Flexibility is the key to a happy working life

Yesterday's Budget may help some working parents - but the problem of unsympathetic employers remains, writes Caroline Millar

Childcare's getting to be like motherhood and apple pie. Well, who wouldn't be in favour of it being more affordable and available, and of higher quality? But as a mother who is still obstinately at home, I find the promises of after-school clubs, nurseries and subsidised childcare are just not enough for me.

And I'm so fed up with being told by grinning apparatchiks of this government that if only I had adequate childcare I would leap into employment. Put the kids into day care and get on with working from dawn till dusk? Excuse me, but is inducting our babies into the long hours culture what helping mothers is all about? There is barely a whisper of what else is needed to bring many women back into a paid job. On its own, childcare seems almost a cop-out - a way to avoid the big changes that are needed to help parents work (heck - let's be honest about this: to help mothers work.)

I love my children. And I really hate it when parents claim credit for being so "professional" that they have put work duties before a school concert, or got the nanny to take their sick child to hospital. If my daughter broke her arm, being with her would be more important than going to a staff meeting. And before I commit myself to an employer, I have to know that I can still put my children first when I need to. Is it impossibly Utopian to want job-sharing, flexible hours, and parental leave?

Sue Monk, joint chief executive of Parents at Work, says, "childcare isn't enough. Parents may need a high degree of flexibility to enable them to combine their caring role and their workplace responsibilities."

Sourly, I believe that many of those who extol cheap and cheerful childcare themselves use nannies - the most expensive and least common form of provision. Nanny will take your children to football practice and test them on their seven times table. She will even nurse them if they wake up with a terrible red rash.

It isn't like that for me. My childcare options are childminders, or an after-school club. But what to do when my children are ill? When I was still working, I remember how I dreaded my son going sick. Inevitably, sometimes I sent him to the childminder when I shouldn't have. Why should parents be forced to do that to their kids? If my children are ill, I want to look after them - and I don't want to be treated as a skiver for doing so.

Ms Monk says, "there is a parental leave directive coming in at the end of 1999 that will enable parents to take time off for emergencies." This may cover the first day of an attack of chickenpox - but maybe not the recurrent wheezes of a chesty child. Still, it may change some employers' attitudes. "There's a recognition that if people's central heating breaks down that's an emergency, but you feel that if you say your child is ill, it is going to be viewed unfavourably."

Gill Webber, chief press officer for the BBC World Service, says she hasn't found this attitude at the BBC. "I have rung in and said I couldn't come in because my little boy was ill. Generally I have found them to be very flexible." She was offered childcare at an in-house creche, "but in the end I decided to go to a local childminder."

Enlightened employers may keep key staff by policies such as these. But some bosses view mothers as just a walking set of demands for days off.

I do earn a little money by writing freelance. My partner has a full- time job; if I were to go out to work too we would be much better off. But without more flexibility, what would I do when my children are ill (they both suffer from asthma)? How could we cope with homework and having friends for tea? How, in heaven's name, could I spend even a little ordinary, un-quality time with them?

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