Nanny may not know best, but she's cheap

It takes a case like the New York au pair tragedy to remind us of the value of good child care. But are we prepared to pay for it?

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No one needs special qualifications to become a parent yet following the death of a nine-month-old American baby at the hands of British au pair Louise Woodward, everyone is asking who is properly qualified to care for children.

This story is a tragedy for all concerned. An inexperienced 18-year-old loses her patience with a crying baby in her care and shakes him. He dies as a result of a "intracranial haemorrhage" and she now faces a murder charge. Her father flies out to Boston and fails to raise the $100,000 bail money, while her traumatised mother sits in shock, telling reporters "I can't imagine how his parents must feel. I have already lost my daughter - but I have at least got the hope of getting her back."

How could this have happened? Everyone who has left a child in the care of a child-minder, au pair, or baby-sitter - that is, most of us - will sleep less easily. Everyone is relating stories of dodgy nannies and irresponsible au pairs, of young women like Louise Woodward who we can see in retrospect were ill-equipped to care for infants. Checklists have been provided for prospective employees so that we might ask the right questions, get the right references, make sure they have the right qualifications before we leave them in sole charge of our off spring.

Au pairs are often employed on the basis of a letter alone. No meeting takes place until they turn up with their rucksack. I once asked a prospective au pair if she liked children. She replied "No". When I asked her if there was anything that she wanted to ask me, she said: "Can you get me a boyfriend?"

All this advice however, may help relieve our anxiety but it won't change the basic reality - that we want those who look after our children to be highly skilled, yet we don't want to pay them much money to do it. Our children may be precious but we leave them in the care of those who get paid far less than any proposed minimum wage. This is a catch-22: if child care became more expensive, many women could simply not afford to work in the first place. It is working women, who as we know are already under attack from all sides, whose guilt and fear will be played upon by the Louise Woodward story.

Yet the couple who employed this girl were high earners. Sunil Eappen is an anaesthesiologist, his wife Deborah an ophthalmologist. For all their "ologies", like many in their situation they must have decided to spend only a small proportion of their income on child care. This is not unusual but it reflects our contradictory expectations about what it takes and what it costs to look after small children.

The assumption is that young women will be able to look after babies merely on the grounds of their gender. Their experience may be limited to baby-sitting, which often involves sitting in a house after the children have already gone to bed. We assume that girls will have had experience of looking after babies when clearly most have not. This may have been the case in the days of the extended family but not any more.

The first baby I ever held was my own. We had been prepared for this at antenatal classes by bathing dolls but this was about as much use as our preparation for childbirth, which involved a midwife pushing a tennis ball through a pretend uterus that was knitted out of navy blue wool. "Sorry," she said at the time, "I ran out of pink".

The idea that one can be fully prepared for parenthood may be a myth but we are on the whole deeply ambivalent about what caring for children is about. On the one hand it is entirely natural: anyone (except, it seems, men) can do it, and, as it is common sense, it not given much status. Girls who do not achieve much academically are siphoned off as nursery nurses. On the other hand, all social classes are bombarded with instructions on how to improve their parenting skills.

Books are being published at a furious rate on how to produce "emotionally intelligent children", on how to make them cleverer, more creative, more socially accomplished. Parenting is recognised as an arduous and complex task. One sees hordes of exhausted parents trying to cram all their parenting skills into half an hour at the end of a long day.

Things had obviously gone wrong in the family that Woodward was working for. The child who died also had a broken arm that had been left untreated. None of the three adults caring for him appears to have noticed. Hayward's friends and family have rallied to her support with tales of her kindness. As sad as this case is, we should be grateful that there are not more like it. Most child-minders and au pairs do a very good job for not much money and little thanks. The rise of the domestic class means that many young women are involved in what sometimes amounts to slave labour.

Child care, like so much else, has become almost entirely privatised. Each mother struggles to find someone suitable to look after her children that she can afford to pay, then worries that they are not good enough, and is never sure what goes on when she is not there. In nurseries at least there are other adults around. If one worker becomes frustrated there are others to take a turn. Good day-care is good for children, but even so we regard it with suspicion.

A Scandinavian friend of mine, who did her child-care training in Denmark, was encouraged to believe that she was preparing for one of the most important professions - helping to bring up the next generation. In Britain she was stunned to find that working with children was considered a menial job with bad pay. The care of small children is still a predominantly female profession, underwritten by the idea that because women are looking after children it's not actually a real job at all.

It takes something going wrong to remind us how valuable a job it is. And we have to decide whether we want to pay the price. The prioritising of education is meaningless without decent and subsidised nursery provision and that provision must start way before the age of four. Many women will continue to manage as they do now by swapping child care with friends and family. This costs nothing and is often preferable to a deregulated market which dictates that child care can be done on the cheap. We can't be surprised that sometimes you get what you pay for.

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