Childcare is pricey – maybe Boris should set up a nanny state?

An unforeseen side-effect of adulthood is how babyish it has caused my life to become. The most humiliating example, which I share here as a sort of therapy and only because we are in our safe space, is that these days, I eat dinner at six. Six o’clock, God it’s practically lunchtime, the sun high and looking down at us with its own particular brand of hot disgust. But this is when our children eat, transforming quickly into sad and hissing cats if pasta is not installed into their mouths within a regimented time slot, and so, during the first lockdown of intense childcare to avoid cooking twice, we started to join them.

Funny how quickly things slip into the sea, a seemingly small decision rolling over evening by evening until now my stomach rumbles at half past five, having trained itself like a dog. This new regime, however, would not have been possible if the Awfulness hadn’t forced us to stay home, and we were still working out in the world, at our office and restaurant. Six o’clock used to be when I would shut down my computer and start sloping out to the station. It used to be the time my boyfriend’s shift at work began. In the past, a childminder, after-school club or kind grandparent would be responsible for feeding my daughter, one of us blustering in gratefully afterwards to read a story. Since the pandemic closed schools and shielded grandparents at exactly the time we had our second baby, we have inevitably reshuffled and squeezed our careers in order to watch our children.

And watch them we have, with a glazed, loving fury, offering biscuits, nipples, Netflix, promises of better times, all the while keeping one eye on our work and one ear on the news. I am particularly attuned, therefore, to discussions on childcare. A combination of reduced income and my partner’s new, misshapen job means we’re looking after the baby ourselves, rather than, as we did with his sister, depositing her daily at a childminder’s house. You know how particular comments hook on to your insides and remain there forever? I’m reminded now of one childminder, prising my weeping toddler from my neck while telling me, “Of course she hates you going to work, you’re not leaving her with me for her benefit, you’re leaving her here because you want to!’ Over the past six years I’ve continued that conversation silently, in the shower, on deadline, any time I needed a little shot of energy, explaining tightly that I’m not working simply for the fun of it, I’m working to pay for childcare, so that by the time my child is three (and qualifies for free nursery hours) I have still got a job.

Childcare costs, already prohibitively expensive, have gone up in the past year to an average of £263 a week, or £14,000 a year for one child in full-time care, although the costs vary massively across the country and spike wildly in the city where I live. Childcare fees account for almost 40% of the average employed parent’s income – after New Zealand, parents in the UK pay the most for childcare of any country in the world. So I feel for the prime minister, I do. Last week Conservatives told the Sunday Times that party donors had been approached to pay for a nanny for Wilfred, Boris Johnson’s youngest son. This, of course, being the man whose entire career balances on his determined criticism of a nanny state.

A donor allegedly told one MP: “I don’t mind paying for leaflets, but I resent being asked to pay to literally wipe the prime minister’s baby’s bottom.” Well, yes.

Perhaps this donor scandal might cause Johnson to think more closely about the cost of childcare. Rather than seeing childcare support as a favour to mums, like free coffee at Waitrose if you bring your own cup, he might acknowledge it is an investment in the economy. If they have children, people typically reduce their working hours or stop work altogether. So, “For every £1 our government invests in childcare,” points out Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, the country gets £3 back. “Childcare is an investment, not a cost.”

But crouching between the lines of the Johnson story is another, about class, and gender, and who should care for a child. The mother? Not if she’s posh. The father? That would be cruel. Party donors? TBC.

As Johnson may be learning, the reason many women (whose salaries are typically lower than their male partners’) leave work to look after their children is not simply because of their soft maternal nature, but because they can’t afford not to. Many, given the opportunity (or a quiet bung from a benefactor with cash left over from the leaflet budget) would also hire a nanny.

One benefit of eating dinner at six, apart from the glorious bargaining over how many peas constitutes a “mouthful”, is that there is then a whole unbroken evening ahead. A whole evening once the childcare is over in which an adult can take the time to slide back into their own body, temper their vigilance, bathe alone, eat the good chocolate. And then, of course, be in bed promptly at half past nine.