Nothing can prepare you for the birth of your first child – the joy, the horror, the total discombobulation, but also the humbling awareness of just how little you knew about the realities of raising children. Tired babies do not, as I had expected, just “nod off”. Nor do all newborns love the car (mine screamed with such ear-shattering persistence we had to stop driving). But ask any expectant parent about the state of British childcare and you will settle upon a seemingly universal understanding: the system is woefully unfit for purpose.
After a Brexit exodus decimated staffing levels in nurseries, the pandemic quietly pushed the early years sector past the point of no return, and this winter promises even more hardship. Deliberate underfunding means providers have little choice but to charge astronomical fees, which have increased at a rate that far outstrips wages, to cover their own sizeable outgoings. And as energy prices rise, so too will costs.
Trying to find a nursery place for my daughter this year revealed just how depleted the provision is, with 18-month waiting lists as standard, and some waits so long their lists were closed. Demand far outstrips supply, thanks to a staffing crisis that shows no signs of abating as low-paid workers jump the sinking ship in favour of better pay and less stressful jobs. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of childcare providers in England plummeted by 4,000, and 86% of early years providers say the government funding they receive for three- and four-year-olds does not cover the cost of delivering those places. One nursery owner in the north-east tells me: “I haven’t been able to pay myself since November 2021 … I’ve had to take a second job just so I can live.”
It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine how this crisis is spilling over into the lives of working mothers. I know I’m not the only one who compares my wages each month with the cost of childcare, and wonders if the stress of juggling both, only to be barely breaking even, is worth it. Nearly three-quarters of part-time workers are women, and 57% of them feel they have no choice but to work part-time.
Friends share their own nightmare stories: one in full-time work texts to say her child’s nursery is closing its doors permanently with just a week’s notice due to staffing shortages, leaving her scrambling for childcare cover. Another says their nursery, struggling to cope with rising energy bills, is suddenly charging an extra £10 a day for lunch and activities.
But this winter, as household costs continue to rise, things could become even more dystopian. In the past year, the number of women not working in order to look after family has risen by 5% – a trend-bucking increase the likes of which hasn’t been seen for 30 years, with women between 25 and 34 most affected. Put simply, too many women can no longer afford to work. And as the cost of living and energy crises bite, this steady stream of mothers disappearing from the workforce threatens to build to a raging torrent.
Florencia is being forced to make a maddening choice between working and staying afloat. She and her husband employ a nanny to look after their two-year-old daughter, who has special needs, while they both work. “With the spike in costs, we can no longer afford [the nanny] so I have decided to take time off,” she tells me.
Laura, a 39-year-old Canadian who has two children, left her staff job at a top London university this year. After paying for childcare, she says, she “wasn’t even breaking even. It was like, is it even worth working?”
Lauren, also 39, has been unemployed since she was made redundant during the pandemic. “I can’t afford to pay for a nursery until I get a job, and I can’t seriously look for a job without childcare,” she says. “My husband works, but we’re in our overdraft every month now as things are getting more and more expensive.” She says that her sense of identity has suffered from not “being something other than someone’s mum, or wife”.
These stories should frighten us all – they point to a growing trend of working mothers being pushed by force and en masse back into the home. Too hyperbolic? “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all. I think this is exactly what we’re seeing,” says Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. These are women who want to work but have no viable means of doing so, who are being failed by decades of government shortsightedness. “People still do not grasp this notion that if you invest in the childcare sector, you’re investing in the economy, because it enables people to work,” says Brearley. “What they think is: ‘My taxes are paying for your children.’ And that’s not fair.”
At the end of this month, more than 10,000 families are set to participate in mass protests over political inaction on the issue. And it’s about time. Investing in childcare could boost the annual income of working mothers in the UK by £10bn, according to a study by the Centre for Progressive Policy. That translates to an additional 3% in their economic output – surely something even the most fiscally or liberally conservative governments can recognise as a positive. But for now, says Mary-Ann Stephenson of the Women’s Budget Group, “it’s a bleak picture. If women can’t afford childcare they either depend more on informal care from their families, which can lead to older women leaving the workforce, or they can only work part-time reduced hours, or they leave the labour market altogether”.
Government proposals to reduce staff-to-child ratios in nurseries as a way to reduce fees are largely unsupported by providers and parents alike. I ask the nursery owner whether it will make any difference for nurseries already operating at a loss. Not a chance, she tells me: “There’s no nursery in the land that’s going to be able to reduce their fees.”
As more working mothers are pushed to the fringes, the consequences will be felt in the gender pay gap – the monitoring of which is itself at risk. And in the long term, more and more women of retirement age will sleepwalk into poverty without the opportunity to build up healthy pensions during their working years.
But work is also about identity. It is an anchor to society, a reflection of our self-worth, a life raft of normality when family life threatens to consume us. There’s a reason those chintzy “gin and tonic – mummy’s little helper” signs are so commonplace – a glib expression of just how awful it can be to be a stay-at-home parent. It should no longer be taboo to say that lots of mothers have no desire to stay at home, and that many children benefit from being looked after in organised childcare settings. Generations of women, not hundreds, but millions – from the very youngest, to the very oldest – are being failed. And slowly but surely, we are rolling back the clock on equality.