I think there are three key reasons why parents raising young children now have a more difficult and costly experience of organising childcare than their parents and grandparents:
- Income vs cost of living: housing costs have risen far more quickly than wages, meaning that for most modern families, both parents need to work at least most of the week if not full time
- Centralisation and availability of work: it is now more common for us to take up completely different careers to our parents and more work is now concentrated in cities and large towns than ever before, meaning that more people are likely to move away from the family home
- The above factors are also key reasons that people are now older when they become parents and that means their parents are also older and their health may mean they are less able to take on childcare responsibilities.
All three of these factors are part of our story.
I grew up in a working class household but the sort of work my dad, grandparents, great-grandparents etc all did when they left school just didn't exist anymore and have never been replaced. I was all too aware of the struggles of working class people as industry collapsed under Thatcherism and so I went to University and at the earliest opportunity, I got a job in Manchester and moved here. After various career-related moves and delays (I was made redundant aged 30 and had to start at the bottom in a totally new career), we now have a house and a two-year-old boy.
Sadly, my wife's mum passed away nearly ten years ago and my own mum died earlier this year. Although my mum at least got to know our son as a baby and toddler, she wasn't well enough to play a bigger role in his life. My parents' house is nearly an hour's drive away (sometimes more, depending on traffic at the time) and my dad is losing his confidence behind the wheel - particularly as the traffic around Manchester seems to get worse every year. And as an old-fashioned working dad, where my mum did the majority of the parenting, he'll probably never feel comfortable or confident enough to take on any kind of 'grandparenting' role at least until our son is quite a few years older.
My wife moved up from Somerset for a job here in Manchester.When we do see her dad and step-mum, it's usually for a weekend or even a week, and they have been able to look after our son for a few hours during the day, or have kept an ear on the baby monitor after we've put him to bed. It may be that they are still fit enough to look after him for longer periods when he is old enough to be happy with that himself but due to the distance, it will never be a regular thing.
I do have friends whose parents are able to look after their children, some on a regular basis but I probably know more who don't have that option due to some or all of the factors mentioned above. And I'm somewhat surprised that for all the popularity of the topic in recent times, I haven't read very much that discusses how, unless our economy and the geographic distribution of employment opportunities re-balance, parents are going to be less able to rely on grandparents for childcare.
It is also worth pointing out humans are instinctively social and for the vast majority of human history (and it is still the case for many), large family groups have lived in close proximity and one of the benefits of those groups is the sharing of childcare responsibilities. So what we are currently seeing is not unusual, in fact society urgently needs to address the issues that are making us less able to enjoy the benefits of having our families around us.