It’s been a tough week or so. I’ve been completely incapacitated by what is probably an inner ear infection, leaving me suffering with vertigo symptoms and making it impossible to do anything but lay on the sofa. It’s frustrating not being able to do what I usually do, such as look after the kids, cook tea, walk to the toilet without bumping into a wall. That sort of thing.
For the first few days my husband worked from home and took holiday to take care of things but he inevitably had to go back to work this week, meaning my parents had to come and take over. Whilst I’m very grateful for this, it did get me thinking. Never a good idea, because I inevitably get cross.
Grandparents are being relied upon to do more and more in the way of regularly caring for their grandchildren, usually because both parents are working. According to a report by insurance firm RIAS, who specialise in providing cover for the over 50s, an estimated 9.2 million grandparents are looking after their grandchildren instead of the parents.
There are many cases whereby both parents need to work but there are also many where they don’t. They are choosing to work and asking grandparents to step in and take over for them. A recent article in a well-known tabloid newspaper[i] told the plight of a few mothers who rely on their parents to help out and one sentence stood out for me – ‘without her parents’ support, Natalie believes she would probably have been forced to become a stay-at-home mother’.
Forced? Well, this makes me bristle. We have children because we want them, not because we are forced to. (I’m talking about the majority of first world women here.) What is wrong with being a stay-at-home mum? I understand the negatives of it, believe me, but there are such wonderful positives too. I love being there to do all the little things for my children and I know they appreciate it too (in their own little ways…)
Herein lies a problem. In generations gone by, mothers stayed at home to raise their children while the men went to work. We live in a society now where it is acceptable for both sexes to work, something for which I am extremely grateful. Who wants to live in a country without equality? Not me I can assure you. I love strong, independent women and I will encourage this in my own daughter as she grows up.
However this use of the word ‘forced’ highlights that this woman, along with many other parents, sees childcare as the least favourable option. Being a stay-at-home parent appears to be out of fashion and we are being encouraged to go back to work by the government, a once family-friendly party, because it will be good for the economy. Nick Clegg said one million more women should be working within 5 years. I will resist the urge to comment on how his own career is going.
Many women are leaving it later in life to start a family and have already established themselves in the workplace. Why would they want to give all that up, having worked so hard? A tricky one and I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage any woman from reaching her full potential in any area of her life.
There are many cases of families where both parents genuinely do need to work for basic financial stability and the difficulties faced are real. How single parents cope even with some help from grandparents is beyond me. However there are also many cases whereby both parents wish to work, often in full-time careers, and the thought of how to juggle raising children with this seems to slip their mind before it becomes a major issue.
Whilst a more equal society is great, we also seem to be living in a society where we want to have it all. There is nothing wrong with working. There is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mother. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing both. But are we a generation who rely too heavily on grandparents to step in and raise our children for us, while we enjoy the spoils of ‘having it all’?
If there is genuinely no need for both parents to work, why do we do it to ourselves? It is stressful having both parents working full-time. I know because I’ve done it and I have close friends who are doing it. If both parents work in 9-5 jobs, childcare becomes an issue. It’s all very well for Karren Brady to champion schools opening for longer hours so that we can leave our children there for longer while we enjoy a career, but what does that mean for children? But then if children are not in full-time childcare, grandparents become the obvious and sometimes only solution.
Most grandparents want to help out, they love their grandchildren and grandmothers especially can empathise with their daughters needing a break or struggling to juggle things. However I do wonder if we have become a society too heavily reliant on grandparents taking care of children, whilst we continue to live a way of life that childless couples have. We most certainly have become a generation obsessed with having everything our parents have, forgetting that they are now older and have more disposable income. As young parents, they often struggled just to make ends meet. Second-hand furniture, no takeaways and certainly no holidays abroad was the norm. Can you imagine the horror of no beauty treatments, games consoles or Prosecco?
I loved my previous job and giving it up was hard. I had a certain amount of responsibility, the pay was good and I got to race around chasing bad guys in police cars from time to time. What’s not to love? I gave it up to be a stay-at-home mum after child number two, purely because the cost of childcare did not make working worthwhile. There was no choice between which one of us gave up work due to the difference in salaries. I’m fortunate that as a family we can live on one wage and I certainly don’t take this for granted. However, there are many more families like this out there who could very easily survive on one wage but don’t want to give up luxury holidays, the second car or even an active social life. They are more than happy for their parents to give up their free time instead. The time they have waited so long for, when they can pursue interests and hobbies, relax more and just enjoy the grandchildren.
To be honest, if my parents had lived nearby I probably would have asked them if they could help out one day a week and this is something I know my mum would love to do, my mother-in-law also. However, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it and I would never have asked for more than this. Stepping in for an emergency is one thing, but taking over childcare responsibilities is quite another. Looking after children is tiring enough for young mums, think how exhausting it must be for grandparents. It goes beyond a bit of relaxed babysitting here and there, to a stricter world of routines, boundaries and discipline.
The government is looking to increase free hours of childcare from 15 to 30 hours a week. I don’t know the full details of this but I hope it will be means tested. I mean, why should our already strained taxes pay for parents to return to work when it is not actually needed? If both parents genuinely need to work in order to live a life above the poverty line, I can understand them getting this much help from the government. But if the second parent is working purely for luxuries, then I for one wouldn’t want to pay for that.
So moving onto families whereby both parents do need to work, of which I’m sure there are far more, and including single parent families, what should be done to stop grandparents from having to give up their well-earned fun years? Why is the cost of childcare so high and why isn’t the government doing something about it? If they did something to prevent childcare providers from charging so much, surely they would be able to lower the cost to the economy that free childcare hours and tax-free credits bring?
The cost of sending a toddler to nursery has risen by approximately one third in the last five years. The Family and Childcare Trust Survey reports that nurseries have dramatically increased their fees, having kept them lower during the recession. Ok, but why are prices rising so much above the level of inflation and more importantly, why are they being allowed to? Apparently the cost of full-time childcare is now £11,000 a year. Whilst the average wage in England may be £26,000, four in five new jobs are in sectors averaging under £16,640 for a 40 hour week[iii].
If you are following the maths, you will see that leaves an awful lot of families struggling to afford childcare and a huge number of grandparents feeling the strain. This shift in modern lifestyle shows no sign of slowing down, with the government looking at proposals to introduce shared parental leave with grandparents in 2018. Instead of doing this, should they actually be focusing on bringing down the cost of childcare without further damaging the economy, possibly by capping nursery fees? We live in a market-driven economy and this works pretty well on the whole, but should the government be stepping in when issues like this arise? I’m no economist, so I will leave the finer details well alone, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. However I do feel this is a debate worth pursuing in the right places.
I also don’t want to be left holding the baby, when my own babies have long since flown the nest.
[i] Daily Mail, 16th December 2016
[iii] According to the Office for National Statistics, March 2015. Figures will have changed slightly since then.