Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I have just recently read an article in the Guardian kindly posted by one of my Facebook friends which argues that the cost of childcare is the biggest obstacle to equality in the workplace. It held up the example of Nordic countries where free or heavily subsidized childcare is available to all children from 6 months onwards, enabling a very high percentage of mothers to return to the workplace and resume their careers. The lack of affordable childcare in the UK, it argued, was depriving the economy and society from the talents of these many women.
What’s to disagree with here? I am a stay-at-home mum who gave up my fledgling career as a reflexologist/aromatherapist because the high cost of childcare could not be justified by the moderate income from my therapy practice. I know first hand how much a sacrifice becoming a mother can be. It has been hard having to care for a young child full time with very little outside help other than the occasional playgroups. This utopian vision of free or cheap childcare would have been manna from heaven for me. I could have continued to build my practice and perhaps also gone on to add additional therapies to my portfolio. What a loss to me and to society that I was unable to do so!
Or was it? Up until my son started full time nursery school at the age of 3, I did not work or earn a salary in any proper sense. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t busy. I had to care for my child, feed him, play with him, take him out to the park endlessly as well as take care of our house, groceries, cooking and cleaning. This was not a life of leisure and it felt like hard work a lot of the time. On the upside, I got to enjoy being with my son and to watch him grow from a small baby to a young boy. I was there when he took his first steps and when he spoke his first words. I had an opportunity to bond with him and to foster a very close relationship in a way that my husband, who was out working during weekdays, didn’t.
That’s not all. During that time I was also able to search for and find our house which we bought as a renovation project. I had to oversee the many works including removing pebble dash, re-pointing brickwork, installing new windows, new front door, new fireplace, new floors, new bathroom, a side return extension, new kitchen and landscaping both front and back gardens. I had to make a limited budget go a long way and spent long hours shopping around for the most cost effective products and services. I may not have earned an income but I contributed to the substantial appreciation in the value of our house. I also learned new skills and found out I was quite good at the property renovation business. A few years ago, when we were fortunate enough to come into some money, I was able to put these skills into practice by buying a sorry looking flat and transforming it into a beautiful home and then selling it for a profit, thus starting my property development business. When one door closes another often opens.
Now I know I have been extremely lucky to have a partner whose income was sufficient to support us all without my having to go out to work, a situation which many other women do not find themselves in. But I am glad now that I did stay at home with my son and didn’t drop him off at day care every morning. No matter how good a nursery is, it is never going to be a substitute for family. My son got love, cuddles and kisses from me throughout the day. I don’t underestimate the importance of physical affection in the development of a child. Yes of course there were times when he drove me up the wall but I had to remind myself that childhood is fleeting and not to wish away this precious time with him.
Many mothers have found that, like me, dropping out of the workplace has given them an opportunity to try out different career paths. This has given rise to the term “mumpreneurs” which is used to describe women who set up businesses from their home. Another way forward is to allow women (and men) to work more flexibly. Job sharing is now very common in the Netherlands – British employers should take note.
It is impossible to have a one size fits all approach to this issue. There is undoubtedly a need for more affordable childcare, particularly for single mothers, families that need two separate incomes to get by or even to provide mothers like me with occasional respite from the non-stop 24/7 job of caring for a child. However, I am not so comfortable with the idea that women should en masse be expected to leave their child in the care of others in order to pursue their careers and that somehow society would be the better for it. I do feel that the job of raising a child is often undervalued and that given the choice, children are happier in the care of their parents than with strangers. Stay-at-home mums may be dropping out of the workplace but they are still contributing to society, helping to raise well adjusted, happy children who will be our future generation.