Melanie McDonagh: Babies are the batons in the parents' relay race

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The Independent Online

Perhaps the only thing more terrifying than the Secretary of State for Children and Families taking advice from agony aunts is the nature of the problems they talk about. Ed Balls got together with an anguish (the collective noun of their choice) of aunts last week to unveil a new Cabinet Office report on the family. And it made dispiriting reading: apparently there's no such thing as a "typical" family any more because a quarter of families are single parent. But among parents who jointly raise their children, there's a new take on the whole business. The authors of the Cabinet Office report – and one would love to know about their own home lives – have called it "relay parenting". It involves two busy individuals more or less passing the baton of childcare on to each other on a daily basis. One arrives home to take up the task of childminding, leaving the other free to get to an appointment outside. It saves on babysitting, but the inevitable effect is that couples have less "alone time". And this, pronounces the Cabinet Office, is bad for their relationships.

Really, the agony aunts here seem to be well and truly outflanked by the civil service, in terms of stating the obvious. Particularly when they go on to observe, "Pressures to combine work and family life and lack of couple time are greatest among couples with young children and both partners working full time." You don't say.

Any contemporary parent will be familiar with the phenomenon of the relay. Indeed, before I had my first child, I was taken aside by one friend, a Cambridge don, and warned about it. He and his wife were directors of studies in different colleges and they worked around each other. One would return home at a given time, when he would be met by the other parent already on her way out the door. The moral, he said darkly, was that you had to be a really good time-keeper if the show was to be kept on the road.

It was, I assume, a perfectly good situation for their children; it just meant that, as colleagues, they sounded like the sort who'd be impossible to buttonhole after seminars because they were for ever dashing back home. Their children were in the enviable position of having two parents, but only sometimes together in the same house at the same time.

And although the problem is more pronounced when both mother and father have full-time jobs – as is no doubt the case with Mr Balls and his wife, the Treasury Secretary, Yvette Cooper – it still happens to a lesser extent when one parent works full time. The one who works outside the home is under a moral obligation to let the other out to play. The upshot is that it is nearly impossible to make any arrangement with anyone with children without them first clearing it with Her/Him Indoors, or rather, Her/Him at Large.

There are other ways of arranging things. My husband is Albanian, and in Kosovo, you never stir far from your mother-in-law, whose job is to mind the children as needed. Quite often the granny takes up residence. This may diminish couples' alone-time too, but it seems to work well. The other option, familiar to Englishmen of a certain age and class, is a nanny, who provided the kind of continuity their parents did not. Alas, the modern equivalent of a succession of nubile au pairs is not quite the same thing.

If the problem is greater when both parents work, the Government could, at a stroke, diminish it by making it more tax-efficient for one parent to stay at home. But right now, relay parenting is just a misleading sporting metaphor for the reality that contemporary parenthood means being tired an awful lot of the time.