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18 March 2023

The parent trap: how Britain became a very, very expensive place to raise a child

Money alone won’t fix the childcare crisis. Rethinking work and motherhood might.

By Sophie McBain

The meeting is overrunning and, although she is trying to hide it, everyone can sense her rising agitation. Because 4.30pm is too early to leave the office and yet if she doesn’t run, she’ll be too late to pick up her children. Finally, she’s on the train, head in someone’s armpit, twisting to see her phone so that she can carry on emailing. She’s the last parent to arrive at nursery again, and there is the pang of guilt when she sees her child waiting in the doorway, his coat already buttoned. And then it’s bath time and bedtime, and the children are fractious and part of her wants to extend forever the feel of their small, damp bodies pressed against hers, and part of her just needs them to hurry up and go to sleep so that she can finish her work and eat some dinner and oh, God, are there any clean school shirts? And now she’ll feel terrible, for being a distracted parent and for barely scraping by at work.

She’ll try harder, she tells herself. Her salary disappears on nursery and after-school club – like three quarters of working mothers in this country, according to research by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, her job no longer makes financial sense. The thought of giving up work depresses her, but it’s also humiliating to find that you are paying for your seat at the table. She wonders when she will reach her breaking point.

[See also: The great attention deficit: what’s fuelling the rise in adult ADHD?]

Maybe you recognise your own life in hers, and maybe you don’t: she understands that she is privileged. How lucky she is to have a career, rather than a job, to do work that involves sending emails on trains, unlike scrubbing loos or caring for the sick – all those things that can’t be done remotely. How lucky she is to have the option of giving up work. She has a husband, and he earns more than her, as most husbands do, for which she should be grateful. How lucky she is.

Maybe she should quit her job, because what kind of a mother puts her children through those long hours in nursery? The staff know how to rock her child to sleep and make him laugh, they held his hands as he took his first, wobbly steps. She entrusts them with her whole world every morning, and she knows they are paid too little for that trust. In the UK, the average childcare worker earns below the living wage; almost half have to claim state benefits and tax credits. She knows that her career, what she is salvaging of it, is built on the hidden labour of these other, less lucky women. And she doesn’t feel good about any of this.

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This is the parent trap. Or more accurately, a parent trap, one of many ways that parenthood – and especially motherhood – in Britain has come to feel financially and emotionally crushing. Maternity pay in the UK is the lowest in Europe, and once women return to work they face some of the highest childcare costs in the developed world: a full-time nursery place for a two-year-old costs almost £15,000 a year (and much more in London). A recent survey showed that one in four parents are cutting back on necessities such as food, heating and clothing to pay for childcare. Almost half a million mothers have quit their jobs because they cannot find affordable care.

Meanwhile, young professionals wonder if “babies are becoming a luxury item”, as one popular tweet put it, as if starting a family were a consumer choice rather than a foundational freedom. A recent survey by Pregnant Then Screwed found that six in ten women who have an abortion cited childcare costs as one of their reasons. It is hard to fully account for the loss and disappointment, the sense of stuckness, among many people in their twenties and thirties.

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[See also: Stella Creasy interview: The government’s childcare reform is “economically illiterate”]

What feels to many (and has looked to others) like a personal crisis is only now being recognised as a national one: the Centre for Progressive Policy estimates that it is costing the UK economy £27bn a year. In the Spring Budget, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a £4bn investment in childcare, including a gradual expansion of the subsidies for 15-30 hours of free care a week – which are currently available for three- and four-year-olds – to include those aged one and two. The measures, more generous than expected, were long overdue and symbolically important: even the Tories now accept that large-scale reform is needed.

But it was a hollow victory for parents. The funding will kick in too late to help many with children under three; the 30-free-hours offer wouldn’t start until September 2025, assuming the promise has been enough to get the government re-elected. In any case, the money may not be sufficient to save a sector on the brink of collapse: the Early Years Alliance warned in January that a third of nurseries, pre-schools and child-minding services are at risk of closing this year. Fully funding only the existing subsidies would cost the government £1.8bn. Hunt has pledged an extra £204m, roughly the same increase he announced for fixing potholes.

Instead parents will have to plug the gap. They are tired, angry – and politically energised: in one recent survey 96 per cent said they would vote for the party with the best childcare offer. Labour, which has promised a plan as transformative as the creation of the NHS, remains embarrassingly vague on the details. Will it seize the moment?

A truly transformational plan, one that addresses all the reasons the UK has become one of the worst places in the developed world to raise a child, would not patch up a broken system on the cheap: it would boost maternity pay and expand shared parental leave; it would ensure that childcare workers are fairly paid, and celebrated; it would rebuild Sure Start centres and other community groups; and it would form part of a broader movement to reimagine our relationship with work and care. What happens next could reshape the country in monumental ways.

[See also: Why free childcare isn’t as good as it sounds]

I once asked a wildly successful friend who has three children and a high-flying husband how they juggled it all. “I have a wife,” she said dryly: a live-in nanny who did everything that would have been expected of the archetypal Fifties housewife. The nanny cared for the baby, did the school runs, cleaned the house and did the laundry, cooked, babysat and stepped in to solve problems such as bouts of chickenpox or last-minute World Book Day costumes. It sounds too much to expect one person to do – but then this gets to the heart of the problem, doesn’t it? Most workplaces operate on the assumption that employees have a “wife”: someone else who runs the household and enables workers to clock in for long workdays, five days a week.

And yet for decades most haven’t. More women want to work outside the home, and more have to. Fewer jobs pay enough to support a family on a single income: real wages have stagnated, while house prices have soared from three times the typical salary in the Nineties to nine times higher today.

A live-in nanny is one solution for the wealthy, but it does nothing to answer the question of how society should distribute and value childcare. My friend’s nanny is from the Philippines, a country built on the care economy and its exploitative dynamics, where many children are raised by relatives so their mothers can care for others overseas. We still treat childcare as a private issue – how embarrassed we are when the nursery phones mid-meeting – but it is inescapably a communal one: someone has to pick up this work, and who that is has a dramatic bearing on how power is distributed. For many women, motherhood is the moment that the limits of feminist progress are fully revealed: the gender pay gap is more accurately a motherhood gap; in straight couples, parenthood is the point at which men leap forward in their careers and women, drowning in domestic work, fall behind.

[See also: Mumsnet’s founder Justine Roberts: “It is a place where women can speak the truth”]

When the left speaks of childcare as infrastructure, they gesture to the absurdity of treating it as a personal issue, or something only parents should care about, when it is vital to a well-run society. A recent article in the British Medical Journal described a surgeon who was struggling to stay in her job because she was spending £4,000 a month on childcare: if doctors cannot make work pay, what about nurses? Without affordable childcare, the health system, the education system, the entire economy, suffers. But childcare is also infrastructure because – like a road network or an airport – it closes the distance between people and so reshapes the psychological landscape of a country.

But you can’t weigh up childcare policies the way you might evaluate a proposal for a new motorway: rationally, with reference to facts and figures alone. Or certainly I couldn’t, when I wrote large chunks of this article while attached to a breast-pump, in a windowless cubicle in the New Statesman’s office. My youngest child is seven months old, and I ache for him when we are apart.

My husband and I are among the 2 per cent of UK families who have taken up shared parental leave. Neither will be the default parent; we both understand how much work it takes to run a household with three young children. But, unlike if we lived in the more egalitarian Nordic countries, his parental leave came at the expense of mine: I had to transfer my maternity entitlements to him, something that not only involves a lot of paperwork but proved psychologically hard. I felt my maternity leave had ended too soon.

Any improved childcare policy will need to make room for maternal ambivalence and recognise the tensions between measures that promote gender equality and those that give mothers time with their children. Alongside the economic and social arguments, a simmering culture war has intensified in the wake of Hunt’s Budget over what kind of childcare matters. Should we be supporting women to stay with their children, or to return to work? Are children best cared for in well-funded institutions, or at home?

[See also: Stella Creasy interview: The government’s childcare reform is “economically illiterate”]

Beneath this mess of feelings is a simple problem of funding. Or rather, of massive underfunding. The existing subsidies are so stingy that the policy names are a kind of doublespeak. “Tax-free” childcare is capped at £2,000 a year. Most parents receive no additional help until their child turns three, after which they receive 15 or 30 “free” hours (for 38 weeks of the year) under a system so underfunded that nurseries charge hefty top-up fees to survive. (To illustrate: one friend who receives 30 free hours is still paying almost £1,600 a month for a single nursery place.)

Freedom of Information requests have shown that the government has known for years that it is underfunding its “free” hours. This shortfall has pushed up fees, suppressed worker wages and forced thousands of providers out of business. The closures are concentrated in the most deprived parts of the country, where parents cannot pay large supplementary charges, while elsewhere there has been a surge in acquisitions by heavily indebted and opaque private equity companies. Research shows that for-profit nurseries charge parents more and pay staff less. The parallels with adult social care, another piece of essential social infrastructure that has been mostly sold off to parasitic private equity firms, are not coincidental. A country that undervalues care becomes an uncaring one, the kind where the old are confined to hospital beds, where to be “in care” as a child means to grow up in a residential facility run on the cheap by a shell company and then spat out without support at 16.

We need to reset our conflicted attitudes towards care. We place huge ideological value on maternal care, but do not recognise this as work or reward it financially. Instead, when care is outsourced, we cheapen it, treating it as low-pay, low-status work. Underpinning these contradictions is a toxic model of care as selflessness and self-denigration: that care is something people (and especially women) should give for free. Escaping the parent trap also means liberating ourselves from this misconception.

[See also: Children are being left out of the childcare debate]

Despite the headline figures, the Spring Budget revealed a Conservative Party still in denial about the scope of the childcare crisis: the Confederation of British Industry estimated that Hunt’s proposals would cost £8.9bn. Overall, he pledged less than half of that amount. Underfunding an expansion of free hours risks exacerbating the existing problems: forcing wages down and fees up, speeding up closures in lower-income areas and private equity buyouts elsewhere. Hunt hopes that he can cut costs by relaxing the minimum staff-to-child ratios, a measure that is unpopular with both providers and parents. A pilot to offer a £600 bonus to new child-minders is tokenistic: when a third of providers are operating at a loss, a one-off payment won’t suddenly make the job viable.

The Conservatives have long been divided over childcare policy, as they are over almost everything. There are many within the party, such as the MP Miriam Cates, who are resistant to policies that focus on formal childcare settings rather than parents who want to stay home. Right-leaning think tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) have proposed changes to the tax system to benefit single-earner families, as well as childcare credits that can be spent on formal care, used to pay grandparents, or simply to supplement family income. Their approach dismisses the emphasis on formal early-years childcare as paternalistic, and professes to give parents what they really want: CSJ polling found that 78 per cent of parents with children under four would like to spend more time with their children, and 44 per cent would stop working altogether if they could.

There are endless parent polls, and limits to what they can tell us. How do you separate what a person feels about caring for their child from how they feel about their job? The CSJ polled just over 1,000 people, and the questions were framed in ways that, reading them just weeks after returning from maternity leave, left me wracked with guilt: did I agree or disagree that “we need to encourage parents back to work as quickly as possible to help the wider economy”, or that it is better to give parents more time “so that the baby is happy and settled”? Must the choices be this stark? Our preferences are shaped by what is possible and what is normal. Would I have felt less upset about returning to work after six months if I still lived in America, where many women return within weeks? Probably. Would I have returned this soon if maternity pay were more generous? Definitely not.

Labour has spotted an opportunity to claim ground on childcare, which makes its current vagueness baffling. It has been looking to Australia, where the manifesto pledge by Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party to subsidise 90 per cent of childcare costs is widely credited with having won it the 2022 election. Left-leaning think tanks such as the Women’s Budget Group have drawn up blueprints on how to make childcare universally available through free, government-funded, professionally staffed early-years settings. The group has estimated that its proposals, which would offer parents 35 free hours a week once their child is six months old, and would pay childcare workers in line with primary-school teachers, would cost £25.8bn a year, a sum that would mostly be recouped through higher tax revenues. The organisation speaks of the potential for a green, care-led economic recovery, with investment focused on care infrastructure rather than construction.

These are ambitious, nation-changing plans. They would boost female employment, close the gender pay gap, increase family earnings and tackle inequality. They are also only the beginning of what is needed.

[See also: “It’s half thought-out”: Childcare sector leaders on Jeremy Hunt’s reforms]

Tucked away on a red-brick estate in east London is Grasshoppers in the Park, a nursery part-run by parents. It is a non-profit project, with a fee structure based on income. Parents are also offered a payment reduction to help out one day a week, and pitch in on the finances, marketing or maintenance, even taking laundry home. Staff wages are higher than in much of the sector. For 11 years, the director has been Luciana Talpo, an energetic woman who exhibits a teacherly authority. When I visited one spring morning she led me to a neat kitchen and offered some water: “I’m not making a hot drink – we’re too busy!” Small faces pressed up against the glass to check in on us as Talpo made the case for greater collaboration – the way it motivated staff to do better: “The trust that parents have for us is incredible. I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else.”

Parent-led nurseries exist in Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and Italy but are rare in the UK. They demonstrate the potential for alternative, cooperative models, ones that help foster community links – but they depend on parents being able to give more time. To escape the parent trap, we will also need to reset our relationship with work: four-day working weeks, and flexible and shorter hours, would all improve family life immeasurably. (The government has resisted plans to make flexible working the default.)

Having a child, like falling sick or becoming very old, is a reminder of our mutual interdependence: we cannot do it alone. An under-acknowledged feature of modern British parenting is isolation: one 2017 survey found that 90 per cent of new mothers felt lonely after giving birth, and more than half felt “friendless”. Around a third of families depend on grandparents as their primary source of childcare, and yet in recent generations our family ties have weakened.

So have our community ties. I don’t know how I would have coped without the support of my local friends and neighbours, with whom I share emergency babysitting and moral support. When my toddler suddenly developed a terrifying medical condition, I phoned my next-door neighbour who arrived in seconds, her own baby still wet from the bath and wrapped in a towel. Good neighbours can be the result of good luck, but economic privilege often helps. In the past decade, the number of people who exchange favours with neighbours has declined. Housing instability feeds community instability, by preventing people from putting down roots. Meanwhile, the gutting of community groups and Sure Start centres has had a lasting social impact.

So what do we do? We need to treat the sector as infrastructure, and guarantee parents access to low-cost childcare from the end of parental leave. Hunt’s proposals are a step in the right direction on this. But we also need to increase wages and training for childcare workers. We need to protect nurseries from private equity buyouts. We need to confront Britain’s long-hours culture, and we need to foster richer community links. One of the challenges of tackling the parent trap is that what starts as a limited ambition – to make childcare more affordable – quickly expands in scope, because you cannot fully redress childcare without redressing how we relate to care and work more generally, which means redressing how – as citizens, friends, colleagues – we relate to one another. Maybe it’s a risk, a sign that lasting change will be hard to achieve. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a dazzling opportunity.

[See also: Childcare costs are failing mothers and the economy]

This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink