If you don’t work (or work much) childcare options are shit

Esther Walker
Esther with Kitty and Sam

If you haven’t got enough money to hire help with your kids, you are lucky. Yes, you are!

No, stop, shht. You are lucky, because it’s not an option, and your life is simple. It is hard, but it is simple.

If you have generous friends and local relatives who can hold the baby for a bit while you get a haircut, have a smear test (it’s all glamour with me), sit with a sick parent, give the bathroom a really good scrub, then you take it where you can get it and consider it a bonus.

Also, if you work full-time and need to have a full-time nanny or full-time day care, you’re also pretty lucky. Because it’s simple: you’re not there, someone has to be and you have to pay for that.

The people it’s shit for are those who do not work, or do not work much, can afford a bit of help, but don’t want too much. Or too little. They don’t need help, but they would like some, and do not have local relatives or generous friends or are not the sort of people who are good at asking for favours.

It is, simply, a minefield. Childminder? (Child disappears off to someone else’s house, doing God knows what, feels abandoned … KABOOOOM!).

Nanny? (Child is in own house with own toys and naps in own bed, but then you have to deal with the nanny being in your house and s/he has to deal with you and all your crazy shit … KABOOOOM!) Day care? (But doesn’t that rot babies’ minds? Don’t they get stamped on by older children and grow up mad and dysfunctional? KABABABABOOOOOM!)

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These vague childcare ‘needs’ are tricky to navigate because it means admitting that you want and need to get away from your baby for a bit for no other reason than just getting away.

This is something we, quite quickly after having a baby, are okay with admitting to ourselves and, after a while, we can or even admit to each other – but telling your husband is hard.

Husbands don’t want to hear that. They, more than anyone, want you to love the baby beyond words, they want to know there’s nowhere you’d rather be than barefoot in the kitchen with the child, dreaming of having another. They don’t want to know that you had no idea how impossible it is to go anywhere you used to go, or do anything you used to do with a child in tow.

And they don’t understand, because they simply don’t experience it, that very weird constant mind-split thing, where whatever you are doing, the baby – its moods, wants and needs – crowds out all other thoughts.

When men are with a baby, they can pretty much ignore it unless it is absolutely screaming its head off.

When men are with a baby, they can pretty much ignore it unless it is absolutely screaming its head off. And sometimes even when it is screaming its head off. They can hold a baby and watch cricket, or read the paper, even if the baby is wriggling about like an angry salmon, wanting to be put down or shown a toy or go outside. The man will hold the struggling infant and still be able to concentrate fully on the cricket, or the paper.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot do this. In order to have a single, independent thought, any child of mine needs to be fast asleep or out of the house. Even then, things can still be a bit fuzzy.

Even before we got married, I made my husband understand that if he wanted to have children, then I was going to need some help and he was going to have to pay for it. But I made the mistake of getting him to sort it out!

What the hell was I thinking? I think I thought that he ought to shoulder some of the responsibility, without realising that if he fucked it up, I was the one who was going to have to deal with it.

It is a task too complicated to leave to anyone else, especially because you are the one who is going to have to live cheek-by-jowl with this person. But where do you find someone?

How much time away from junior do you need? Will s/he be nice to the baby? Will the baby be bored or upset? What questions do you ask during the interview to root out lunatics, perverts and international criminals?

I probably went about it in the most cack-handed way ever. The one nanny my husband found refused to leave the house to go to a single baby group or even out for a walk.

Then I had the one who disappeared off to get married. I had the delightful Filipina who vanished without trace one day – I still don’t know what happened to her and couldn’t call the police because she was here illegally – maybe the Home Office got her?

I had the one who was in my face so much that if she was in the house I couldn’t get a single thing done. I had the one who was sulky and childish and hated me being anywhere nearby while she was with my kids.

At first I thought I needed full-time childcare. I couldn’t deal with this baby all day every day! I needed someone else to rescue me and do it for me. I settled on three full days a week. But I found that in reality by 1pm I had done whatever I needed to do, I was revived and could deal with coasting through the afternoon towards bedtime.

It was dreadful, suffocating, depressing. What was I doing?! What was wrong with me!?

But instead the nanny was there, with the baby, in my face. I ended up watching her playing with Kitty.

It was dreadful, suffocating, depressing. What was I doing?! What was wrong with me!? And anyway, she didn’t tell me what to do, she just asked questions. ‘What is Kitty having for lunch today? What do you want Kitty to wear today? Where do you want Kitty to go today?’ Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuck! I don’t know! I thought it was your job to know!

And there was the guilt. I normally do not feel especially guilty about things, unless someone goes out of their way to make me feel bad. I have my responsibilities and I fulfil them and that is that. But even I, cold and pragmatic and hard, felt wretched and guilty about waving the baby off to spend time with someone else for the simple reason that I couldn’t do it all day every day. I had failed. Failed! I was a failure!

Even if I used those hours to sort out the house, cook meals for my husband and do scraps of freelance work, the guilt needled at me. The fear was that the baby was not having a nice time, that the nanny was ignoring it, or turned into a monster as soon as she was out of the door, pinched the baby, made it sad. But it was madness! The baby would cry at the appearance of such a person, and Kitty never did.

Then I went down to three mornings a week, with someone else, who just picked out Kitty’s clothes and knew all the local playgroups. Better! Not too much, not too little! Less guilt.

No-one in my house in the afternoon, when all I want to do is sit about and pick my nose and watch telly anyway. Then Sam was born and my domestic and professional workload increased and then this nanny, who turned out to be a bit sulky, suddenly quit and, against all the odds, the one who got married came back!

Calloo Callay! She wouldn’t suit everyone, but she suits me. She started out as a cleaner and had no training, no qualifications and no references. But I like her. She’s cheerful, funny and confident and if she doesn’t know something, she has a guess.

She is not scared of Kitty, she’s not scared of babies and she is, crucially, not scared of me. My favourite story about her is when she ran after a mugger who had snatched her phone, chasing him down many roads and around corners.

He got away, but only because he leaped over a garden fence and my nanny was in heels that she couldn’t get off in time. Heels! Sam is pleased to see her in the mornings. And she will stay with us, fingers crossed, until Sam is at nursery five mornings a week and I no longer need anyone.

I wasn’t yet a mother, you see – I was just a girl with a very strange pet.

I’m not sure this is a normal experience of childcare arrangements. I think the normal run of things is that you find a brilliant local childminder or a brilliant local nanny or babysitter and use them for ever. But with Kitty I was not yet familiar with any sort of local network. I had a baby, yes, but that didn’t mean I was automatically plugged into an endless supply of recommendations. I wasn’t yet a mother, you see – I was just a girl with a very strange pet.

I am now – now that Kitty is at nursery I have other mothers looped in on an email list. And I finally, much too late, signed up to a local parents’ group, where there are endless childcare options ripe for the picking!

If I was going to do it all again, knowing what I know now, as much as I like my current nanny I would have opted for a childminder – get the baby away, out of the house, so you are not distracted, so you cannot run downstairs and say hello and interfere with the baby when it returns from its morning activity, thereby wasting a precious thirty minutes of paid-for nanny time.

Read more Esther Walker

And I would have started the search before I had a baby, and therefore before my brain turned to mud and I was somehow unable to find time to make a single phone call or remember anything.

Good childminders are oversubscribed, but spaces come free sometimes in January and often in September, when children over two and a half go off to nursery. I didn’t know this! No-one told me!

I just sat there, in the late stages of pregnancy, still thinking that the whole thing was a joke, or that the perfect nanny would fly down the chimney or someone would ring me and say, ‘There’s a great childminder round the corner looking for a new baby to take care of three mornings a week.’ But that doesn’t happen.

I wish, wish someone had sat me down and told me what to do. But they didn’t. So I am telling you, now. Learn from my mistakes, sisters.

This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. If you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here

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