The things we do for love

Esther Townsend looks at the realities of childcare.

It’s impossible to discuss women’s general experience of work without considering childcare. In England in 2011 78% of families with children under 15 used some form of childcare, ranging from nurseries and pre-schools; childminders; breakfast and after school clubs; to holiday care — we can’t live and work without it.

But for many families these arrangements aren’t working. In the last year childcare costs have soared by 19% in the UK. This is part of a longer term trend. The Family and Childcare Trust have reported the cost of childcare has increased by 77% over the past decade while wages have been stagnant in real terms. Childcare costs are named as the biggest single obstacle to working, or working more, by over 40% of mothers. 37% of mothers who don’t work would like to and 20% of mothers who do would like to take on additional hours but can’t because it doesn’t add up financially. Women are also leaving work due to the combination of costs and cuts in child tax credit and child benefit — in 2012 24% of mothers left employment and 16% reduced their hours to care for their children.

Until the late 1990s childcare was largely seen as a private matter and government investment and public provision were limited and patchy. People relied on informal networks and reciprocal arrangements to get by. From 1998 formal childcare began to be more affordable and available, with the development of Sure Start children’s centres, free entitlements and government subsidies.

In theory this was strengthened by the Childcare Act 2006 which obligated local authorities to provide sufficient childcare for working parents. In reality? Over 400 Sure Start centres were shut in the first two years of the Coalition government, with over half of those left no longer providing any onsite childcare. There are soaring costs; and a lack of flexibility. Only 20% of local authorities in England and 25% in Wales provide enough childcare for children aged two and under. There are also major gaps for older children, those with complex needs or parents who have shift or irregular work patterns. The Family and Childcare Trust argue these gaps have widened in the last 12 months.

Increasingly families are relying on informal support again — 26% ask grandparents to help, 4% older siblings, 5% other relatives and 7% call on friends and neighbours, with many also using unregulated childminders and nurseries. Informal childcare does offer benefits — aside from economic savings it strengthens social ties and allows children to be cared for by people they know, often in their own homes. But the other side of the coin is complicated and unstable arrangements — the lower your income the more complicated your childcare arrangements will be. Questions are also raised about safety and child educational development.

More research is also needed into how it affects the carers. For example, very little is known about young carers (15-24 year-olds) but it’s hard to see how caring for a younger sibling won’t have an impact on educational attainment and social development. Research from the Office of National Statistics suggests informal childcare adds up to 90 billion hours every year — that’s 90 billion hours of unpaid and unrecognised work!

This touches on the attitudes and debates underlying all of this around women’s employment, domestic labour and motherhood. Childcare is a “labour of love” — what kind of woman wants recognition and remuneration for a task she undertakes out of love? If you do what you love, it’s not work — right? On the scale of domestic drudgery most people would probably say raising children is the most rewarding. But it’s difficult and challenging work — like many jobs that are absolutely essential and valuable to capital (including much of the other work undertaken largely by women in the home), it is undervalued by capital and wider society. If the challenges of childcare are acknowledged there’s a general feeling that people shouldn’t complain because they “chose” it.

Childcare is set to be one of the major battlegrounds in the 2015 general election. With half of all parents saying the government isn’t doing enough to support them with childcare the major parties are already laying out proposals. From autumn 2015 the Tories plan extra support through a tax-free voucher system allowing parents to claim up to £1,200 towards childcare costs. This should eventually be open to 2.5 million families with two children. Sounds good until you look into the detail — both parents must be working, and it’s weighted towards better off families not those on lower incomes. It’s basically a bid to reclaim any middle class voters the Tories may have lost by cutting child benefit.

Labour plans to increase entitlement with shadow Chancellor Ed Balls announcing at their conference last year plans to raise taxes on banks to find 25 hours of free childcare for three and four year olds. They’re also promising “wraparound” childcare for primary school age children, meaning schools (or private providers) will offer 8am – 6pm opening hours around normal school times. But will this really make childcare affordable? With the current 15 hour entitlement many parents have to pay top-ups as nurseries impose minimum time slots to make up for the fact government subsidies don’t cover the full cost of the childcare places.

Against these proposals the labour movement needs to be arguing, and fighting, for free, flexible and high quality childcare, organised around parents work patterns. And work organised around workers’ child and other caring responsibilities. That is the only way to give women, all parents and children real choices.



About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.


  1. The system of childcare in this country is indeed in a dire state, and maternity leave is inadequate in my view. Though we are now entitled to a whole year, it puts a serious strain on household budgets, as statutory maternity pay often goes nowhere near covering the loss of a wage. Childcare for under-fives can often cost as nearly as much as you earn, especially so if you have two children or more and this makes the return to work untenable for some women. The high cost of childcare is caused in the main by the introduction of the EYFS with its tighter regulations demanding more paperwork, and staff training. Tighter OFSTED rules have also had impact making it harder for child-minders, causing them to give up on a profession that often they have practiced to a high standard for many years. I myself gave up after the introduction of the EYFS made it clear there was now little room to use the holistic unstructured child led approach I enjoyed and had great success with, (sitting up until midnight filling in EYFS paperwork unpaid also did not help). The loss of child-minders has left a huge gap in the childcare industry forcing parents to place very young children into expensive institutional childcare that is traditionally inflexible, can’t tailor well for the individual child, and will not be right for every family.

    However, as we franticly discuss the inadequacy of childcare, and the difficulties faced by Mothers returning to the workplace, what we often gloss over is how many Mothers actually WANT to return so quickly. Are they going back because it’s truly what’s right for them and their child, or are they doing it because of financial strain, or the fear they will lose the right to their old position, or the many social pressures that suggest to women it is outdated to stay home with your child when feminism has ensured we can “have it all”. Having a baby takes a huge toll on women’s life, and having had 3, I would argue adequate time for recovery, adjustment and bonding is vital for every woman after every birth. This time should account for the WHO breastfeeding recommendations, unpressured physical and mental recovery (especially so after complicated or traumatic births), and the time and facilities to build strong social networks within their own community’s with other parents for support and peer guidance. This is something that can take longer than a year, and the added stress women face when it comes to putting childcare in place when they are forced to return to a workplace at the end of that leave (and very often before the end of that leave) does not facilitate the above process.
    The provision of adequate recovery time is the only way to fully support women to freely be able to really choose the course of their lives through the journey of Motherhood, be this in the home or in the workplace.

    But the only way to ensure Mothers are able to have adequate recovery time is to look at ways to ensure that whilst we take this time, we can remain independent financially , rather than becoming the dependent of our partners. (And I now talk of two parent family’s over single parents because thankfully the Government recognises single parents should not be forced back into work until their youngest child is in full time school).
    If we made financial investment in mothers in this way, enabling them to stay home for a decent amount of time (I don’t know, let’s say up to two years to align with WHO breastfeeding guidance) it could have many benefits. The ability to have this relaxed period with your child could raise breastfeeding rates that have huge health benefits for both mother and child. Decreased stress and financial pressure could lower incidents of PND. Insuring mothers retain an income during time at home could make it more difficult to fall into controlling or abusive relationships and offer a way out if they do. And, it could actually drive down costs of childcare, if we had to make fewer provisions for children under two. Under twos need a higher adult/child ratio separate rooms, and obviously a more time consuming programme of care. This creates higher overheads for providers so less demand for under twos care would bring down overall costs. There is also much evidence to suggest that home-based care with a parent or a child-minder is the best way to provide for the many developmental needs and emotional needs of children under the age of two.

    We could make this financial investment in a few ways, it could be a kind of basic income, tax credits, a higher and stable amount of stat mat pay provided for by both employers and government.. surely if we can find ways forward to subsidise childcare, we can find ways forward to subsidise the best childcare of all…that which the parent provides. Free, flexible childcare tailored to parents needs is indeed important, but it’s also important to recognise that actually the support of mothers in other ways is just as valid when it comes to providing women, and indeed their children real freedom of choice. So maybe, in the run up to 2015, the real battle is gaining recognition of the worth of the parent at home, as well as smoothing the transition back to the work place when those parents are ready.

  2. Hi Sue, thanks for your letter – I wanted to reply sooner because I think you’ve raised some important issues, so apologies about that. I think that what you’ve identified as differences or disagreements aren’t so much there, but are more gaps in the article coming from word limit, context, lack of clarity etc.

    The article was written for an issue on the theme of “women and work”, triggered by the movements of political parties around childcare and the publishing of a report showing that informal childcare arrangements add up to 90 billion hours a year. This may not have been that clear because I’m not always very clear. But because of that the focus was on childcare provision and how this related to women and work. Had I had more space or been writing a more general article about women and parenting I would have looked at the issues you raise which I agree are important ones to discuss. We were looking to have something on maternity rights in the issue, but the person who was writing it was busy having the baby so in the end we didn’t get it done – my point is it wasn’t a deliberate omission.

    I absolutely agree that decent maternity pay and rights, and a full and comprehensive benefit system is central to ensuring women can maintain independence and have real choices about if, when and how to return to work. For sure, just as many women would like to return to work and can’t because of the cost of childcare, many women also return to work before they’re ready, or at all, because they can’t afford not to. I think women in many ways are trapped between social pressure on both sides too – there’s a pressure like to you say “have it all” and return to work and also a pressure in society to manage our “private lives” and families without support. I work in social care with looked after children and many women I work with say they feel guilty for looking after other children whilst their own are with someone else.

    I also think you raise issues around how women, our choices and our bodies are viewed as almost public property during pregnancy, motherhood etc which is an extension of how women’s choices are viewed generally. ie. people feeling they can have a very strong view about how women should behave during pregnancy, how they should parent, breastfeed etc. I’m doing some research around reproductive rights at the moment, and I think this is all the other side of that same coin. If you have suggestions of things to read I would really appreciate it.

    Just finally – I very much did not mean to convey that caring for children is negative or worthless – we do care for children and other people “for love” and it is rewarding and wonderful in many ways. And we do it for our own reasons and choices, absolutely. My point was that capital uses this for its own ends. The Tories and right-wing use the fact that we care out of love as an excuse not to have to provide decent support, rights, benefits and choices to carers, and through this I think devalue the importance of the work being done.

    Comradely, Esther

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