Monday, 16 February 2009

Flexible childcare?

I’m sure there are people out there who manage to stick to a 35-hour (or 25-hour or 10-hour or whatever) week, every week of the year, except the five weeks when they go on holiday. Well, yes, there are. They’re called employees. Even then, there are plenty of employees who don’t manage that, anyway.

Running your own business, though, generally means you have to deal with fluctuations. Seasonal fluctuations. Tri-annual fluctuations. Fluctuations from one client and different fluctuations from another. It is very difficult to balance this out so that you can provide a consistent workload that keeps you happy, your children happy and the house clean.

Since R was born, we have been fortunate (in some ways) to have one average year and one not very good year. In terms of our finances this is a bit of an issue. In terms of quality time that R has had with both of us in her first two and a half years, this has been pretty darned good. This year is looking like it’s going to be a very, very, very busy year. The kind of year where we might not be able to do all the work ourselves and will be using freelancers to help out.

But we come up against a problem that faces many self-employed parents. We will need extra childcare. On an ad hoc basis. So that, when we have a calm couple of days we can shower R with attention and take her swimming and to the zoo and fun things like that. And not have to pay someone for not looking after her.

We are fortunate that, this year, the nursery school where she goes is pretty quiet (2006 was a low birth-rate year, apparently), so there are certain sessions when we can phone the day before, or even that morning and say ‘Do you have the ratios for R to come?’

But, if it weren’t for my mum, I honestly do not know what we would do. She already looks after R three mornings a week, though that will be less when R starts at playgroup in May. But she is happy to keep for an extra couple of hours, at short notice. She’s happy to have her for the weekend, at short notice. She’ll even come and look after her here for a bit, if necessary and give her her bath and put her to bed.

This week, for example, she has swapped her days round, because it’s half-term and we have plans on Thursday and Friday. In the summer holidays, she will be called on a lot. And, in March, when we are going to have to work double the hours we currently do, she will probably have to an extra couple of hours most of her days and at least one weekend, possibly two. Thank you Mama!

So… Do you need flexible childcare and, if so, where do you get it? Do you use grandparents or other informal childcare? What do you do in the holidays? Do you take the whole time off? Do you cut back your hours?


  1. This is one of my biggest issues. I have no family in the country. Not a single person who can help with flexible childcare. The nursery my guys used to go to was so full that I could never get extra sessions. now that son 1 is at big school and son 2 is at pre-school, every school holiday becomes an issue.

    I use a childminder who is great at being flexible. But she has children of her own so when school holidays roll around, she usually goes away with them.

    This half term my husband is taking the week off so I can work. Normally, I just try to squeeze a few hours work in while the boys watch TV/brain each other.

    Luckily, all my clients are mothers who have the exact same problem so we're used to each other not being there. If i was working in the banking industry or something else male dominated, I wouldn't stand a chance.

  2. Childcare is a nightmare.

    I have husband/wife combo childminder for the 3 year old but they have a combined age of 130. He also goes to pre school so only goes to them for 3 hours a day it doesn't bother me. In the school holidays I don't want him there every day so I have to juggle between 2 days with childminder, 2 days with me and a day with husband who works from home.

    The 4 year old also goes to the childminder in the hols with the 3 year old. This morning I had to peel her off my leg.

    The situation is certainly not ideal - especially as I have limited holidays. God know what I'll do in the Sumemr hols! No doubt I'll have to take unpaid leave to cover it.

  3. HOM: That sounds really difficult. It's very lucky that you have understanding clients. I guess you must end up working lots of evenings and early mornings in the holidays.

    Laura: Summer holidays are so long. I wonder if there are playschemes available for pre-schoolers. I know there are things like that for school-age children, but have never heard of anything for the younger ones. If not, it's a bit of a gap in the market that someone should fill! There are surely so many parents in the same situation.

  4. I'm self-employed and it's a nightmare. This week as it's mid-term I've no option but to split care of my daughter between her brother and my parents or work at night or not at all. But come the summer she will have to go to activity camps which are really expensive. I only work part-time (while my daughter is at school) as child care here in Ireland is prohibitively expensive : €700 per month part-time / €1,000+ full time and set to increase.

  5. Caren: It seems to be a big issue that isn't fully taken into account by governments trying to persuade mothers back into work (don't know if your government is one of them or not). One of the problems, of course, is that so many child care providers are themselves mothers, working in that particular industry because it gives them school holidays off. There's an interesting article about flexibility in the workplace in Saturday's Guardian ( Someone should be writing one about flexibility in childcare, too.

  6. And aren't you just the best person for the job?! I'd do it myself but personal essays take up all my spare time & then some. Our government is far worse than the UK's. There is no flexibility whatsoever here. And it's set to get worse. Now must dash & read that article.

  7. I think grandparents are ideal, if they are young in body and at heart. I would love to live nearer my children's.

  8. Iota: Grandparents are, indeed wonderful. I know R's other grandparents would love to be spending more time with her, but they live a long way away. They are coming for a visit this weekend and will keep her very busy! Apparently, though, not all grandparents want to look after their grandchildren. Fair enough, I suppose. If you spent years looking after your own children and working and have finally retired, maybe you want a bit of me time! I know my mum finds it very rewarding, though, because she has as sense of uselessness since everyone left home. Having responsibilitiy for a child again, albeit for only a few mornings a week, makes a big difference to her self-esteem. (And R loves her time there, too!)

  9. I am really really lucky in that both my parents and my husband's parents literally live about 5 minutes from us.
    And they are really good to us and helpful, but we tend to not use them because I feel a bit like I'm taking advantage and they have lives too and might not want to have to entertain a 6 and a 3 year old for a whole day.
    They do offer and I do take them up but invariably I use the holiday club at school which is brilliant, but expensive.
    However, now I have quit my job and work from home it has become a lot easier as I tend to work in the evenings to catch up.

  10. Tara: How great to have them so close! I would definitely use them more, if they're willing. They might well be wanting to spend more time with their grandchildren. Though not all grandparents do want to do proper childcare, of course. My mum and I have quite an official arrangement, which makes me feel better about it, and means I can rely on her being there regularly, unless she gets ill (which she rarely does).

    Does the holiday club take the 3-year-old, too? I would love to find something like that for R in the holidays, because she really gets a lot out of the socialising and activities at nursery school and I think she would miss it for a whole six weeks.

    I've been having to work evenings a lot recently and I don't like it. I probably wouldn't mind if I'd been spending all day playing with R, but it's usually play with R in the morning, work till mid-afternoon, play with R while trying to do housework and often cook, eat dinner, bathe R, put her to bed and then go straight up to the computer to work. Ah well.

  11. We chose nursery because, for us, it was the most flexible option. We have parents next door but one and five minutes away. But what happens when they want to go away? What happens if they get sick? How many car seats, prams, sterilisers, etc. will we need? Will my mum listen if actually, no, I don't want him to do this, that or the other.
    It was all too stressful. And, up to now, I think we have made the right choice for us.
    I did think about working for myself, but had the same worries about finances and how I would get "real" flexible childcare so went back to employment.

  12. NMSOM: I have a friend who's thinking about going back to work (and financially will probably need to soon) and she has similar concerns about using grandparents. Though might be the only thing she can afford in the end, which I think she is struggling with.

    My mum checks with us before going away (which is fairly rare) and tries to go on days she doesn't look after R and maybe swaps the days round the next week, so she go for longer. She does far more than she should, really, but she loves it (I hope). I do have to sometimes ask/tell her to do something a different way or not do something, but for the most part she's pretty good and has similar parenting ideas to me (or vice versa!), so we get along OK. What she doesn't do, which many nurseries do, though, is give a proper summary of everything R has done in the day. She tells me a few things on handover, and sometimes phones me when she gets home to tell me something she'd forgotten to mention, but I have to rely on R to tell me what she's eaten, what she did and whether she had any accidents!

    Being an employee does have the benefit of more stability and a regular pay cheque of the same amount each month. And a commute on which to read a book. And seeing other adults... Hmmm. Actually, it sounds quite tempting!

    It's all swings and roundabouts, really, and you just have to find the best way for you and your family, whatever it might be.