Isabel Lloyd: 'The thought of the holidays had me gibbering. My solution was to stop work'

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The Independent Online

I got an e-mail from my high-flying, hard-working brother the other day. It sent a shiver up my spine. "Just after a bit of advice now that Sam is starting school," it read. "What do you do with Jack and Tom childcare-wise in the summer holidays?"

I got an e-mail from my high-flying, hard-working brother the other day. It sent a shiver up my spine. "Just after a bit of advice now that Sam is starting school," it read. "What do you do with Jack and Tom childcare-wise in the summer holidays?"

Suddenly it all came back: the play schemes, the recalcitrant nannies, the endless circuits of the M25 at 6.30am on a Monday.

Three years ago, the thought of summer had me gibbering. Term-time childcare consisted of an ad-hoc combination of tea at friends' houses and the odd stint with a nannyshare or a friendly, elderly neighbour looking to sub her bingo nights.

But summer was different. Understandably, both friends and neighbours balked at the idea of entertaining two energy-packed boys all day, every day for six weeks. I would take one week's holiday to "be with the children" - shorthand for lying exhausted on a sofa whimpering "will you be quiet?" - but my husband works in telly which, apparently, precludes taking time off in July or August "as that's when we do all the filming". So the rest of the summer was a childcare void, in which no one could hear me scream.

I had three options. Number One: grandparents. My children are blessed in having four of these. One is 82, game but deaf. One spends a lot of time at the opera, and only converses easily with dogs. The other two are sweet-natured, live halfway round the M25 and are happy to have the TV set permanently to Yu-Gi-Oh and Jackie Chan Adventures. I reckoned they could handle two days continuous childcare at the most, so twice a week two sleepy, slightly carsick children and I would make a dawn raid on Watford, after which I'd race sweatily to east London for a 10am conference. The grandparents didn't ask for any money, but the petrol costs soon racked up.

The second option was the £20-a-day play scheme at a sports hall from 9.30am-5.30pm - not good hours for someone whose journey to work took 80 minutes - and was supervised by a couple of bored teenagers who stood around listlessly while their charges "did" trampolining, football, and gained an NVQ in eating jam sandwiches and hitting each other. After a week, Tom refused to go back.

Finally, there was the nanny option. The playground grapevine helped me find a nanny willing to look after my children in addition to her usual charge, but at £45 a day I was barely covering my costs.

My solution? I stopped work - sort of. These days I freelance from home, earning a lot less, but also paying a lot less for childcare and travel. I work like a maniac in the run-up to July so I can keep those precious summer six weeks free, and only occasionally have to conduct interviews over the phone while under-10s scream at each other in the background.

And as for my brother? As I write, he's on a motorway somewhere, driving a sleepy, slightly carsick child to his grandparents' house.

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