Why I... believe childcare is not a luxury

November 30, 2001

When I gave up paid work to start my PhD four years ago, I worried vaguely about what would happen when my grant from the Natural Environment Research Council ran out at the end of its three-year term. Somehow I put the matter to one side assuming I would get a job and write up at the same time. Writing up at the end of a PhD can be a full-time job in itself, and usually takes several months. My husband works, so we thought we could manage if push came to shove.

They say that if you want to give God a laugh, you should tell him your plans and I have no doubt he chuckled when he heard about ours. Midway through my second year I discovered I was expecting twins. Nobody plans for twins and this delightful, though unexpected, twist of fate put paid to the theory that I would get a job, as looking after twins and writing up count as two full-time unpaid jobs already.

Since my grant ran out in April, we have been struggling to make ends meet. I am not entitled to any benefits such as jobseeker's allowance as I have not been employed in the past few years. Nor am I entitled to housing benefit as we have a mortgage. I lost any student discounts I had received when I started to write up, as I am not officially a student any more. Although we do get working families tax credit we have no help towards childcare (our largest expense), as I am still regarded as a student and students are not entitled to such benefits. I am in the ludicrous position that when I do submit my thesis and find paid work, I will be entitled to more benefits than I am now when I have no income at all.

The childcare issue is our biggest problem. There seems to be an unspoken assumption at the Benefits Agency that childcare for students is some sort of luxury, in the same category as having a new car every year or owning a butler. I challenge anyone to manage to concentrate on writing anything even remotely intelligent while two active toddlers trash the house around you, blithely deleting your files and rearranging your notes. Without my wonderful childminder I would never get as far as submitting my thesis.

Thanks to a sympathetic bank manager I have managed to take out a professional studies loan. This does not quite cover the cost of childcare, but will help to keep our heads above water for a while. After that I'm not quite sure how we will manage. The loan will have to be paid back of course, with interest, and this unavoidable mounting debt is an additional source of stress. Meanwhile I am looking at another few months of living on handouts from my family. I am ashamed to be still dependent on my pensioner parents when I'm 31 and married with children. It is a ridiculous situation that puts a strain on my whole family - from my toddlers to their grandparents.

Rachel Kruft Welton
School of biosciences
University of Birmingham

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