By the time I returned to work after six months of maternity leave, it felt as though my husband and I had explored every possible permutation of childcare: nursery, childminders, au pairs, nannies, family, kibbutz-style crèche collectives. Much of this exploration had happened before our child was even born.
It was a stressful process: each time a nursery asked for a name to preregister my child in exchange for a non-refundable £200 fee, I wanted to shout, “He doesn’t have a name, you money-grabbing fiends! He hasn’t even been born yet.”
Despite the seeming injustice of it all, I’m glad we took the time to find the right fit for our family, and to listen to the experiences of friends and colleagues. Every family context is different, even for teachers working in similar positions in the same school; keeping an open mind about what would work for us emphasised the importance of making confident and informed choices.
There’s no right way to do childcare and there are a plethora of parenting blogs that you can google to weigh up the pros and cons of various provisions. For us, investigating each one allowed us to better understand and refine our priorities: a nursery right next to our house was more important than a bilingual setting; we had far stronger opinions about food culture than we had previously realised; the prospect of informed and passionate early years foundation stage staff resonated more with our parenting style than a cosy and maternal nanny set-up.
Explore the options available to you and do what feels right, but do take into consideration the peculiarities of teaching as a profession that might restrict or liberate your options:
Early starts and late finishes
Many nurseries and childminder settings open at 8am and close at 6pm. Unfortunately, many teachers need to be at school before 8am and can be stuck there until beyond 6pm.
In order to make things work logistically, conversations need to happen: between you and your partner, and between both of you and your respective employers.
For you, this might mean asking the school for the calendar for the term to be sent out in September, January and April, so that you can organise evening childcare, or asking to be relinquished of morning form-time responsibilities, as a flexible-working arrangement. Or it could be the difficult retraining of pre-baby disciplines to allow yourself to leave at 4:30pm, despite a lingering workload (if it doesn’t get done, the world will not end).
It is highly unlikely that a nursery or childminder setting would offer term-time-only fees; even childminders ask for a minimal charge to hold a place over the long summer holidays, which can be frustrating for teachers.
My two tips here: firstly, don’t underestimate your need for childcare during the holidays – it’s always nice to have some baby-free time in which to take care of yourself.
Secondly, there’s no harm in smilingly but persistently asking for term-time fees with your nursery manager: after six months of paying through the holidays, we managed to negotiate exactly that.
Unless you have family on hand, there’s no way to escape the fact that the finances of childcare will leave you sobbing, especially without a teaching and learning responsibility, leadership position or high-earning partner.
Support to return to work is available from the government’s new tax-free childcare scheme and the 15 free hours per week (though most parents will be eligible for 30 hours) for which you qualify when your child is three years old (or two, if you meet certain criteria. You can find out more here).
However, both my husband and I are in full-time employment – meaning we require 46 hours of childcare per week. As a result, these offers can feel a little tokenistic. And our monthly costs are, frankly, crippling.
My one impassioned plea is to consider your options, knowing that for every year a woman takes out of the workplace, her potential earnings drop by 4 per cent in comparison with a male counterpart (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2016).
If you consider the spending on childcare to be an investment, it can bring you back from the brink of despair; not only will this medium-term financial sacrifice enable many parents to have a fulfilling professional life, it can also leave the whole family better off in the long run. Childcare costs hurt (they really, really hurt), but knowing you are investing in your professional future can be a powerful painkiller.
Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/PaternityTeacher (MTPT) Project and a lead practitioner for English
The 26-page 'Becoming a Parent' guide is in the 30 March issue of Tes magazine and features advice, tips and all your legal rights as a parent, including information on adoption, IVF and surrogacy.