Image by Zoe Gardner @limberdoodle
It’s taken me a long time to admit this, but- here goes: I have a childcare problem.
It’s like this: I am the primary carer for my two children. They are 6 and 10. My husband is away, working flat out between now and December. He is quite often away, quite often working flat out. My mother – the indomitable Granny – has been an incredible source of support and continues to do her best to help with the kids, but she is 81, currently very unwell and, much to her dismay, nowadays her iPad is often considered to be a more desirable companion than her. To make matters a little more challenging, school- that institution which serves as a reliable form of childcare for so many – has not been working out well for my son so he is now at home, full time. My daughter goes to school, rather reluctantly, but only for the mornings. Meanwhile, I have work to do: I have an initiative called Mothers Who Make to run; I have The Gathering to lead, which is a project with Improbable, to find the company a home, and found a new creation centre; I’ve one novel to get published, a second one I want to write, and there’s a couple of shows to be made too. So, all in all- sometimes – I could do with some support with the kids. Of late, Granny’s iPad, or my son’s Playstation – one screen or another – have become my fall back. I don’t see screens as the source of all evil, but I would like there to be other options, other people, in my children’s lives. As I said- I have to face it- I have a childcare problem. I also, however, have a problem with childcare.
Even the name irks me. The way it takes two things that have minimal status – children and care – and tacks them together, as if to tidy them away together in their own discreet corner, where they won’t bother anyone. But then that is, more or less, why the term was invented – to have a name for the special new corners where children would be kept while their parents worked. It’s a fairly recent invention. Although the task of looking after children is as old as the human race, the need to make the activity into an abstract noun, a thing, not attached to a person, like a parent, isn’t. In the UK, the first nursery was opened in 1816, for the children of cotton mill workers. And now, two hundred years on, what bothers me, is how it has become such a dominant term, how it tends to monopolise the conversation around what it is to be a parent who is doing other work, besides the full-on work of parenting. How a creche, or good childcare, is often identified as the golden answer that is going to solve everything, make our lives easier, our important work feasible, our flourishing ambitions attainable. As if, in short, the children are a problem to be solved, to be swept out the way, in as convenient and as affordable a way as possible, so that our path is clear once again, and we can proceed, to all intents and purposes, as if we had never had them. I am proud of the fact that my children continue to be a highly inconvenient presence in my life, day and night. I am grateful that they continue to trouble and disturb me. One of the first MWM’s blog I ever published, back in 2015, was about this – about how the conversation around childcare tends to corroborate the strong cultural trend that values professional work over and above the work of parenting, and that segregates the two, to ensure that, in the workplace at least, children are neither seen nor heard, and that even their parents are not heard referring to them.
I suppose I am grumpy about, and quietly resisting, the fact that childcare is necessary. I am grumpy about living in an industrial, capitalist, divisive, isolating culture where care is not a given, but where you have to pay other people to do it. And if you do it yourself, unpaid, you are ‘just’ being a mum, which is seen as a demeaning and boring task. On a certain level, paying someone to care seems like a contradiction in terms, because all the things that make care truly caring, rather than merely perfunctory, are things that, famously, money can’t buy – kindness, warmth, connection, love. Which is not to say that there are not some phenomenal people out there, who do truly care, working as childminders, in nurseries, and other settings. However, in paying for childcare we are, essentially, paying for someone to stand in for the friends and family that are, for many of us, sadly absent from our lives. We are forced to buy into a culture, that I would like to change – so, for the most part, owing to my grumpiness about the need for it, I haven’t used any childcare. I have stubbornly avoided it. I am well aware that my stubbornness is, in itself, a privilege – most people simply have no choice. But I have been able to bring my children with me to work and/ or rely on the one family member who is around – Granny – and/ or rely on screens. Which is all very well – wonderfully high-minded of me – but the fact is that, sometimes, I don’t have anyone to look after the kids.
I have made a few, rather feeble attempts to address this problem over the years. When my son was much younger, once or twice I tried to find and pay someone to help, but things didn’t go too well. One time my son ran away from the very lovely person who was meant to be looking after him, and on another occasion, with a different lovely person, the relationship ended with my son point-blank refusing to speak to them. I tried a little nursery for a term but he never settled. He managed a creche for a whole ten minutes once – I found him hiding in the toilets, when I hurried back to pick him up. This was before my son had earned the title of ‘neurodiverse,’ and so the world saw him as simply extra-inconvenient. None of this helped in shifting my sullen attitude towards the issue of childcare. But there was one hopeful thing: I remember I was inspired by the brilliant, and radical approach of another creative carer, P Burton Morgan, director of Metta Theatre, who drew directly on their community of actors and other creatives within their circle, to hang out with their son when they needed support. I too tried to grow a small group of friends and colleagues around my son, which worked to a point, but I never got very far with it. And then my daughter came along, and we moved out of London, and all my efforts to find some other support with the kids fizzled out. However, I think it might be time for me to have another go, to see if there is a way both to solve my childcare problem and my problem with childcare. I am wondering if I can re-invent some of the language and processes around it. I think, rather than advertising for a childminder, or a nanny, or going to an agency to see what I can find, I want to write a lonely hearts ad, because, in essence, that’s the problem. That’s all of our problem – the village or community around us, that isn’t there. In essence, my children and I are lonely.
I’m going to try it right now – My Lonely Hearts Ad. Here it is (written in collaboration with the children):
Creative, eccentric, neurodiverse family seeks support and community, specifically……
Boy, aged 10, likes Dungeons and Dragons; Warhammer; fantasy RPG video games; comics; drawing; drama; jokes; pizza; farting; Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Dislikes being controlled; boredom; noisy groups; nagging; spiders; chewy bits in meat; romantic bits in movies; the Tories and environmental destruction.
Seeks friends; people to play games with; a cool drawing teacher; acting lessons; stage combat coach, and a teacher for video game-creation.
Girl, aged 6, likes horses; being happy; colours, clothes; toys, baking marble cakes; a good tree to climb; playing ‘abandoned kitty’ and ‘cat and dog;’ bath bombs; swimming; the rain; glitter; magic, and Harry Potter.
Dislikes being bossed about, or told off; gnomes; boredom; when balloons fly away; being too hot; big dogs.
Seeks a horse-riding teacher, a kitty; a horse and a chihuahua.
Woman, aged 48, likes her husband; her children; writing; dancing to hit songs that her kids have outgrown; big questions; myths; poems; bookshops; certain kinds of theatre; trees; heights; wild swimming.
Dislikes horror movies, even slightly scary movies; losing notebooks; the YouTube videos of people doing game talk-throughs that her children love; other kinds of theatre; housework; peri-menopausal fatigue; the idea of childcare.
Seeks creative friends, mentors, and/ or teachers for her children; an amazing cleaner; a deeply trustworthy and wise doctor/ healthcare practitioner; collaborators to set up an alternative arts-led learning community in Kent.
(N.B. In the same family, there is also: a man, aged 59, likes theatre, dislikes working as hard as he is, seeking some time off. And a granny, aged 81, likes her grandchildren, red wine, radio, dislikes yappy dogs, being cold, uncertainty, seeking some stability. As I write this the man is at work and the granny is in bed, so I couldn’t consult them about the full contents of their lonely hearts ad.)
If you think you might be the one, or one of the ones, or know one of the ones, we are seeking, please get in touch. You can post below or write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also respond to this by sharing your own family lonely hearts ad, your own notice of need. Together we could start a childcare revolution – not a new idea, but rather a slow recreation of a very old one- a community of care.