Happy families are better than nannies

In the old days, Aunt Maud next door would look after the children while Mum went to work. Now more people are returning to the extended family.

When families used to live in the same village or town it was normal for the extended family to help when it came to looking after younger members of the family. As families have become more mobile, and Auntie Maud doesn't live round the corner any more, the extended family revolves around the telephone and weekend visits. Auntie Maud is no longer there to pick up the children from school and give them their tea.

But not everywhere. Some families are deliberately re-inventing the support networks of the extended family because they believe this offers the best kind of child care you can get, even if it means uprooting themselves and moving to where the family now is.

Sisters Sally Webster and Julie Cox have become next-door neighbours in a pair of semis in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and share the care of their nine children between them because they think it is what their children need.

Sally and her husband, John, uprooted their family from their home in Berkshire last summer to move into the house next door to Julie and her husband, Geoff, so that each could help the other out in caring for their children.

A permanently open gate in the fence dividing the two back gardens gives their children - Sally has four and Julie has five - easy access to come and go as they please between the two homes.

Sally, 35, and Julie 36, both work - Sally is a nurse and Julie runs her own business from home supplying pre-cut letters to schools. Childcare is freely shared, with auntie next door taking charge when either set of parents is out at work.

The Websters had always shared the care of their children, Claire, 12, Laura, 10, Sam, seven, and Jenny, five. John is a fireman and with Sally working nights they managed to fit around each other's shifts, though it regularly meant missing sleep to ensure one of them was around for the children.

"With four children, paid childcare was not financially viable," says Sally. "Julie and I often moaned that the miles between us meant we couldn't offer each other the support we would have liked in bringing up our families."

Although Julie worked from home, she still needed help with childcare. Her eldest two, Sarah and Tom, are 16 and 14, so they help with the younger ones, Josh, Rosie and Beth - but they cannot always be around.

When the house next to Julie and Geoff went up for sale, the sisters felt fate was taking a hand. Although the move was a joint decision by both couples, the arrangement is essentially between the sisters. "John and Geoff are not the big buddies that Julie and I are," says Sally. "When they are at home the open-house policy tends to retreat. They don't particularly want nine children in one house at a time and the children all respect that."

John has borne the brunt of the move. Sally has now moved her job to Swindon but John continues to commute to London.

"We both feel, however, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages," says Sally. "John has bought a motorbike to cope with the extra journey, and the fact that we have Julie here to help out makes such a difference to family life. Everything has become more relaxed. We can actually spend time together now."

Geoff's initial concern, that Julie would end up doing too much because she was at home most of the time, has been alleviated by the extra support the set-up creates.

"We have a few basic ground rules so that everyone knows where they are," says Julie. "Sally and I never cook for each other's children, otherwise they might start picking and choosing where they're going to eat. And if the children are told to go home, they know there's no argument. Really we are just one big, happy family."

On the other side of the country, on a seven-acre poultry farm in Norfolk, Juliet Read and her three daughters, Sarah, Mandy, and Anna, and their families have reunited, the adult daughters homing as the grandchildren have been born.

Sarah 34, and her husband, Rupert Harris, live with their two children, nine-year old Emily and five-year old Matthew, in a house on the edge of the farm.

Three hundred yards down the road Mandy, 32, and her husband, Joe Evans, live with their daughter, Esther, two. They also run their own wrought- iron furniture business from a forge on the farm, helped by grandfather Peter Read.

Anna, 29, who is studying to be a solicitor in Norwich hopes to return home when she and her husband, Tim Prutton, start a family.

Grandmother Juliet, 58, is the linchpin of the family. When Sarah and Mandy are working, Emily, Matthew and Esther join her in the chicken sheds or cycle in the safe surrounds of the farm.

A list nailed on the back of the shed door reminds Juliet when to pick the children up from school or from the creche.

Juliet says: "I feel privileged to be doing this. I think it is good for women with young children to have a career, too. Running a family is not always enough - when the children have grown up and gone, you're left with nothing."

Mandy and Joe moved from London to the farm in Woodton, so that Esther would be born into a family community.

"When my sisters and I were growing up, our grandmother played a central role in our lives, looking after us when Juliet was working," says Mandy.

"As a family we collectively decided that we would like that secure network to continue for the next generation. Our mother has always encouraged us to have careers, and said she would help look after our children to enable us to do so.

"It is a wonderful arrangement because as well as having the love and support of their own nuclear families, our children have the continuous care of their grandparents who will always love them and be a part of their lives."

Sarah, who is practice manager of a nearby surgery, says she could not have returned to work without the support of her parents.

"I would not have wanted a stream of nannies coming and going every six months with the children trying to form relationships with people who are only likely to be part of their lives for a very short time," she says. "Emily is very close to my mother because she spends such a lot of time with her, and both she and Matthew see a lot more of Esther than they might have done had we been scattered far and wide.

"I used to talk to my grandmother about all sorts of things that I couldn't discuss with my mother when I was growing up. I'm happy Emily will have another sounding block to turn to as she grows older."

Joe comes from a large family so is used to getting on with relatives. For Rupert, the extended family is in sharp contrast to his own childhood. As an only child he went to boarding school at the age of 11, and as his parents travelled, he was often the only member of his family in the country.

"To be part of a big family now, with Emily and Matthew charging from one set of relations to the next is terrific for him," says Sarah.

Sarah and Mandy admit that the arrangement can only work if everyone is honest with each other. "We openly discuss questions of upbringing such as whether the children should watch television or eat sweets," says Sarah. "A rule of thumb is if we have an argument, as we do from time to time, we sort it out immediately.

"Bedtime is the one area that can lead to conflict. My parents tend to be very relaxed about when the children should go to bed. If Emily and Matthew are staying over night, they are happy to let them go to bed when it suits them. I tend to be less liberal and like them in bed by 8pm, especially when it's school the next day. It's always sorted out amicably even though we have a difference of opinion."

She feels the relationships are not claustrophobic. "We don't allow them to be. We all lead our separate lives as well, and there is enough distance between our houses for us to be able to escape from one another.

"The arrangement is, of course, unbalanced because Juliet is doing all the giving and she won't accept any renumeration beyond out-of-pocket expenses. But we hope that in the future we will be here for our parents when they need us: not because we feel obliged to but because we want to. That is what the extended family is all about."

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