108,345 – the staggering sum I've spent on nurseries and a string of (mostly useless) au pairs
Shona warns other working parents not to try totting up the costs of years of childcare at home after she got a shock at the totalDeputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has become her unlikely hero after promising to lower childcare costs
04:42 GMT, 6 November 2012
Shona and her children Florence, Annie, Monty and Dolly at their home in Hindhead, Surrey. She has paid more than 100,000 in childcare over the years
The other day I did something I should warn other working parents never, ever to try at home (or anywhere else for that matter). I whipped out a calculator and totted up the entire amount that childcare for my four children over the past 14 years has cost me.
No doubt you will argue that I must already know what I am spending. Indeed, I do — on a daily, monthly and, if I can bear it, annual basis. Somehow it seems more palatable when broken into bite-sized chunks.
What I have never before been brave enough to stomach is adding it all together to give a final, terrifying total. I say terrifying because it came to well over 100,000, and for that amount I could have bought a house in some parts of Britain — something solid and tangible with four walls and a door.
Instead, I have nothing to show except an extremely precarious freelance journalism career and a shelf of bottles of dodgy Eastern European liquor given to me as Christmas presents by my many au pairs over the years.
This is why Nick Clegg has become my new and very unlikely hero. This week, he vowed to make affordable childcare his number-one priority. The Deputy Prime Minister says his announcement was prompted by the deluge of complaints from working parents he has received about the rising costs of childcare.
In an email to supporters, Clegg said: ‘I want every parent who wants to work to be able to — without seeing every penny of their wages disappear in childcare bills.’
If only. For me, the stark reality of choosing to bring four children into the world while clinging on to a career by my fingernails has meant I’ve been bled dry. Indeed, if I’d known how expensive continuing to work would be, I’d have put my feet up years ago. Maybe it’s easier for parents who have a fixed salary — they can budget what help they can afford and then decide whether they can afford to work at all.
Shona Sibary spent the staggering sum on nurseries and au pairs in a bid to avoid stressful scenes like this of trying to work while caring for young children (file picture)
And for those of us who are self-employed, it’s a roller-coaster requiring nerves of steel or a helpful grandparent at the end of the road to take up the slack — neither of which I possess.
If there’s a bad month without much work, the costs still need to be met. For years, I’ve been paying between 1,000 and 2,000 a month for the privilege of simply doing my job — often at a loss.
This has occasionally led to me taking desperate measures. I remember being forced to sell my dead grandmother’s ring to pay a debt at my daughter’s nursery. And I’ve lost count of the number of times
Nick Clegg has become an unlikely hero for Shona Sibary after pledging to cut childcare costs
I’ve withdrawn cash on a credit card to give to the au pair.
I would honestly begrudge none of this if I felt it had all been money well spent. But the problem is that when you get other people to look after your children, there is always that unhelpful thought lurking in the back of your mind: ‘Couldn’t I do a better job myself’
When I had three children under the age of four, I used a combination of day care nurseries and au pairs. The rationale behind this was partly financial and partly common sense. Au pairs are not qualified nannies and therefore shouldn’t take sole charge of small children for long periods of time.
So the children would spend 8am to 2pm at the nursery — which is all we could afford, but it gave me the peace and quiet I needed to work from the house.
Then they would come back home and be looked after by the au pair during the afternoon if I needed to continue writing. This meant we kept those nursery costs down — which is just as well because they are exorbitant.
Depending on where you live, you can pay between 45 and 80 a day per child. This never ceased to amaze me when I visited such establishments, because they always seemed to be staffed by overweight 18-year-old girls who doubtless had some NVQ in bottom-wiping or whatever, but otherwise looked alarmingly inert.
I remember picking up my eldest, Flo, now 14, only to be horrified by the ‘day-care lingo’ she had picked up.
I would spend hours undoing the damage, explaining to her that it wasn’t a ‘toilet’, it was a ‘loo’, and that dinner is a meal you have in the evening, not at lunchtime.
When each of my children hit the age of three, I transferred them from day care to a government pre-school nursery where they would be eligible for free sessions.
Shona has added up the costs
While this is a move designed to help working parents and amounts to around 15 hours a week free of charge, it only goes so far in being of any real use.
Most nurseries offering the government funding close at 3pm and for the entirety of every school holiday. That’s why I’ve always needed au pairs in addition to any childcare outside the house. But, boy, have they cost a fortune.
I shudder to think how I have forked out 30,000 of hard-earned cash over the years to a stream of girls — most of whom have been totally incompetent.
And this 80 per week doesn’t include money spent on their food, electricity, English lessons and repairs to the bodywork of the car when they’ve pranged it.
Shona has spent a fortune on 'mostly useless' au pairs and is yet to find her perfect Mary Poppins, pictured.
Let’s start with the Romanian who thought it was OK to take my two daughters — then aged two and five — shopping in the town centre in bare feet because ‘that’s the way we do things back home’.
Then there was the Polish girl who borrowed the car, drove a 50-mile round trip to a Portsmouth nightclub and brought two squaddies she’d picked up back to her bed in my home (leaving me no petrol for the school run).
Not forgetting the Slovakian girl who stole 200 from my children’s piggy banks, oh, and the Dutch one who had a fling with George Best in our spare bedroom (no, I’m not making this up).
Then, last, but by no means least, the Czech — or was it Slovenian — au pair who made game efforts to nab my husband, but settled, instead, for one of his friends.
Of course, things are much easier now that my older three — Flo, 14, Annie, 11, and Monty, nine — are at school. Now, there is just three-year-old Dolly’s nursery to pay for. It’s money well spent, apart from one small niggle.
Government guidelines dictate that nursery staff can no longer use the word ‘naughty’. This, apparently, is a potentially damaging statement against a child’s personality.
So, if Dolly does something wilfully disobedient she must be told that her ‘behaviour’ has made staff a ‘little bit sad’. There is no naughty chair or naughty step. The word has been banished.
Well, it makes me a ‘little bit sad’ that my daughter is spending the majority of her week in an environment where common sense no longer seems to prevail.
But what can I do Like every working mother across Britain I must write out my cheque and hope for the best that she will be well looked after and maybe even a little loved.
Because no matter how much money comes in or goes out again on childcare, I will always feel a tinge of guilt that the job I’ve chosen to do will never be the most important job in the world.