‘I’m now six weeks into depending on granny daycare to keep my life on track’
The saying used to go that behind every great man is a great woman. Now it’s probably more apt to say that behind every parent attempting to juggle a career and young children, there is probably a granny or two helping to hold it all together in the background. It’s not quite so snappy, but then there’s nothing slick about this arrangement, and I should know. I’m now six weeks into depending on granny daycare to keep my life on track, having returned to my job as fashion director at The Telegraph after a year on maternity leave.
In fact, as I write this from my desk at our offices, my one-year-old son Art is eating scones at Gail’s with my mother, cheerfully oblivious to the finely-tuned schedule that his parents and grandparents now have in place to ensure he has a constant stream of love, attention, and snacks.
The sweet photo updates I receive from my parents, Claire and Ben, and mother-in-law Noreen as they take it in turns to look after Art while I’m at work, fill my heart with joy.
There is something indescribably special about seeing the relationship that is developing between the generations that I’m sandwiched between, and hearing about their adventures together – Rhyme Time at the library one day, picnics at the local children’s farm the next – but the truth is that without their help and support my life and finances would look very different. Which is why, this Mother’s Day, I am more grateful to them than ever before – and I imagine thousands of parents across the country feel the same.
There has been an unending stream of stories of late about Britain’s childcare crisis. Some two-parent families are reportedly forced to spend up to a third of their post-tax income on childcare, rising to 80 per cent for single parents. At the same time there has also been a 19 per cent decline in the number of childcare providers since 2017, with horror stories of nurseries closing due to insufficient funding and working parents being left in the lurch: in some areas, securing a nursery place is tougher than acquiring a Hermès Birkin bag.
Until this week, it was unclear how exactly the Government expected mothers (yes, all parents are affected by these policies, but the pressures fall overwhelmingly on mums to suck up the financial penalties of having a child) with babies between 39 weeks and three years old to get by, given that there was very little financial support available once statutory maternity pay had ended and before the 30 hours of free childcare kicked in at the beginning of the term following your child’s third birthday.
Thankfully that changed with Wednesday’s Budget, when Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, extended the provision of free hours to one- and two-year-olds, though the system won’t be fixed overnight.
Given how prohibitively expensive and precarious childcare has become, an army of unsung, hero grannies (and some granddads too) has come to the rescue for families across the country. The Institute for Employment Studies estimates that there are about 500,000 people aged between 50 and 65 who have taken themselves out of the labour force to look after family, including grandchildren.
While I didn’t ask her to, my mum – who gave up work for several years when my brother and I were young – timed her early retirement from her job as an administrator with my due date last year. My dad and mother-in-law have both retired in the past two years. It wasn’t planned, but our parents having more time on their hands has fortuitously coincided with myself and my fiancé Johnny, who runs his own business, starting a family.
Between them, they now look after Art two days a week as well as some ad hoc babysitting when we need it. He goes to nursery for two days but their help means that we spend £700 rather than £1,500 or more a month on childcare – comparable one-to-one care from a nanny would leave us with a terrifying bill of around £40,000 a year.
I hate to call anything related to my child a problem, but if I want to maintain my career, then making sure he’s looked after is an issue that needs a solution. No matter how much money you throw at a problem, though, no amount of paid help, however exquisitely trained in the latest child development theories, could replicate the love between grandparent and grandchild.
And the benefits of them regularly spending time together are incalculable, whether it’s through financial necessity or the genuine enthusiasm of a generation of grannies who are fitter and healthier than any before: my mother-in-law is currently taking Art on long pram walks during her days looking after him as part of her training to trek the Camino de Santiago later this year.
I realised the incomparable perk of granny daycare last week, when Art was ill and couldn’t go to nursery. In any other set-up, Johnny or I would have had to work from home but thankfully his mum was on hand to step in, giving Art all the cuddles he needed that day.
I realise how incredibly lucky we are to have such loving family help virtually on tap. It’s an arrangement that many of my friends are also taking advantage of and which I could see playing out time and again in the baby classes and groups I signed up to while on maternity leave. It was on the ground in (grand)motherland that I realised what lengths the nation’s grannies are going to, to help out.
One grandma I met at a playgroup mused that the best moment of her week is sitting down on the train back to Bath on a Thursday night with a glass of wine and packet of crisps after spending two days looking after her toddler grandson in London. Another hopped on a train from the home counties at 5am two mornings a week to be with her daughter in time for her to leave for the office at 8am.
I sometimes wasn’t quite sure if I was speaking to a baby’s mum or granny, given how fabulous many women in their 50s and 60s look these days. It’s a far cry from the purple rinse brigade stereotype of a few decades ago, although one of my friends swears that it’s caring for her two-year-old daughter that has kept her own parents fit in their retirement: the steps rack up at lightning speed when you’re running around after a toddler.
Before I got pregnant, my mum dropped the occasional hint that she’d be happy to help look after any future grandchild, possibly as a way of encouraging me to get on with it. It certainly helped Johnny and me to decide to go for it, knowing that we were unlikely to have to fork out for full-time nursery fees.
Once we were expecting, Noreen chimed in with promises to help, too. She had experience in navigating the granny daycare set-up after her three children were looked after by their grandparents while she continued her career as a nurse. Still, it’s something we always felt nervous about – once the baby arrived, would our parents suddenly remember just how tiring it is looking after a little one and bow out in favour of a more hands-off relationship? Luckily, Art charmed them all from the start.
There was a baptism of fire when I released a book when he was just seven weeks old. He did several stints of a few hours with his grandparents while I was busy with promotional interviews: I’ll never forget the shell-shocked looks on my parents’ faces when they returned from a walk during which a bottle of breast milk I’d provided in case of emergency had leaked everywhere while Art screamed, or the surreal experience of my dad acting as chaperone to my baby backstage at This Morning while I chatted to Holly and Phil on the sofa upstairs.
Since then, they’ve spent an increasing amount of time together and developed a lovely bond – sometimes, I think Art’s face lights up more when Nonna, Gramps or Nan walks into the room than Johnny or me.
“It’s a privilege and joy to play such an active role in Art’s upbringing,” my mum/Nonna tells me, pointing out that most exciting of grandparent perks: giving them back at the end of the day. “The great thing is that our day is set aside solely for Art, everything else is on hold for 10 hours. I thoroughly enjoy focusing completely on him, seeing him grow and develop week by week and sharing new experiences with him. It is so rewarding developing that precious and special relationship between grandparent and grandchild.”
But she warns others considering volunteering themselves to “be under no illusion how physically tiring it is, I was 35 years younger when my children were this age”. Art has already passed on several colds and stomach bugs, which have left his grandparents under the weather for days after he’s bounced back.
In all honesty though, it’s not always an idyllic tale of happy families, no matter how wonderful your relationship is. For more than a decade before having Art, we were busy and independent, which meant that we maybe saw our parents once every few weeks for dinner or Sunday lunch. Now our lives feel completely intertwined again with constant chat about logistics and updates on Art’s latest skills/favourite foods/nappy situation. It’s brilliant to have so much support, but it feels odd, too, to be dependent on your parents again and the dynamics take some adjustment: “Can I ask Mum to cancel her floristry class so that I can meet my work deadline?” is a first-world problem I never imagined I’d have.
Then there are the fundamentals of your parenting philosophy. Several times I’ve found myself torn between taking the advice of my mum and what she did when I was a baby versus the current NHS guidance. She’s more inclined to leave him to cry when he wakes up, which let’s just say hasn’t always gone down well, and there was a time when she spoke very enthusiastically about the possibility of potty training at eight months, after a radio item assured her it was possible.
I’m sure we’ll only encounter more areas where we have different ideas, but if I’ve learnt anything in the juggle of the past few months, it’s that babies are remarkably adaptable and Art will soon learn the routines and parameters of the different people who look after him. Besides, there’s nothing as soothing to new-mum angst as the reassurance of your own mum, who’s been there, done that, got the babygros twice over.
You hear so much about mum guilt, but for me it has mushroomed with our own mothers factored into the equation: are we asking too much of them? Are they actually enjoying this, or doing it because they feel like they should? Am I selfish for wanting to continue my career, and should I be looking after my child myself instead?
When I confided some of these worries to my mum, I was instructed to stop worrying about any of that and if anything did become a problem, she’d let me know. And as one colleague’s mother, who also helps out with caring for her baby, said to her this week, “I didn’t work hard to encourage you to have a good career as you grew up, only for it all to be lost once you had children of your own.” It’s proof, I think, that mothering never stops, especially when your baby becomes a parent themselves.
So to the grannies behind me and working mothers everywhere, thank you for what you do to help us to have it all.