up with insecure attachments, they tend to make insecure attachments as adults and so their marriages and partnerships are less solid,” cautions Gerhardt. “Being secure means being confident, trusting other people, knowing that people close to you will respond to you – will be there for you when you need them; it breeds a trusting attitude, a collaborative attitude to the world. Who wouldn’t want that?”

Who indeed?

We do not live in an ideal world. We know that many public services do not receive adequate investment, so why should childcare be any different?

What it all boils down to is what you think you can live with – emotionally and financially – which, as Lamb points out, tends to be coloured by your own experiences, too.

What strikes me as odd, though, is that while most people – me included – are prepared to lay down their lives for their children, they won’t lay aside their careers, not even for a year or two. It’s all about more, about excess. So, when Gerhardt speculates that actually this is all part of a neo-liberal conspiracy that has subjugated love and parenthood to the demands of work and the worship of mammon, I’m inclined to listen. It may be unusual to hear a father say this – but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

That’s why, to me, five-day-a-week childcare for the under-twos seems little more than a form of child abuse – simply by virtue of the time the child spends away from his or her parents. This is Britain’s dirty secret, but how many parents are prepared to admit it? One day it will surely be illegal. Until then, it’s up to individual parents to police themselves, to work out what’s really important to them, and to act accordingly.

For me, no matter how fantastic the staff at the local Montessori are, 40 hours a week is too much, and with my wife due to return to working five days a week, there’s no way I’ll be putting my nipper through the full 50 hours. For us that will mean spending even more money to share a nanny for at least some of the time. This should improve Herbie’s welfare, though not our finances.

On the last day of my two-week summer vacation, having enjoyed the simple pleasure of lunch with my son, I watched him drag his toy tractor back across the table with concentrated effort and then lift it up to observe the spring-loaded rear wheels spin and whirr. I wiped away a tear. Weekends and a few days here or there aside, that would be my precious lunches with Herbie done until Christmas. You can’t help but wonder who came up with this system and what its impact will be.

Alec Marsh is the editor of Spear’s magazine

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship