Becoming a parent for the first time is a rollercoaster of changes, and you may be surprised to hear that figuring out the problem of childcare and subsequently handing over your child into someone else’s care may be one of the hardest emotional transitions you might go through.
To manage this transition, it is important to understand not only the practicalities of the different childcare options, but to also be ready to make some critical decisions early on about how you see your family dynamic and career playing out as you go forward.
3 Steps to Take Before You Consider the Options
1. Plan A Conversation About Your Future Dynamic
Some parents I have worked with have mapped out incredibly early, even prior to their 12- week scan, which nursery they want to send their child to, or know exactly the working pattern they want to have when they return to work following their parental leave. Do not be fooled! Even when couples have a plan, this does not mean that they have necessarily thought about the long-term implications of the choices they make on their careers, their roles as parents or even on their own relationship. Some of these decisions are tempting to ‘just get through the first 6 months of going back to work’. Does this sound familiar? Maybe you think that you and your partner both have the same idea of “how are we going to do this?” – right?
The reality is that behind each of the arrangements that you make is a complex set of choices. Either as an individual or couple, it can be better in the long term if you make these decisions consciously because they can have profound implications on your life. Start by planning to have a conversation about how you see the future for the two of you, both as working parents and as individuals.
2. Make Some Decisions (Best Guesses for Now!) On How You Are Going to Do Family and Work – Together.
So, now you are mid-conversation – what should you be talking about? Jennifer Petriglieri, the author of “Couples that Work”, described recently in a podcast with my colleague Geraldine Gallacher the three alternate career models typically adopted for combining career and family. There is no right or wrong way to choose, but whichever model you follow will influence the way you need to organise your ‘family vs. work’ responsibilities.
I’ll give you a brief summary of the models as an overview of your choices. In the ‘Primary-Secondary Model’, one partner’s career takes priority over the other’s so automatically one parent will spend more of their time caring for the family than focusing on work. This is also true of the ‘Turn-Taking Model’ where one parent identifies as the primary carer, but only for a period of time (typically 3 to 5 years) and then the parents switch. It is when we move onto the ‘Double-Primary Career Model’ that we find both parents equally juggling the demands of their careers and family. Of course, there are a whole range of implications for whichever model you predict will be appropriate for you. However, in the first instance thinking about which model suits you will help you to understand what type of childcare you may want to consider.
3. What ‘Type’ Of Childcare Will Make Sense for You?
Once you have some ideas on your co-parenting/co-working plans you are ready to start considering the ‘type’ of childcare which is most likely to support you both being successful working parents.
When I think back to when I made these decisions with my partner about what the right care would be for our family, I was lucky enough to have advice from my sister Julia Harris who has been a childcare expert for over 20 years.
Julia’s advice is that once you have decided about work and family then it’s time to think about the options from a ‘specialised’ to a ‘shared’ model. She has laid out below examples of some of the different arrangements you may choose to have and the implications for childcare.
3 Considerations When You Look at The Childcare Options
So, now you are ready to start looking properly at the options. These are my 3 tips for helping it go more smoothly:
1. Childcare Is Not A One Size Fits All Solution.
There are no right or wrong decisions; the best option is the one which works best for your needs. Believe me, there is plenty of time as a parent to beat yourself up about getting it wrong later, but childcare need not be one of them! If you do choose a certain pathway and later realise it’s not a good fit for your family in reality, then it is simple to change it. Remember, all childcare is transient and what is right for you when you have a baby will not necessarily work once your child starts nursery, pre-school or even full-time school.
2. Be Clear About the Boundaries and Expectations.
Julia’s advice is to consider key factors, such as how many children you have, their ages and your budget, as well as working patterns and commuting distance. In addition, she stresses that it is as important to consider in advance what will happen if things do not go to plan. For example, if you choose a carer who comes to your home, what will happen if they are ill and aren’t able to work? If you are thinking about a nursery or external setting, when your child is not well enough to be there, what will be the backup? Consider the support from family & friends and how issues as simple as their location may influence your decisions.
Julia also advises to “make a list of your needs, for you and your child. When you start to get into the decisions and options in depth then go back to this list. Even if those needs appear to be met on paper, if you are not happy, then trust your intuition!”.
3. Look at All the Options
There are 2 main categories of childcare options: ‘Home Based’ and ‘External Setting’. Along your journey, you may sometimes find yourself using a combination of both. Julia has given a reminder of some of these and what to consider below. Take some time to explore a few. As you navigate this path to finding the right childcare solution for your family, do your research, consider the advice available but rely on your gut to tell you if you are going for the right choice for you. Primarily keep an open mind and recognise that no arrangement is set in stone, it does not always work first time and your needs will change as your family and career develops.
Some Last Thoughts
Covid-19 has taken contingency planning to an extreme and seen many parents crisis-working as schools and nurseries have closed or asked children to self-isolate. In more normal times, receiving the dreaded call from nursery that your child is running a fever is all too familiar a scenario, particularly and inconveniently in those early days when your child is adapting to the germs shared by their fellow playmates. My advice is to consider your contingency plan in advance – not when you are in mid-crisis coping with chicken pox or, more recently, self-isolating. Have the conversation with your support system or partner at home about options for coping with the unexpected. Many organisations we work with do provide back-up childcare facilities so it’s worth looking into what your employer might provide in this area and whether in an emergency you can use this resource.
Nannies – will supply childcare in your own home and look after children of any age, enabling you to have continuity of care. It is also the most flexible childcare choice as they can be daily, live-in, full, or part-time. There is also no limit to the number of children they can look after, and so if you have more than one child (or other families to nanny share), it can then become the most cost-effective option. They will be happy to follow your direction and any routines you have in place for your children.
Au pairs – this is a popular choice in Europe. Currently, at the time of writing this, there are challenges in the UK given Brexit to Au pairs’ visa status. An au pair will live as part of a host family, helping with the family’s childcare and some of the housework. However, an au pair should not have sole charge of a child under the age of two. They also only work part-time, up to 25 hours a week and do 2 nights of babysitting per week. Their focus will be their studies which will be their motivation for living in a different country.
Housekeeper/Nanny – will be willing to undertake both childcare and housekeeping duties. This can be daily, live in, full or part-time, and have shared care with a parent or sole charge. They are often a driver; so, can fill the after school or wrap-around care role.
Nursery & pre-school – this is one of the most popular types of childcare for many families. It is important to understand the hours they have and if there is a late provision if you get stuck at work or are late making your way home. Many are open all year round, but some (particularly those attached to primary schools) might only be open in term time. Whether they might be a feeder to a primary school (particularly relevant in the UK) is also a factor to consider. Some will have baby rooms and take children from an early age, while others might only take children over 12 or 18 months.
Childminders – Registered childminders look after 1 or more children under the age of 8 for more than a total of 2 hours a day in a domestic setting (normally their own home) for payment. Ofsted inspects them. Childminders come from various backgrounds; many have been nannies or teachers who have gone on to have their own families and then taken up childminding.
Breakfast & after school club – For those of you reading this with older children, then these clubs are a wonderful way of achieving wraparound care whilst you work. They are great for bridging the gap between school hours and your hours at work. Your child will be in a group of children of all different ages and be able to participate in activities like games, arts & crafts and get on with their homework. Part-time and full-time places may be available, offering your child consistent care on the days it is needed. Breakfast clubs are open from around 8.00 am until school starts and after school clubs are open from the time school ends (between 3.00 pm and 3.30 pm) until between 6.00 pm and 6.30 pm.
“It’s always good to have a ‘back up for your back up’ as nothing is predictable when it comes to childcare!”
“A popular choice is often a live-in helper who is involved with both childcare and overall household management. The benefits of this method include easy planning for parents, but the downsides are that the helpers are oftern not formally trained in childcare. The most popular option in Asia is having a family member help out, typically with grandparents who live in the family home full-time.”
“It is almost common practise for many working couples in Spain to have a live-in housekeeper who takes care of both the household and the children. In the UK, it is more likely for working couples to hire a nanny whose sole responsibility is the children, whereas in Spain the role typically is one that is expanded to taking care of the entire household.”
“I feel lucky there are multiple options for affordable childcare and domestic help in South Africa. The external childcare options discussed in this article all apply, and particularly in the early stages of the return to work, grandparents may be involved. A popular option is to hire a nanny who may either help on weekdays or be live in – often doubling as a domestic helper and carrying out general housework. Many women I coach also have a dedicated nanny as well as additional help for household duties, and further, some have an au pair who helps to collect and care for the children after school. The general consensus in South Africa is that the more paid help you can afford, the better – always have a plan B! ”
“French people often prefer to separate household and childcare duties and popular options are nannies, childminders, au pairs and nursery daycare. There is a high demand for nurseries in big cities, and typically families settle for home-based solutions as waiting lists can be extremely long. Sometimes, two families will share a nanny who alternates weeks between them. ”