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Beena Nadeem investigates the toll of tag-team parenting for those who can’t afford childcare costs or find childcare that fits around their work.
Lianne Lovell works eight-hour days, three days a week from home, as a features’ editor.
Her husband, Paul works as a telecoms engineer, working two day shifts and two nights shifts a week, including weekends. If that wasn’t complicated enough, his days change every week.
“It plays havoc with sleep,” says Lianne, whose one year old Logan still wakes through the night.
“And we live in Surrey, so childcare here is £72 a day – that’s the norm. For me to pay the mortgage as well [as childcare] would wipe us out every month. That’s when we decided to try to juggle it between us… we’re two months in and it’s tiring,” she says.
What Lianne and Paul and thousands of other parents are forced to do is what’s commonly called tag-team parenting. It’s not a new phenomenon, with the term first coined in 2009 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, in 2009, to mean parents who work different hours from one another and manage childcare between them.
Indeed, our parents’ generation may have done this, and generations after them, such as writer Zena Alli, who remembers 10 years ago when her children were very small, “me and my husband would be able to wave from opposite platforms to one another as he’d be on the last tube in to start a night shift and I’d just be finishing work”.
In 2011, the Family and Childcare Trust looked at 1,000 couples and found that despite valuing formal childcare, dual-parent, often lower-income families commonly found themselves unable to afford it… this was especially poignant for those who worked different hours from one another.
The report found that, although having the attention of one parent at a time might benefit individual children, there was an overall cost to family life and a healthy work life balance for those without available childcare and work flexibility – a combination which is still frustratingly infrequent.
Logan is at nursery two days a week. In between them, Lianne and Paul fine-tune a routine between night shifts, work and morning wakes and feeds, where the couple swap childcare roles for three or four hours at a time.
“When Paul is due to work a night shift, he has a transition day in the middle. On that day we don’t have childcare and I work from home and get up at 6am with the baby. I do until 10am, so Paul gets a lie in. He then takes over until 1pm. I do lunchtime and then Paul does from 3-6pm, and then I’ll take over, do his bath and bed while Paul gets ready for work and then he’s out all night. The next day Logan is in nursery,” says Lianne.
Despite this sounding gruellingly complicated, Lianne says she and Paul factor in date mornings twice a week where they go for a run and plan a jacuzzi and the couple do spend time together as a family, which brings with it a healthier balance to what could have been a stressful family set-up.
For others, getting anywhere near a sports’ centre while having time to factor in a dentist’s appointment can seem impossible – especially when there are multiple children in the household.
Su Lake and her husband Kevin, who is a full-time window cleaner, are feeling the strain of a tag-team scenario, something often exacerbated when there’s more than one child in the mix.
Su and Kevin have two young sons; one is three and the other is 16 months. The family live in Bedfordshire, with Sue working from home as she’s no longer able to afford the commute or childcare to cover her former job in London.
Their three year old goes to nursery for three mornings a week and the family have just about being able to meet the £500 a month childcare cost.
“Straight after his first birthday, I was pregnant again. Within a week I had some more regular freelance work. I was so excited I didn’t give it much thought on how I’d make it all work,” says Su.
Her routine can vary, but it’s usual for Kevin to come home from work by about 5.30pm when he’ll take over dinner and bath time with the boys. She will hop onto the computer to work, through needs to break off to breastfeed the baby before bed.
“Some time around 8pm, I’ll start to work again. It’s hard from home – I can hear everything that’s going on in the house and am missing out on family time,” she says.
She also realises that husband Kevin has been doing a physically demanding job all day and “as soon as he gets in, I’m shutting myself away,” she says.
“There have been nights where I have been working until two or three o’clock and then get back up at 6am again with the kids as my husband is getting ready to go to work.”
Two months ago, the couple realised something had to give. Being beyond exhausted, Su realised she was deeply unhappy.
“I wasn’t seeing my friends; wasn’t socialising and from a mental health point of view, it affected me negatively. I’ve been at the end of my tether a lot. We’ve had to try to get the youngest into nursery for a few mornings and he’s already off ill in his first week! You can’t win. I didn’t want to put him into nursery this early, and we can’t afford to, but it was out of desperation,” she says, realising that, “Kevin too was going through this and wasn’t getting a minute either”.
It seems until childcare becomes affordable, attainable and flexible enough to enable parents, especially those on lower incomes, to have a life outside of work, that tag-team parenting is a phenomenon that is here to stay. Megan Jarvie, head of Coram Family and Childcare, says that too many parents find that high costs and inadequate childcare leave them with few choices – taking the support away that parents need to work and balance family time.
“We need a childcare system which supports parents to be able to make the choices that work best for their family,” she says.
There is also a relationship cost to tag-team parenting. Dee Holmes, Senior Practice Consultant at relationship and counselling charity Relate, says parents focus a lot of time and energy on their children’s lives and work, but it’s worth remembering that it’s a bit like the foundations of a house. If you think of the children are a roof and the parents are the foundation, if you keep on checking the roof and ignore the foundations “the whole thing ends up collapsing and it doesn’t matter how good the roof is”.
She says it is important to carve some time out together, through, for instance, reciprocal childcare arrangements with friends who have similar aged-children. She adds that to get some family [and couple] time together it’s important to do regular tasks together. It may not seem romantic, but doing the supermarket shop together and going for a coffee afterwards not only gives you time together, but make the shopping easier.
She recognises, however, that for tag-team parents, this can be difficult to organise and the presence of mobile phones means interruptions and requests for instantaneous responses to messages are common.
Although tag-team parenting might work for the child, for lower income families who wouldn’t choose to live like this, it often seems to be at the cost of family time, a healthy balance and even parents’ mental health.