Welcome to the childcare jungle
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 at bit.ly/PayingForChildcare).
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
Opting for a phased return
Teaching is so much a part of who I am that I couldn’t envisage a life without it. So I always knew I would be returning to work after maternity leave. As time drew nearer to my return, however, the task seemed more and more daunting. No matter how I prepared, I just couldn’t get my head around the logistics of balancing parenting and full-time work commitments, while doing both to the high standard I had set myself.
I approached my headteacher about a phased return to work. My class was being covered by a job share, so I proposed temporarily taking over half of the job share for a term. They agreed. I’ve benefited from a phased return twice now and both times my school has been really accommodating.
The personal gains were huge; it helped my family and me manage the change both practically and emotionally.
From the school’s point of view, there were benefits, too: I came back slightly earlier both times, and the temporary share helped a teacher who had left the profession previously get back into the classroom again.
It’s definitely an approach that I think the profession should be more open to.
Lucy Starbuck Braidley is a Year 5/6 teacher and English lead at a school in Hampshire. She is a member of The MTPT Project
Extending maternity leave
I had only been on leave for a few months when I started to feel that perhaps a year wasn’t long enough. Wrestling with the disconcerting feeling that I might not want to return to work at all, I had the good fortune to meet a fellow mother and teacher who is trained as a coach.
Over cups of tea at her house, she helped me to unpack my fears. Yes, there was a sense that I perhaps hadn’t found the right childcare for my baby yet, but I was also relishing my leave for both obvious and less-expected reasons.
Having hurtled through years of curriculum change with barely time to catch breath, I was taking time to reflect. I had started reading about child development, pedagogy and history with the kind of slow thoughtfulness that felt impossible when I was in the classroom.
In fact, I was slower and more thoughtful in general. The autumn after my baby was born is the first one I remember truly noticing since I started teaching.
The solution of asking for a September start, adding four months to my leave, was proposed by my new friend. It felt right the moment she suggested it.
May had seemed like the ideal time to begin maternity leave in a secondary school. For similar reasons, it started to feel like a very strange time to go back. A genuinely fresh start felt appropriate and right.
Libby Merrit is a teacher of history at Linton Village College in Cambridge. She is a member of The MTPT Project
Opting to go part-time
Combining a job in teaching with kids of your own is tricky. For a profession that’s all about children, it can be distinctly less-than-family-friendly. Flexible working isn’t always smiled upon by senior leaders, but for me, it was the only option.
Manage the guilt
Both teaching and parenthood come with an obligatory side order of guilt. Worries that you are getting it all wrong and letting children down are pretty standard in both disciplines.
For me, teaching part-time is a good way to minimise the guilt, so you’re not left feeling that you have completely neglected your career or children.
Keep your hand in
The teaching profession moves pretty fast these days. Even without a break, it feels hard to keep up and the current pace of reform means there’s a good chance you won’t recognise half the curriculum after just a few years’ absence. Going back to work part-time ensures you don’t step out of the river for too long.
Don’t miss the moments
When you have young children, you lose count of the number of checkout assistants and people at bus stops who tell you to cherish every moment.
While this may not carry much weight when your child is mid-tantrum and you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in two years, they can’t all be wrong.
Working part-time gives you the chance to be around for the all-important toddler groups/tantrums/school assemblies, while still having a career.
Neither teaching nor parenting are easy, but flexible working might just be the closest you can get to having your cake and eating it.
Jo Brighouse is a Tes columnist and primary school teacher in the Midlands