Sharing is a good thingBy Lucy Ward
It’s a message we drum into our little ones from the moment they are old enough to snaffle every Dinky car in the playgroup toy box: sharing, we proclaim, is a good thing.
But now, in these days of belt-tightening and budget trimming, cost-conscious working parents are taking the sharing principle more seriously than ever. Alongside a new-found enthusiasm for hand-me-down clothes and “pre-loved” toys, a new credit crunch phenomenon is emerging: the rise and rise of the nanny-share.
Family co-operation over childcare isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Plenty of parents working part time, myself included, have teamed up with others, perhaps working different days, to create a full-time job for one nanny. The difference now is that more and more working families are exploring the route – driven by a need to keep costs down in straitened times while retaining the high-quality, convenient childcare provided by a nanny.
At Nannytax last autumn, as banks shuddered and markets entered a tailspin, a rise in nanny shares pushed new subscriptions up by 5% in September on the previous year. A fifth of families using the service were in a share – up from 17% just six months previously. More and more new parents rang Nannytax’s inquiry lines, wanting to know how nanny shares work and how they could save money.
Another apparent trend driven by the credit crunch is a return to the “short, sharp” maternity leave. Mothers who might, in more confident economic times, have made use of new rights to take up to a year off work after having their baby (most of it paid, albeit at a low level) are now hurrying back to their desks, fearful of being out of the office if the redundancy axe falls. It’s a pattern observed at Nannytax, and at Working Families, a campaign group pushing for better rights for working parents. “Our help-line inquiries seem to show that people are going back to work earlier – they tell us they wanted to take a year but they are returning after four months,” says policy officer Jonathan Swan. “They also seem to be not daring to ask for flexible working at the moment because they are worried about job security.”
But if nanny sharing is one of the unforeseen consequences of a twenty-first century recession – along with a new interest in growing our own veg and obsessively monitoring our electricity use – that does not, of course, make it a bad thing.
Far from it: sharing, when done well, makes a great deal of sense for everyone involved – parents save some money without compromising on care, children continue to enjoy care from one dedicated individual, and nannies benefit from a varied working week.
My own experience of nanny shares, though begun rather impetuously over a cup of tea after I gate-crashed a neighbour’s ante-natal group lunch, has been overwhelmingly positive. Since having my first child, now eight, and then two more now aged five and two, I’ve both employed a nanny to look after my own toddler and another at the same time (both mothers worked three days a week), and shared two nannies with other two families who employed them on different days (this last arrangement almost caused cogs to fly out of the overheating Nannytax computer – but more of that later).
My first nanny-share was prompted partly, as for so many parents now, by cost pressures – barely anything would have been left of my three-day-a-week salary had my partner and I paid alone. But I was also keen that my first child, Ailis (then 17 months), should have some toddler company, while still being looked after at home to suit my irregular hours as a political journalist.
The answer came unexpectedly – a fellow mother with whom I bonded over our youngsters’ shared enthusiasm for hair-pulling turned out to be similarly searching for three-day care affordable on her charity worker’s income, and was happy for our house to be the venue. Together, Sophie and I advertised for and appointed a nanny (this collaboration was immensely reassuring given that we were both first-time employers), and so began a two-year share that left our two oldest children with a quite unexpectedly enduring bond they still enjoy, plus the bonus of our own friendship which has survived seven years and two house moves around the country.
In retrospect, we were very lucky: both mothers had very similar priorities - we preferred fun and spontaneity in our nanny to ultra-organised planning, and neither of us is fussy about dirt and messy play – and our children were compatible (sometimes almost too compatible – their joint boisterousness would have exhausted a less energetic nanny). But as co-employers we were also co-operative, working out a termly “bill” in which Sophie paid me for food costs and a contribution towards our extra heating bills, and ensuring we met regularly to check we were both happy with the ways things had turned out (and, until we both got pregnant again, to share a bottle of wine with that enthusiasm unique to mothers of toddlers).
For those heading down a similar route, I would advise a similar approach: as with any relationship, good communication is vital both before and after you start your share. Make sure you tick all the boxes around money (crucial if, like us, your nanny is working different hours for each of you), and on all the areas of common ground such as food, discipline, illness and your essential willingness to trust your nanny (I could never have shared with someone who insisted on constant checking up, for example). Where a share involves children from different families being cared for together, it’s also worth remembering that, no matter how convenient an arrangement is for parents, it may come under strain if your children are wildly incompatible characters, or if age differences mean one restricts the other, for example by needing naps at home at set times.
As families grow and children multiply, nanny shares of this type are trickier to manage and, like many parents, my partner and I later opted for an arrangement in which our nanny looked after our three children part of the week while I worked, and for another family the rest. Just to make this more complicated (in our family we never choose simplicity where a convoluted option is available), we ended up with one nanny working on a Monday for us and another on a Tuesday and Wednesday (neither could do all three days, I couldn’t switch my working days: welcome to modern work-life balance...).
Both our nannies (yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds – I promise I’m not a member of the royal family) had another employer the rest of the week, and again I made sure I talked to both those families when the arrangement started to agree how to resolve tax complications and discuss issues such as holiday entitlement. This kind of share is, I would argue, generally considerably simpler than those in which children from different families are cared for together, but it’s still worth establishing a relationship, particularly if you think you may end up “competing” with your fellow employer for extra days’ care or babysitting. You may also want to think about what will happen if one of you ends the arrangement – your nanny may not be able to find another part-time role that is compatible with the days you employ her.
If you are mad enough to follow us down the multiple nannies route, you will of course also need to ensure they communicate with each other as “job-sharers” when necessary – this, at least, was easy for us as both were good friends when we employed them.
Sharing a nanny this way again worked well for us – we employed our carers just for the days we needed them, which made the arrangement affordable. Even our double nanny set-up seemed to be an advantage: the kids loved having one carer who enjoys cooking and crafts and another who is a footballer (a former Cambridge Women’s captain, no less).
With our youngest child now part time at nursery, our nanny days are, sadly, probably behind us. But for those considering trying to reconcile work-life balance, job security and a tight family budget in tough financial times, a nanny share could be a winning option that benefits all concerned.
This article was first published in Charlotte Magazine in March 2009.
Lucy Ward writes on children and family policy.