As any parent of young children will tell you, toddler groups exist as much for the adults as for the kids, and my local meet-up is no exception. We knock back coffee and compete to see who has had the least sleep while the children run riot on trikes. The small talk always winds its way round to nursery: which ones are good, which ones are near work, how much they charge per hour. You’d be forgiven for wondering why any of us chose to have children, such is the zeal with which we plot our escape. ‘They just installed CCTV,’ enthused one mother to me recently. ‘So I’ll be able to watch her playing from the office whenever I like.’
I daren’t admit it to my circle of mum friends, but since having children I’ve become a secret nursery sceptic. It’s the speed of change more than anything that is the cause of my alarm. While my parents’ generation might raise their eyebrows at putting children as young as six months into nurseries from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., most of my middle-class peers don’t bat an eyelid; it has become so normal it is no longer questioned. In fact, parents frequently fawn over all the mod cons that nursery care provides: commuter-friendly hours and a feed of updates straight to your phone throughout the day. Big Mother is watching you.
But has anyone stopped to ask whether nurseries are doing our babies any good? My cohort of parents are taking part in an unprecedented social experiment. High house prices and rents mean most families need two parents at work to pay the bills; and as a result our children are the first generation to have been given largely institutionalised care since before the age of one.
The research into nurseries, once you manage to unearth it, is enough to give any parent sleepless nights. Psychologists have discovered disconcertingly high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in children under two receiving nursery care — much higher than those left with grandparents, nannies or childminders. Cortisol has been shown to affect children’s emotional resilience and propensity for anxiety and aggression much further down the line as teenagers.
Parents, of course, do not want to hear this, especially when, for most of us, nurseries are the only affordable way of returning to work. The easiest response is to brush the issue under the carpet or go on the attack. No wonder Jay Belsky, the first academic to suggest a link between cortisol and nursery, was labelled a misogynist by the founder of Mumsnet when he discussed his findings with her on Woman’s Hour. It is nigh-on impossible to make the case for change without sounding as though you want to chain mothers to the kitchen sink.
Even when a parent’s instinct is to seek out one-on-one care for their children — the type of care held up as the ideal by child psychologists — most find it is financially out of reach. Childcare consumes a whopping third of British families’ monthly income. Unless you are a high-flyer or you have grandparents at your disposal, nursery care is what’s affordable. Personally I’d love to have my mother just down the road: she is as magical as Mary Poppins when it comes to my children. But work dictates that we live within touching distance of London, and she lives two hours away. This geographical spread is true of a growing number of families, making parents more reliant than ever on paid-for care. And to make matters worse, we’ll all be working well into our seventies so the problem will only escalate: very few of us are likely to be energetic enough at retirement to offer regular childcare to our grandchildren.
And so off we go with our little ones to the nurseries, where paperwork is prized above genuinely responsive care, and poor salaries mean staff turnover is high. You don’t have to be a psychologist to realise that consistent carers are key to children’s wellbeing in the early years. And yet is it any wonder that nursery staff don’t stick around for long when they are paid less per hour than a hairdresser or dog trainer?
Women have fought hard for equality in the workplace but at what cost? Too often, childcare has been treated as an unglamorous afterthought. There’s no turning back the clock; stay-at-home mothers are a dying breed. Most parents, myself included, want to find a way to balance a career with family life. But to do so with a clear conscience we need a frank debate about what’s best for children.