Creche Course

I was disappointed to read in the Guardian this week that the campaign for a Creche in the Inns of Court for the children of barristers has STILL not got through and sounds as if it may get turned down on costs grounds.

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A bunch of women were trying to get this off the ground when I was first pregnant in early 2007 (and even before that I think), but I fled the city and took my practice nearer to the support of family and cut down my commuting time. I don’t know how we could have made it work otherwise.

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Shame on the bar if it can’t find a way to make remaining at the bar after starting a family more manageable. Too many good female barristers just disappear from practice because they decide the compromises their families are expected to make are too great, that the sums just don’t add up.

A bit Woolley…

A couple of tweets from @woolleyandco alerted me to some interesting posts on their blog: Andrew Woolley has it spot on about Baroness Deech’s curiously reality-detached approach to humiliating divorce settlements (I think she means demeaning, but anyway). “You say humiliating, I say equality…”. Doesn’t scan but you get the point. And as for the post on Baroness Deech’s remarks about grandparents’ entitlement to financial recompense for their gratis childcare – well I’ve posted previously about the political expediency of pandering to grandparents rights organisations, and all I have to add is this observation: do we really want to go down this road? If grandparents are entitled to claim maintenance from their children who ‘take advantage’ of free childcare, will the parents be able to recoup that in later years for the care they will give the elderly grandparents? Or perhaps parents should be able to recoup their childcare costs from their children’s earnings in years to come? We could all do with acknowledging how much grandparents offer their children and their grandchildren, but their contribution is more than one dimensional – financial support, childcare, time and love. And isn’t the essence of (grand)parental love that it is voluntary?

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My own parents routinely take our son for a day a week, but whilst for them they are pleased to feel they have helped us out with childcare, we are pleased to ensure that they have some quality time with their grandson. We try not to rely on it as failsafe childcare, being sensitive to when they have something else they need to do that day, but we would want to keep up this special time with grandma and granddad even when we aren’t at work. For my son Monday is Ga-mma day. It’s not a transaction we could quantify with money. That would be demeaning. I do see the arguments for being able to claim working tax credits childcare element if a grandparent is giving up a large chunk of their week and is prevented from earning money through other work (although I also see the difficulties with it), but to create maintenance obligations between different tiers of family members just undercuts the whole notion of family helping family – politicians are obsessed with trying to strengthen the family and ‘mend’ society, reducing the family to a set of financial obligations or contracts is not going to help cement our society together or make our children happier.

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As a footnote, its heartening to see that what I would call a ‘marketing blog’ can still be an interesting read, and can contain some real and insightful opinion. If a blog is worth doing it has to contain some human input and not just be an endless stream of advertorial. Whilst Woolley and Co have clearly invested heavily in their online media marketing strategy, they are doing it well. So many other firms are doing it badly.

Granny Solidarity

I initially didn’t pay much attention to the proposals made this week by Grandparents Plus that grannies* should receive financial recognition for their childcare of grandchildren. I had gone so far as to wonder why parents should not be able to receive working tax credit for childminding provided by extended family as well as registered childminders, but this seemed too susceptible to fraud to be ever likely to happen. But today I read an interesting article by Melanie Reid which I don’t entirely agree with but which provoked a little further thought on my part.

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Firstly she points out that if grandparents were to be treated as equivalent to childminders for the purposes of the childcare element of the working tax credit they would have to be demonstrably offering an equivalent service and yet the regulatory framework for even a poorly paid small business like childminding is monstrously complicated and not something that would be welcome, appropriate, practical or cost effective to apply to informal extended family arrangements. So that adds another layer of difficulty. 

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More substantively Melanie Reid opines that ‘what is depressing about this campaign is that in attempting to highlight the undoubted importance of grandparenting, it distorts what is precious about it. It reduces one of the closest of family bonds to a financial transaction, and tries to put a value on it. That’s very sad and ultimately destructive.’ I find this statement difficult. I agree at face value with what is said, I know my own Mum offers childcare because she wants to spend time with her beloved grandson as much as anything else and I wouldn’t want to sully that or insult her by offering to pay her – but the dynamics are complicated and like many working parents we are constantly anxious not to abuse the babysitting that is on offer. Like many grandparents these days my own parents still work and have little time for themselves. And the joy of being a grandparent is supposed to be that you can give them back when they grizzle or need a change.

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But actually on reading the Melanie Reid article and the quote above in particular, I was struck immediately by the echo of historic attempts by the feminist movement over the years to quantify the financial value of women’s domestic contributions to the household in the context of  the traditional nuclear family. Identifying the financial value of ‘women’s work’ was (is) an important step in the journey towards gender and pay equality and the highlighting and reduction of exploitation. In ancillary relief proceedings the contribution of these traditional roles (whether performed by husband or wife) is now regarded as equal in value to the financial contribution from paid employment, although as paid employment childcare, cleaning and other domestic type work remains poorly paid, a mark of the low value we as a society still place on these roles. The family courts recognise that somebody has to care for the kids and they should not be financially disadvantaged by their contribution to that role. In big money Schedule 1 cases allowances are sometimes awarded to mothers on the basis of the cost of a salaried nanny.

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I think there is probably a generation of grannies stuck holding the baby in order to facilitate their daughters’ career, ladies of a certain age who should now be living it up giving up perhaps more of their free time than they would like in order to make the family micro-economy viable. Could it be that the same women who burnt their bras decades ago are now co-erced into an undervalued caring role in order to support their liberated daughters? Women may now be able to achieve career success but it is very difficult to juggle family life with full time employment without a spouse or partner at home, expensive childcare provision, or – for many – the support of extended family.

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Thanks to our mothers and their own mothers it is no a longer controversial proposition that we should be able pursue a career and to continue doing so having started a family,whether male or female. But should our liberation from the burden of childcare be at the expense of our own mothers? Are we behaving like spoilt children by demanding that we should ‘have it all’ leaving mum and dad to pay? It’s very hard for grannies to say ‘no’ to requests and to reserve a little time for themselves. Instead of simply shifting the burden to other groups of women (poorly paid childminders, unpaid grandmothers) perhaps we should think more creatively about other family economic models that are less exploitative of women and which put less strain on family relations.

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I’m conscious I don’t really have anything concrete to put forward here, recognising as I do that the prospects of working tax credits being extended to cover informal family care are remote, but on a philosophical level I feel that we ought to be able to make this work more fairly for the family as a whole. Suggestions anyone? Perhaps rather than payment of WTC to the parent (which may not be passed onto the grandparent) there could be a version of carer’s allowance (payable at a lower / fixed rate than in the case of ‘professional’ childcare) paid directly to the grandparent in cases where the parent qualifies for tax credits?

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* I’ve talked about grannies not granddads in this post which I know will not be true in all cases but I think the majority of cases will be a grandmother caring either alone or with a grandfather rather than a grandfather caring alone.