For working mothers in the Nineties, holidays are hell. Guilty, exhausted, and worried about what their children might be getting up to while they're in the office, they end up organising make-do childcare, frantically calling in favours, and writing out endless rotas to collect, carry and shunt their kids around for every hour from 9am till 7pm.
Joanna Morse is a mother who also works as an administration manager for CPL Plus Ltd, a car park management and security firm. Her summer life is typical - horribly hectic. During the six weeks her two sons, Alex, 10, and David, seven, are off school she ages about six years. "I dread the summer," she says. Weeks before, she starts preparing a battle plan which, like the good general she is, will draw upon her every childcare resource. "I need to know exactly where everyone is on any given day, at any given moment. I write notes, then rewrite notes every single morning. It's crisis management."
Some days Joanna's mother, who has had cancer and open heart surgery, looks after the children from 9.30 until lunchtime, when Joanna's husband comes home from an early shift and takes over. Other days, they go to their friends' houses, or out with their godparents. Every day is different, so Joanna has to rely heavily on her "very, very good network of friends", including her neighbour, Dee, who can be guaranteed to take the boys for a couple of hours in the afternoon until Joanna gets home at 6pm. When all else fails she has to use a childminder, but it's "impossible economically to hire one very often".
She feels guilty when the boys don't get treats in summer, so she always tries to let them go for a week to Queen's Park Rangers' summer football school. But that begins when Joanna starts work, so she has to ask other parents to drop them in the morning and pick them up at 3.45pm, except on the last day, when the medals are handed out and she tries to get along herself. David, her youngest, has a rare arthritic condition which affects his lower limbs. So although he's coached in the morning, he either has to sit and watch the afternoon game or be collected at lunchtime by Joanna's mum.
The big trouble comes at the end of the month when Joanna has to work late doing the salaries and there's no flexibility in her work schedule. So it comes as a huge relief when the family take their two-week summer holiday, this year in Spain. After that the boys are going to a two-week playscheme which they love and which costs an affordable pounds 3 a day.
And then it's term time again. "I do get a sense of achievement when it all works," says Joanna stoically. "I know when the slightest thing goes wrong it can break up like a deck of cards." In fact, she reckons that this summer will be a doddle compared to previous ones, but maybe that's because she's been anaesthetised to the pain over the years. "You have to do it: that's life as a working mother."
Well, not necessarily. For there is an easy solution to this annual holiday hell if you can afford to chuck money at it by hiring help. High flyers, professionals and other big earners often keep nannies all year round simply so they don't have the trouble of organising short-term holiday cover. That's an option which in London costs about pounds 18,000 a year, with no tax relief. The slightly less affluent might employ a temporary nanny or childminder but at pounds 50 a day (plus tax and NI of pounds 17.06) or pounds 2,011.80 for six weeks, this isn't a workable option for many families either.
So what can a working parent do? The far-sighted find a job in a school, university or college where you get long paid holidays in tandem with your kids. Whether you're a teacher, administrator or dinner lady, it's a big bonus getting summers off. Others work for enlightened employers such as the BBC or Midland Bank, which run on-site holiday playschemes, so the kids can travel to and from work with you, be safely looked after and also get a flavour of office life.
If you're self-employed, you might be able to swing it so you can take, say, the month of August off as they do on the Continent. Maureen Freely, an author, journalist and mother of four, who works full time from home, holidays with the kids in Turkey for a month each year. The benefits, she says, are that you don't have to organise summer childcare and you return beautifully chilled out. The downside is that by taking one long break, you can get very tired during the rest of the year.
Remarkably 79 per cent of mothers whose youngest child is aged between five and 10 now work. With Tony Blair encouraging the other 21 per cent back into employment, the Government should surely take some responsibility for helping these parents cope with the summer holiday fiasco. According to Stephen Burke of the Daycare Trust, an organisation which campaigns to improve childcare, progress is being made.
In May 1998, the Government announced the creation of 20,000 new out- of-school clubs and summer playschemes. These are being set up by local authorities so provisions vary, but you can usually drop your child at 8.30am and pick him/her up at 6.30pm for a cost of about pounds 60 a week. (For details of a club near you, call the Kids' Clubs Network helpline - tel: 0171 512 2100.) At the moment there aren't enough places to go round - book weeks ahead. There are also some question marks about the quality of care given to kids, which varies from club to club. Some parents worry about putting their kids into yet another institution during the summer break when they should be having a change of pace. And some kids simply refuse to go. Susannah Foreman's children, Emily, nine, and Tom, 10, hate summer school. "When I suggest a week's holiday in a lovely playscheme, they just start crying," says Susannah, who works in desktop publishing for Quest Worldwide, a management consultancy. "They hate it. They don't make friends. They don't like being thrown into things. And it is horrible. They sit in a squash court all day. The staff are PE students and make it as good as they can but it's not a lot of fun."
This summer, she and her partner Mark, a self-employed kitchen maker, are going to each take one day off a week, and find a childminder to fill in for the other three days. If that doesn't work out, they'll each take three consecutive weeks off, thus kissing goodbye to any idea of a family holiday.
"It's hopeless. We have so few options," Susannah says. "Mark's mother has just moved to Madeira and I had a fantasy that she was going to ring up and say, send the kids over for the whole summer." She pauses. "But she didn't, for obvious reasons."
Shirley Conran, best-selling novelist and ex-wife of Sir Terence, runs the charity Mothers in Management. She's so worried about the increased stress working mothers now face, especially during holiday time, that she's put pounds 50,000 of her own money into organising a table-top think tank on work/life management, to take place on 30 September.
As she points out, the madness doesn't just happen in summer. Every six weeks, children get a half term week off, which plays regular havoc with the routines of working parents. She wants a radical solution from the government.
"It's worse now for working mothers than ever before," she says. "What has to be addressed is the school year and school terms from the point of view of what is best for the child. It's still the same system as when I was at school, and I know that during the long summer break, I used to forget everything I'd learned."
She's right. The system needs to be changed. Because for working parents and their kids, all else has already failed. As Shirley Conran puts it, "People are not going to like this, but children need to get used to the fact that life is about work."Reuse content