Since having kids, my partner and I have made use of a bunch of ad hoc childcare arrangements so I could go back to work. We've tried various home based carers, two creches and a kindergarten, as well as taking the kids to work - with various degrees of success. Home based carers' circumstances would change, and I'd find myself with nowhere to put my son on short notice. Creches were most reliable, but terribly expensive, and my daughter was unhappy in the cheap one, forcing us to move her to something more expensive. Kindy was great, but only went for half the day, so my partner had to pick up my daughter at the end of her morning at creche, drive around to kill time for half an hour, then drop her off at kindy. And taking the kids to work? Don't ask.
I've always had a sense that my childcare arrangements weren't quite under control, as I rushed from one less than adequate care situation to another. Often, I feel like both a crap mother and a crap worker. It seems that a great many women have similar problems. We call in our own mums to do pick-ups and drop-offs of our kids, and to fill in where we can't afford enough hours of care, or they simply aren't available to be bought. We have to work late from time to time, and hope our creches won't notice (and bill us extra) when we pick up the kids later than we should. We are forced to economise on care, or there's nothing left of our pay packets by the time we've paid the bills. It is, at times, a treadmill-like feeling.
And then, there are the woefully low-paid women who provide care for us. Quite rightly, they look disapprovingly at us when we drop kids with runny noses off at creches. Their disapproval adds to our guilt, and it's hard not to feel irritable with them. Of course, it's no fault of theirs (or ours) that we struggle to combine work commitments with childcare responsibilities. They, too, have kids and work-life balance problems, and dropping off our slightly sickly kids with them makes their workday a little harder.
In these lassaiz-faire times, the market is supposed to deliver we consumers what it is we want. The market has been found painfully wanting in the area of childcare provision. The answer is not to drive a harder bargain with the women who provide care, keeping their wages low and our costs down. Nor is the answer simply to lean more heavily on the unpaid work of family and friends, who we call on to compensate for the inadequacies of our childcare arrangements.
The problem, I believe, is that our society doesn't regard the care of children as a particularly important job (until, of course, something goes wrong, as in the Kahui case). We regard childcare as the responsibility of individual parents, often mothers, and turn a blind eye to the inadequate, stressful, ad hoc childcare arrangements that so many of us limp along with. The solution won't be found in the market, because the market doesn't value childcare work. Those who care for kids - whether paid or unpaid - need to create some solidarity amongst ourselves and insist that the work we do is important. Childcare is not simply a private responsibility which individuals ought to bear the whole burden of. Parents need the help of society - including financial help - to make our important task easier.