Is It Becoming Too Expensive For Mothers To Work?

Spiralling childcare costs are keeping want-to-work mothers at home, finds Maria Lally 

The Juggle

by Maria Lally |

Joanna Reid has two sons aged 5 and 6 and says she ‘naively assumed’ once they started school the pressure of childcare costs would ease a little. ‘But school starts at 9 and finishes at 3pm. I found a local childminder who could do three hours a day of wrap-around care, but times that by five days a week and it was costing almost £1,000 a month. I was on a fairly good salary, but it was a stressful job and once you deducted childcare and travel costs, it didn’t seem worth it.’ So, two weeks ago Joanna, a company account manager, resigned.

And she’s not alone. New research shows the number of women aged between 25 and 34 not working has soared by 13% in the past twelve months. ‘And what do those women have in common?’ asks Joeli Brearley, founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS). ‘They’re often raising young children.’

The UK has the second most expensive childcare in the OECD, and it’s rising: the cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen from £236 a week in 2018, to £274 in 2022 – a leap of 16%. For an increasing number of families – and overwhelmingly mothers – it simply doesn’t pay to. PTS recently found 43% of mothers are considering leaving their jobs due to childcare costs, with one in five working in less senior roles than their ability to ease childcare bills.

Which means they’re paying the ‘motherhood penalty’ not only during the early years of raising children but also when they return to work, before facing a ‘gender pension gap’ in retirement. According to the Fawcett Society, for each year a mother is absent from the workplace her future wages fall by 4%. By the time a mother returns to work full-time, her male partner will on average be earning 21% more than her.

Meanwhile, research published by Scottish Widows found the average 20-something woman today will retire with £100,000 less in her pension than a male peer, largely due to her heavier childcare burden. Or as Jackie Leiper, managing director of pensions at Scottish Widows puts it: ‘Caring responsibilities and high childcare costs are keeping women out of the workforce, lowering their contributions and denting their pension pots.’

The solution, according to Brearley, is properly subsidised childcare, and points to other countries who view it as essential infrastructure. ‘Canada has just committed $30billion to making childcare cost no more than $10 a day,’ says Joeli. ‘They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, they’re doing it because they’ve crunched the numbers. Studies there showed every $1 invested in childcare generated between $1.50 and $2.80 in return for the economy.’

Which is why last year over 113,000 of Grazia readers signed our affordable childcare petition, calling on the government to hold an independent review into the cost of childcare.

But for now, mothers across the UK will continue to leave the workplace, priced out by childcare bills that make it too expensive for them to work.

‘I worry about my career prospects and pension,’ says Joanna. ‘I went straight back to work after both maternity leaves, not wanting to lose touch with my industry. But the numbers don’t add up anymore. So, like a lot of mums, I’m having to make a sacrifice.’

Join Grazia’s parenting community @thejuggleuk on Instagram and help us fight the motherhood penalty

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