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A working parent is most likely aware of just how important childcare is. A lack of childcare services and provisions negatively impacts workers and threatens the economy. The fact is the matter is that the cost of childcare is on the rise, and these services are becoming increasingly inaccessible. Increasing strain on families was especially apparent during the pandemic; essential and necessary safety nets were effectively removed, such as early-year care and schools. Following the recent years post-pandemic we can now see the economic and social impacts that lack of childcare provisions had on the labour market.

What a lack of childcare accessibility means for primary caregivers

Can we quantify this rise of inaccessibility? Well, a recent study by Harvard Business Review contained a sample of 2,500 parents, the findings were that 20% of working parents had to reduce or leave work altogether due to a lack of childcare. A third of these parents reported that the one who left or reduced their hours did so because they were ‘better’ at giving care to their children. Although the sample is only a glimpse in relativity, it speaks to a much larger spread issue.

Historically, the role of primary caregiver has been and continues to be allocated to women. The role of primary caregiver is a job like any other. Although, caregiving stands in uniqueness as it is worked, performed and continued for free, usually without compensation. This role therefore is a second, unpaid shift. Life cannot persist without care, yet care work is not afforded the empowerment and compensation it deserves. Care work in the household takes many forms and is normalised in the day-to-day, this work can look like picking the kids up from school and running them to their after-school activities, it can also look like preparing dinner for the family and then packing lunches for the following day. The old saying: ‘a mother’s work never stops’ comes to mind. Though often said in a jovial or melancholic setting, the reality is, that this work takes time and energy.

So, when families and society as a wider whole feel the economic lows and financial crunch, it is most common that the primary caregiver steps up to take care of the children in place of childcare services, and consequently reduces hours or leaves the workforce altogether. 

The economic implications 

The economic implications of a lack of childcare infrastructure and provisions affect many families despite location and income distributions. Research from the CPP has demonstrated that affordability and access to childcare is a key economic issue that prevents parents across the income distribution from working the hours they want to work. The findings from the CPP are that, in the UK over a million mothers are prevented from entering into paid employment because of a lack of access to childcare.

The gendered divide of care work can lead to limited career progression and mobility for women. Did you know that just 1/3 of women with two children are in full-time employment compared to almost 3/4 of men? In an article for the Guardian, author Zoe Wood calls the difficulties of balancing childcare and jobs the ‘motherhood penalty’. Wood writes that this ‘juggling act’ has led more than 200,000 working mothers of children under the age of four to leave their employment. This is owed to the inflexibility of working arrangements and outdated views of motherhood.

The chief executive of Fawcett, Jemima Olchawski argues for businesses to create genuinely family-friendly cultures within their workspaces. This ‘motherhood penalty’ results in women turning down promotions or career developments because of concerns that their job roles would no longer fit with their children’s care needs. 

The promise of choice to return to work after having children effectively falls apart when there are little to no societal provisions for childcare, and one is faced with the burden of providing this care themselves. 

An article by the Guardian provides testimonies from struggling parents and concludes that if childcare in Britain should fall any further, fewer and fewer will be able to enter the workforce, and this shall become even more of an economic issue.

This is why it is so important to tackle the economic and social barriers that limit mothers’ and primary caregivers’ full return to work after having children would allow for many more opportunities for people to reach their full potential, boost household income, and in turn generate an overall healthier, more equitable economy.

The implications for dads and ‘breadwinners’ 

The reality of inaccessibility to childcare in the labour market not only affects women and primary caregivers alike, it also affects the ‘secondary’ caregiver, or commonly, the breadwinner. Writer and active dad Mike Bartlett confesses his own struggles and limitations he was met with as he attempted to become more involved in his children’s care and less involved in his career; Bartlett writes that when he tried to find part-time work he was met with shock, “didn’t he realise this was women’s work?”.  Poignantly, Bartlett posits that to be a man looking for part-time work, it must mean that he lacks drive and commitment to his career. On the flip side of this, we have the notion that a woman striving for career progression is selfish for not prioritising her children.

Therefore, in concern to the labour divide, gender stereotypes and norms remain stagnant within and beyond the workplace. Dads and secondary caregivers may feel alienated from duties and responsibilities of care for their own children, it may be harder for them to feel and obtain direct access and connection to the social networks near to their child. Limited access to ‘mum’s networks’ can be important for the child’s social life and enrichment, therefore, pushing mothers into one certain role pushing dads into another, has negative consequences on both sides.

The group ‘Dads Rock’ aims to provide support for dads and male carers to increase their parenting skills and establish support systems. Based in Scotland, Dads Rock has a massive engagement and participation, with 2823 people being involved in 2023-4. They are a fantastically inclusive group and welcome ‘all dads and male carers from families of all shapes and sizes’ including gay, trans and non-binary dads. Dads Rock is an ideal model for getting dads more involved and providing the foundations for them to do so. Offering mental health services and lots of fun activities for father and child to get involved with such as camping trips and music classes. Dad groups such as this one are needed in society for a multitude of reasons, the time fathers spend with their children will allow more personal freedom for mothers whilst also enabling dads to step into a more involved role, which many are ultimately seeking. 

Solutions of childcare in organisations and society

If it is established that the existing childcare policies and provisions are lacking and limiting for either parental role, how can companies rewrite these policies and change the narrative?

Clothing company Patagonia has demonstrated great effectiveness as an organisation making an effort to incorporate care responsibilities in their workplace culture. Boasting on-site childcare services for their employees, available at their headquarters and their distribution centres with the addition of a sliding scale tuition to ensure individual affordability, Patagonia has seen a 25% decrease in employee turnover since its schemes’ inception. Proving lucrative and sustainable, such childcare benefits can attract valuable talent and fulfil company responsibilities.  There are whole regions whose governments and businesses are working together to achieve gender-equal childcare provisions and infrastructure. 

The Nordic countries are arguably the frontrunners in progressive rights for women in social, political and economic contexts; the childcare infrastructure provided reflects this. In the Nordic context childcare infrastructure is largely understood as: paid parental leave, subsidised childcare and individual taxation. There are extensive labour regulations in the Nordic countries that support the implementation of fair and progressive childcare and parental leave infrastructure. In Norway, childcare should cost a family no more than 6% of their total income, additionally, low-income families are eligible for up to 20 hours of free childcare per week, overall, childcare costs are capped at 3000 NOK (approx £221) per week. Whereas, in the UK, parents reportedly spend up to 29% of their total income on childcare. 

The Nordic parity is inspirational! In terms of parental leave, the Nordic countries strive to ensure that both mothers and fathers spend substantial paid leave at work in the following weeks after the birth of their child. In August 2022, Finland revised their legislations on parental leave to further incorporate paid leave for families who are entrepreneurial as well as those who are self-employed or have non-biological children.

The economic equality of childcare provisions and legislations make it more attainable for men and women to have the same employment opportunities. Shared parental leave and affordable childcare are the building blocks for equal opportunities in the labour market for women and men, as it envisages that there is a more equal distribution of care and therefore, not such an expectation of mothers to leave their jobs or to reduce hours in place of affordable childcare. 

Companies implementing better childcare in their organisations is and should be a business issue, and not left entirely up to the family to organise. If businesses and workplaces provided better childcare infrastructures, it would be less likely that the primary caregiver, especially the mother, would have to compensate with their careers.

In other words, better childcare implementations and provisions are better for business, employee retention, sustainability and the economy as a wider whole.