Rachel de Souza is the Children’s Commissioner for England.
This essay is taken from our new edition of Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare. Read the full collection here and watch our online event, Childcare in crisis: how do we fix a broken system?
Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare
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It is astonishing how one year can change the way we view family. My recent Family Review, which examined family life across the UK, shone an exciting new spotlight about what family means in the 21st century, how the events of the pandemic have shifted the way that children interact with the people and world around them, and how we care for the young in our society.
One of the most interesting findings was about the impact Covid had on fathers. The amount of time fathers spent on unpaid childcare almost doubled from 47 minutes a day in 2014 to 90 minutes a day during lockdown. Mothers’ time increased much less significantly, from 88 minutes to 102 minutes.
The barriers in place to fathers spending time with their children are so strong that it took a worldwide pandemic to overcome them. And while it is easy to feel disheartened by the fact that their childcare time fell back to 56 minutes in 2022, we should bear in mind that mothers’ time fell to 85 minutes, lower than before the pandemic. The gap between the amount of time mothers and fathers spend with their children is, however slowly, closing. But it can’t and mustn’t take seismic events to keep closing that gap.
“…The gendered expectations on parents are set very early on in a baby’s life, and unless we change that childcare will continue to be a ‘women’s issue’.”– Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England
Because things are changing for mothers too. Over the past 20 years the employment rate for mothers has increased from 67 per cent to 76 per cent, while the rate for fathers has increased only slightly from 90 per cent to 92 per cent. Over time, the working and childcare patterns within families seem to be becoming less gendered.
But there is still a long way to go. When asked who gave them the most care and support, the overwhelming majority of 8- to 17-year-olds who took part in my survey selected one of their parents – but while 72 per cent selected their mother, only 12 per cent selected their father.
There was one other particularly revealing statistic in the Review – although it was perhaps less encouraging. When asked, in 2022, about sharing childcare, nearly half (49 per cent) of fathers said that it was shared equally between both parents. Only 20 per cent of mothers said this. These figures don’t match up, and the data supports my suspicion that mothers might be the ones responding more accurately.
That is why, although getting early education and childcare outside the home right matters for everyone, it is still likely to be mothers who are most affected when it doesn’t work well.
I often hear the argument that we need to support parents to stay at home with their children if they would prefer to, and that we shouldn’t be pushing people into using formal childcare. I agree that the choice should always be with parents.
The problem is, when we talk about support for “parents” to stay at home with their children, in reality we too often mean mothers. Shared parental leave has miniscule levels of take-up, which is perhaps not surprising when it still requires a mother to surrender her leave for a father to take any. When time is specifically earmarked for fathers, the take up rates are far higher. That’s why when we talk about reforming childcare, we must do it in tandem with reforming parental leave arrangements – the gendered expectations on parents are set very early on in a baby’s life, and unless we change that childcare will continue to be a “women’s issue”.
While I hope these longer-term shifts towards a genuinely shared responsibility for childcare and work will continue, for now it is still overwhelmingly mothers who raise with me again and again that childcare needs sorting out. Childcare was in fact one of the most commonly cited pressures on family life in my Family Review, so it is vital that we resolve it.
“I hope… that decisions about working, caring for children and using formal childcare will be based on what genuinely works best for families, rather than gender”– Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England
That is why I recently set out my vision for a reformed childcare offer. I want to see schools extending their hours, and offering care for younger children too, as they are trusted and liked by families. I want childminder agencies reimagined, so that every local area has an agency which can offer bespoke brokerage services to parents, to create a childcare offer that works for them and their children, as well as driving up quality. And I want to end the cliff edge of support at the end of parental leave, so that those who do want to return to work can. Too often ideas for early education and care have worked either for children or for parents, as if they existed in isolation from one another. I wanted to show how to create a system that works for families – one that never compromises on quality, that is accessible and affordable, and flexible to the reality of family life
In years to come I hope – for the sake of fathers, mothers, and most importantly, children – that decisions about working, caring for children and using formal childcare will be based on what genuinely works best for families, rather than gender.