Day by day, the coronavirus crisis is exposing the guts of our economy – shining a light on the activities that actually matter for meeting our basic needs, from fruit picking to nursing, and what happens when those who do them can’t work or aren’t properly supported. It’s an extraordinary and unprecedented moment. One such activity that has yet to receive widespread attention, but where the crisis has lobbed a grenade right into the middle of the system, is childcare.
When the idea of school closures was first mooted, some optimistically suggested that we were about to realise the everyday struggles parents go through to balance work and childcare – and the swathes of economic activity that would grind to a halt if this precarious balancing act was upset. I myself hoped that this might be a lightbulb moment, similar to the dawning recognition that we now have an economy where millions of workers simply can’t afford to get sick. But as we reach the end of the first week of school and nursery shutdowns, this does not yet seem to have happened. Politicians and campaigners have – quite rightly – pressured the government into offering more help for the self-employed (though the package announced this week will still leave many in crisis for months, and will not cover everybody). But the issues faced by unpaid carers have so far received much less attention.
Indeed, rather than a radical break in the way we see childcare, so far we are witnessing continuity. Unpaid care and domestic labour has long been the poor cousin of struggles relating to paid labour. The burdens it carries, disproportionately falling on women, often remain invisible, its foundational role in reproducing society left out of both economic models and political organising. Now, the enormous additional burdens of unpaid childcare generated by school closures are, for the most part, being quietly absorbed within the home – again, disproportionately by women – rather than treated as a social or political issue.
In Facebook groups with names like ‘Family lockdown tips and ideas’, mums (it is almost always mums) are sharing schedules and activities for home schooling, as well as messages of moral support when these inevitably collapse into hours of screen time and toddler tantrums. In WhatsApp groups, my parent friends are swapping tips on how to keep a one-year-old entertained for more than five minutes at a time so you can get some work done. They are also sharing their guilt at the impossibility of this juggling act, of being less present just at the time their children are struggling with pandemic fears and loss of social contact. “They need more of my time right now, not less, rationed and rushed,” a friend said sadly. She (of course it is a she) has already concluded that she may have to reduce her hours and take the resulting pay cut. The implications of all this for children’s development and for educational inequalities are barely being discussed.
Childcare as Work
Through all of it, I’m struck by the level of acceptance of the situation – by how few parents seem to be asking: if looking after our children was a job when someone else was being paid to do it, why isn’t it a job now that we are doing it ourselves? Effectively, millions of people are now being asked to juggle two full-time jobs with zero additional help. Parents who reduce their paid hours or stop working to care for dependents are not covered by the government’s promises of wage support, and have no right to request paid leave or ‘furloughing’ from their employer. Indeed, the government has issued virtually no guidance to employers on these matters, leaving it entirely to their discretion.
From the outset, this put workers deemed ‘non-critical’ for childcare purposes in an impossible position, particularly if they could not work from home. Of course, lockdown now means that such workers should not be working regardless, but we know that many employers continue to ignore this. The most common source of informal childcare – grandparents – is out, for obvious reasons. Mutual aid is also not an option: lockdown rules do not allow for families taking turns to look after each others’ children (something we had been tentatively exploring), though many will no doubt be doing this anyway, simply because they have no other choice.
Even those who do fall under the definition of ‘critical workers’ are not immune. Government guidance for childcare providers says only that such workers “should be considered for a childcare place, so long as their job cannot be done from home.” Consider this for a moment. It not only fails to address the additional childcare work parents are being expected to take on, it simply pretends it doesn’t exist. The implication is that so long as a parent can be physically in the same place as their child, it is reasonable to expect them to carry on working as normal. This is absurd. One wonders whether the person who wrote this guidance has ever met a parent. I tried writing this article while looking after my son; I had to abandon it after five minutes, because he was literally eating dirt.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that schools and nurseries were inundated last week with demand for places from people who fell in the list of ‘critical workers’. As with so much else, the government sought to shift the blame for its own policy failures onto the individuals concerned, branding them selfish and entitled, and insisting that places were only for people whose work was genuinely critical and whose children had nowhere else to go. But having hung parents out to dry, what did they expect to happen? For those who are lucky enough to get places, too, there is still the threat of lost earnings if their household has to self-isolate. The government has said only that employers “might” offer pay during this time if people cannot work due to having dependents to care for. I already know one family in isolation in which a key worker was told that she would need to take unpaid leave for any time spent caring for her toddler while in quarantine.
More generally, even the most understanding employers are, in my anecdotal experience, often taking the attitude that parents who can work from home should “just do the best you can” – tacitly accepting they will not be able to work their contracted hours, but leaving them with largely unchanged responsibilities. This still leaves people trying to sustain an exhausting juggling act – or, like my friend, feeling compelled to formally cut their hours to stay sane.
For self-employed parents, even this kind of compromise arrangement, unsatisfactory though it may be, is unavailable. The self-employed are generally only paid for the hours they work, and are therefore left trying to conjure extra hours out of the day to keep the household finances afloat. For single parents, these pressures are heightened to an impossible degree. This week’s announcement will alleviate this for many in the long term, but a promise of help in June is cold comfort for those on the breadline today. To make matters worse, this support will be worth less for anyone who has recently taken an extended period of parental leave, since it is calculated based on average recent profits.
On the other side of the ledger, there remains a huge grey area when it comes to nursery fees – which for many families outstrip rent or mortgages as their single biggest monthly outgoing. When nursery closures were first announced, the Early Years Alliance expressed concern that many could go under. Yet the prospect of mass lay-offs of childcare workers – often already poorly paid – did not prompt the same outpouring of public concern as the entertainment and leisure industries had a few days before. Now it has been clarified that nurseries will be eligible for the full range of support measures being offered to businesses – 80% wage support for ‘furloughed’ employees, a business rates holiday, grants, low-interest loans and VAT deferral. Self-employed childminders, we now learn, will also be eligible for grants worth 80% of their recent profits. In addition, government subsidies for 2-4 year olds’ childcare places will continue even if they are not attending.
Yet the government has imposed no requirement that nurseries pass this support on to parents in the form of fee suspensions. Its guidance says only that they should be “reasonable and balanced” when deciding whether to ask parents who have lost childcare to continue paying fees. It is therefore being left to individual childcare settings to negotiate with parents – with wide variations in practice emerging. For many parents, continuing to pay for childcare they aren’t getting while their incomes are collapsing is simply not possible. They might also reasonably ask why, if looking after their children is deemed socially valuable enough to merit subsidy, the government is refusing to subsidise the parents who are doing it as well as the childcare settings who aren’t.
My own experience of all this comes from a position of relative privilege: I live in a house with a garden, can work from home, and am able to share childcare with my partner, who has an understanding employer. Even with all these advantages, my life has just become exponentially more exhausting and – as a self-employed freelancer still being asked for nursery fees – financially unstable. While childless friends ponder how they are going to fill the expanse of free time stretching out ahead of them – learning Spanish! Reading books! – our household has just lost 25 hours a week. For us, lockdown does not mean time for reflection or self-improvement: we will be in survival mode.
The impacts of all this on parents struggling with low pay, unemployment, extortionate rents or inadequate housing will be far worse. For many, the circle will prove impossible to square, the blow to the family finances one that cannot be weathered. The result will be growing destitution and child poverty. And for those without outdoor space, internet access or space to work away from their children, the stresses and strains of lockdown could push families to breaking point. At the other end of the scale, those wealthy enough to afford live-in nannies and au pairs may barely notice the difference. As always, the childcare issue is also a class issue. As with the rest of the government’s crisis response, support has been targeted at employers and businesses whilst failing to ensure that it trickles down to workers and parents. Those who are already the most exploited will be hardest hit.
But perhaps there’s a reason that childcare is not being spoken about. Perhaps it’s precisely because the value of all this unpaid care work is so eye-wateringly immense, the liabilities the government would have to assume in order to compensate it so huge, that they dare not admit it exists. In a time of lockdown, when we are all being implored to stay at home, the work done in the household remains invisible. It was ever thus. But the scale of that work has just increased in an unprecedented way. Sooner or later, something will have to give.