Workingmums’ guide to childcare

You’re expecting your first child and the issue of childcare is already looming large. has some advice on how to negotiate the early years of childcare.

Childcare is one of the scary new things you have to consider when you go back to work after having a child. Ideally, you will have read all the books, consulted your local authority’s website, done your homework before you even got pregnant and researched exactly what questions to ask, but childcare is an emotional thing. First of all you have to delve into the depths of yourself and, more scarily perhaps, into the depths of your partner, if you have one, and come up with some sort of childcare plan that somehow works for you and which you feel happy or happy enough with.

If you have, however, left it till the last minute, don’t despair. All your local nurseries may be booked up, but the crucial thing is that last minute planning is what parenthood is all about and being able to sort your way out of a planning crisis will put you in good stead for the next 18 years. Give yourself a brownie point.

Of course, you should ask all the right questions about ratios, Ofsted reports and the like, but as with job interviews and dates your mind tends to be very much made up within the first few seconds of being in a place or with a person so visiting places and talking to people is a good idea. Of course, you may be talking to the wrong people and you may have just visited on a good day, but don’t let such thoughts enter your head. Similarly, avoid reading any newspaper reports about childcare disasters in the run-up to having a baby or even for the next 18 years afterwards. Sometimes too much knowledge is a very bad thing and most first-time parents tend not to respond well to anything remotely anxiety-inducing. This is basically because they haven’t got a clue what they are in for and feel slightly as if they are being asked to cook a meal on Masterchef when they have only just got to grips with how to put the toast in the toaster.

Of course, some parents are very good at the whole business of research. They appear to have huge lists of issues to ask. If you have the good fortune to go to an open evening at a nursery or some such, you will hear said parents reeling off questions about things you never even knew existed. Always be ready with a question that no-one else has thought of so that you can outwit these know-it-alls. This can centre upon some obscure regulation about the fire and safety drill or some such which no-one else will even dream of asking. All you really want to know, though, is whether your child will be happy there and survive the childcare experience and whether the hours will fit with yours without you ending up spontaneously combusting from the stress of having to do the equivalent of the marathon every night to get there before the lateness fine kicks in.

Always read the small print on lateness fines. If you are uncertain of your leaving time from work, lateness fines may become something with which you become all too familiar and which you may spend at least four years quietly seething about if they are rigidly imposed. On the upside, it will make you so much more appreciative of schools once you get that far down the road – before you discover inset days.

If you are not going for or cannot afford formal childcare such as childminders or nurseries and have investigated tax credits and childcare vouchers, you might be considering relatives, particularly grandparents if they are close at hand, or perhaps a combination of the two. This may seem the perfect solution – free childcare with someone your child knows and loves and someone you potentially trust, but it can also open up a whole can of worms. Guilt is the first one. You thought parental guilt was all about your children. Think again. Asking your parents to give up their retirement years to look after your children is doubly guilt-inducing if they are fairly elderly and you know your kids are unlikely to spend the day quietly sketching or perusing Thomas the Tank Engine books. Then what about the days when they go down with nits or norovirus? It’s unlikely they go them from a trip to the local supermarket…Bear in mind too that you may not share the same views on childcare which will mean you have to develop some sort of unwritten memorandum of understanding or risk spending several years seething [see above with knobs on since you may need grandparents for after-school/holiday care if your school doesn’t offer any provision, what is offered doesn’t work for you or it’s just too expensive]. This is not likely to be good for your overall mental health.

Remember, people talk about childcare solutions. There is no such thing. Solution implies a sense of finality, but childcare is an ongoing thing and you will probably experiment with various forms of it in your lifetime, usually engendered by what is known in the trade as a “childcare crisis”. Expect these to happen regularly and you will be better prepared for life as a parent. If you think the early years are difficult, wait for the school holidays.

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