'Sexist policies': mothers struggle to return to work amid lack of childcare

Caroline Nowak is among thousands of parents who cannot find a summer holiday club for her child, a 10-year-old boy, and will be forced to continue juggling her job and childcare across mammoth 18-hour days, stretching from 6am to midnight.

“I feel very let down by the government failing to provide an outlet for isolated and increasingly distressed children,” says Nowak, who works as a scientist.

“Mobilising the economy means more than just getting the men back to work. As women do the bulk of childcare, these sexist policies are hugely damaging for equality as women’s careers suffer disproportionately.”

Her husband cannot work from home, and the next possible opportunity they have for childcare is when school starts in September, when they hope their son will be able to resume going to breakfast and after school clubs.

Clare Jennings, a solicitor and mother of two, also believes childcare has been “totally overlooked” throughout the lockdown, even as the government urges people back to workplaces.

The Edith Rose Nursery in Windsor, Berkshire reopened following the easing of the lockdown rules, but many others remain closed

The Edith Rose Nursery in Windsor, Berkshire, reopened following the easing of the lockdown rules, but many others remain closed. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

Her eldest daughter, aged two, returned to nursery on Monday after more than four months of it being closed. But many other children are yet to return and families feel as if they have been abandoned by the government, with Jennings’ daughter’s nursery on reduced hours and not open on Fridays.

“We would have been totally stuck if my husband didn’t stop working,” she said. “How can work entirely restart but not childcare?”

A lack of clarity over whether grandparents can provide childcare also continues to complicate matters for many families. “Every day I’m checking whether we are allowed to have grandparents looking after children,” says Richard MacCowan, who works in environmental design.

Richard MacCowan’s two children create art under his watchful eye at home.

Richard MacCowan’s two children making art at home. Photograph: Guardian Community

He is wary of sending his children to his parents or in-laws before being given the official green light. “What if their neighbours start curtain-twitching? It’s great saying you can go back to work, but now school’s out and there’s no summer clubs, what do you do?”

With his wife, who works for the NHS, inundated with the rigours of her job and himself running his business from home, MacCowan is afraid of burnout from the fine balancing act between childcare and work as parenting becomes ever more demanding.

“Our children are taking longer to go to bed, and both are waking in the night and coming to our bed,” he says. “Our eldest has been more anxious during lockdown and is scared of being in rooms by himself, or doors to the outside being left open.”

Grandparents elsewhere have already resumed their roles as caregivers, with many single parents otherwise unable to return to work.

Dee Ansah’s two grandchildren observe monkeys at a zoo.

Maya Iwobi’s two grandchildren watch monkeys at a zoo before lockdown. Photograph: Guardian Community

“It’s all very well Boris Johnson saying you need to go back to work,” says Maya Iwobi, 72, in south London. “But how are women with childcare responsibilities supposed to do that?

“Its heartbreaking to witness; the frustration of wanting to get on in life, not wanting to be on benefits, but being caught in a situation where you can’t get off benefits because you can’t get childcare.”

Her 26-year-old daughter, a mother of two who did not wish to be named, has been receiving universal credit and returned to her job as an apprentice hairdresser this month. She had to take an £800 loan to pay for a holiday scheme for her eldest over the summer, 85% of which will be reimbursed for in a month’s time.

“How do single or low-income families return to work if they are paid childcare costs in arrears?” says Iwobi.

The concern and exhaustion felt by some parents has led them to begin campaigning for greater support. Lucie Tisdale, in Edinburgh, will have had no childcare for her son since March until his nursery reopens in mid-August.

Lucie Tisdale, her partner, and her son, explore a house made of twigs

Lucie Tisdale, her partner, and her son exploring in woodland. Photograph: Guardian Community

She is petitioning for the reinstatement of early years childcare in Scotland after the sudden removal of hundreds of hours of planned funded nursery places in some council areas.

“It will cost parents hundreds of pounds per month which they haven’t budgeted for and will struggle to afford,” she says. “Me and my husband have been alternating between being on and off furlough, though we have had to prioritise his job as he is the primary earner.”

Tisdale is among millions of parents who have found lockdown extremely difficult, and is anxious about her son, who has endured months of relative isolation. “My son has constantly been between anger and crying,” she says. “His mental health has struggled hugely as he missed his friends.”


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