‘Why should I pay for you to have a child?’ This is the state of the debate on childcare right now | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

A fair and successful society respects and takes care of its young citizens, as well as their parents

A fun game to play for British parents seeking to drive themselves up the wall is to read about the childcare systems in other countries. Finland? A public early years education service for preschool children underpinned by a “right to daycare” for every citizen, which is free for lower-income families; and a home care subsidy for those that want to look after their children at home. France? State-funded creches available to children from the age of two and a half months, with a strong historical notion that the government should facilitate a mother’s ability to work outside the home. Germany? Children have a legal right to childcare and prices are as low as €70 to €150 (£61 to £130) per child a month. Denmark? Every child aged between 0 and six guaranteed a place in the public childcare system, with 75% of the cost consisting of government subsidies. It is truly sickening, and I’m genuinely surprised that parents here aren’t shutting down the country with a national strike.

“Sign him up in utero”, a friend advised me, when I told her I was pregnant, but after looking at the fees for the charming bilingual French nursery nearby, I concluded – after regaining consciousness – that I’d have to go for a council-run children’s centre. They, quite reasonably, only sign up babies who have been born, so I finally staggered in when he was five weeks old, around his actual due date. They said they might have a place in May 2023, a month after I’m supposed to go back to work (a different kind of work! This is my freelance kind of work, which I’m doing while the baby teethes loudly in the living room with my mother), but no guarantees. Like many mothers, I digested this news while having a silent panic attack, before intoning, in a shell-shocked sort of way: “Well, I suppose I’ll have to give up my entire career in order to look after this baby.” And I’m one of the lucky ones: I only need two days a week.

“Why should I pay for you to have a child? If you can’t afford to look after your child, don’t have one,” another taxpayer might complain. Admittedly, they’d have to be someone completely devoid of empathy – but there are more and more of those about these days (the only real manifestation of trickle-down economics, in my view). The rejoinder to which might be: “Why should I pay for someone to have had a child in 1948 who is now in a dementia nursing home?” Or: “Why should any of us pay for anything? Why don’t we just, I don’t know, roll around in our own excrement? Because what is society? What is humanity? Let’s just all be chimps, picking fleas off each other. Which is actually quite a nice communal childcare model, come to think of it. At least when compared with what is available in Britain.

The UK has the second most expensive childcare system in the developed world, and a government that basically assumes that, until a child is two (but usually three, when some free childcare hours kick in), the mother – because let’s be honest, it is almost always the woman – will simply give up her job to devote her life to unpaid childcare. Or else grandparents will step in: usually the grandmother. Who might want to enjoy her retirement after a lifetime spent caring for her own children (especially as that retirement may well have been unfairly delayed by the government at very short notice), or may not actually have the mobility required to look after a heavy and demanding preschooler. It’s all symbolic of a hideously dated attitude to the value of women’s work, which also manifests in the low wages paid to nursery and preschool staff, and the deliberate underfunding of the whole system.

I asked parents to contact me with their views on what is wrong with the childcare system, and was so inundated by rants that I’m still sifting through them. Here’s an incomplete list: preposterous fees that are only getting higher due to the cost of living and energy crises; a complete lack of flexibility, making life all but impossible for freelance and shift workers; the “free” 30 hours a week not being actually 30 hours, but 22 hours, if the nursery is kind enough to let you spread them over the school holidays, too; some parents, for example, students and those on lower incomes, being locked out of the free hours system completely; obscene bureaucracy; lack of wraparound care; the assumption that parents can just patch together childcare in the school holidays or else afford expensive holiday clubs; a system that discourages paid work for low earners and single parents, and expects those on universal credit to pay childcare costs upfront for later reimbursement; years-long waiting lists (one mother signed her foetus up when she was nine weeks pregnant and her child received a place when she was 22 months old); a closure and recruitment crisis; and inadequate provision for disabled children that forces their mothers out of the workforce.

It is, in other words, a complete and utter shitshow, that works for almost no one. If only the parents who could afford childcare reproduced, as per the rightwing edict, then the birthrate would plummet even further than it has already. Many women are already delaying motherhood because they cannot afford it. The government wants the country to work harder, yet it ignores the clear economic benefit of an affordable, functioning childcare system in favour of penalising part-time workers further, and tinkering with staff ratios that would put children in danger.

Because that’s who it is about, ultimately: children. You can make the economic case for childcare until the cows come home, but far more important is the wellbeing and education of children, who have a right to high-quality care and education that meets their social and emotional needs. They also benefit from having parents with a good work-life balance who aren’t on the verge of mental collapse. “Why should I pay for you to have a child?” is essentially an irrelevant question, when that child already exists in the world, unless you believe in child neglect as political policy. A fair society respects and takes care of its young citizens, as well as their parents. The UK is failing at both. On 29 October, I’m going to be joining a national protest for government reform on childcare, parental leave and flexible working. You should join too – we all deserve better.

What’s working

We love the book Cat’s First Baby by Natalie Nelson, about a pet coming to terms with a new arrival and finding common ground (“ … we both enjoy a good nap … so we can stay up all night!”). Our own cat, Mackerel, remains largely indifferent to the baby and far more interested in clawing his inflatable water mat, which she seems to believe is a fishpond.

What’s not

I am finding the pressure to give the baby big chunks of food to play with rather intense. Baby-led weaning, as it’s called, is the current orthodoxy for starting babies on solids. Fair enough if you have the time and aren’t overly anxious about choking, but many parents have privately confided to me that, despite assurances, they couldn’t get past that fear, and that the amount of food that ended up on the floor led them to resort fairly quickly to purees.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

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