Is there such a thing as a “normal” family? Does technology make interactions between parents and children better, or worse? In the struggle between work and childcare, who wins and who loses?
Claudia Williams – Reporter
Phil Sansom – Producer
David Taylor – Presenter
David Taylor: In some ways, life for children is the same as it’s always been. You run, you play, you scream… you cry, and you laugh…
But the world these children are running and screaming through is so different to how it was for children only a generation ago.
For one, families themselves have changed a great deal.
Dawn: So it was agreed that she would be removed from her mum’s care. So obviously I put myself forward.
Claudia William, on recording: Was that a hard decision?
Dawn: It was, because obviously I had to think of the impact it would have on Miracle, but then the way I was seeing it was: she’s my granddaughter, and I can’t see her going into care.
David Taylor: The way that children learn has become much more defined by nursery and preschool, as well as by the technology that’s everywhere in their homes.
Lizzie: I often reach for my phone, or for Spotify or whatever, almost as if I’m not enough.
David Taylor: And the UK has struggled to address some really stark inequalities that are making some kids’ lives incredibly tough.
Kerry: You do live from day to day with what money you can have, and you can’t really afford luxuries that everyone else can get, because it’s difficult with childcare.
David Taylor: That’s why we’re using this podcast series to uncover the seismic changes to early childhood that have accumulated in the past 20 years but have almost gone unnoticed.
Over three episodes, we’ll take you around the UK, through nurseries and new beginnings, showing you the reality of life with young children today.
From Tortoise and the Nuffield Foundation, this is episode one of Life, Changing.
Claudia Williams, on recording: So shall I, I mean… do you have any questions, or anything about me or what I do, or where this is going to go, or anything like that, that you’ve got?
Dawn: No, not really, just…
Claudia Williams, on recording: Just get on with it?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Yeah, alright…
David Taylor: In this first episode, we’re going to take a look at the shape of families. And we’ll start in Sheffield, with someone who’s really seen the changes happening to families firsthand.
Dawn: Yeah, my name’s Dawn. I’ve got two kids. Well, I’ve actually got three kids and then custody of my granddaughter.
David Taylor: The voice you heard speaking to Dawn a moment ago is our reporter Claudia Williams. She’s here with us now – hello Claudia!
Claudia Williams: Hello Dave!
David Taylor: Hey, how are you doing?
Claudia Williams: I’m good, thank you.
So yes, I went to meet Dawn to find out more about her family, and about her kids really.
She’s got two kids who are older, but it’s the two youngest that currently occupy her life the most: that’s her daughter Miracle, and her granddaughter Rainbow.
Dawn: Yeah, I’ve got Miracle. She’s… I describe her as odd, because she’s just… she’s set in her ways. She’s got her own way of doing everything. But she’s very clever, very argumentative.
And she feels no way, if somebody drops something… like there was a man on the bus, and he dropped his bag, and she was like, “that man’s dropped his bag!” And I was like, “no…”
Claudia Williams, on recording: And then can you tell me about Rainbow?
Dawn: Again, she’s just got a personality of her own. She used to be a very, very quiet baby, very quiet. And now she’s like a miniature rhinoceros.
Claudia Williams: Dawn’s family life is pretty busy. Rainbow the rhinoceros, who she just mentioned, is actually the daughter of Dawn’s adult son. And for various reasons, she’s been living with Dawn for the past two years now.
Dawn: Basically my son’s autistic and he’s got ADHD, so he’s got mental health issues, and he’s not really got capacity to bring up a child by himself. And him and his then partner separated.
But Rainbow’s mum had been brought up in the care system. And so there was a lot of social service involvement, and she couldn’t look after her properly.
So it was agreed that she would be removed from her mom’s care. So obviously I put myself forward to take Rainbow.
Claudia William, on recording: Was that a hard decision?
Dawn: It was, because obviously I had to think of the impact it would have on Miracle, because Miracle at the time was only young, and she was just learning, and just…
Miracle had a lot of problems when she was born as well, so she was undergoing operations and things. So I had to think about the impact it would have on her, and obviously on us as a family.
But then the way I was seeing it was: she’s my granddaughter, and I can’t see her going into care.
David Taylor: Dawn’s in a challenging and interesting position. She’s had two kids of her own, a couple of decades ago, and now she’s bringing up two more. So she’s both a mother and a grandparent carer.
And she’s not alone. Research from the Nuffield Foundation shows how the shape and size of families has really been transformed. The way we live now, our family units, have become increasingly varied. So many families today are living different kinds of lives to families only twenty years ago.
So to help us unpack all this, we’re here with the lead author of the Nuffield research I was just talking about: Carey Oppenheim. Hello Carey!
Carey Oppenheim: Hello!
David Taylor: This research programme is an amazing body of work – I think been it’s eight years in the making?
Carey Oppenheim: So I haven’t been working on it for eight years, but the Nuffield Foundation has funded a lot of researchers to work on early childhood. Some of that work goes back eight years.
And the reason that we did it is because young children’s lives have just changed so much. So it’s “the changing face of early childhood”, and by early childhood we mean the ages of nought to five.
David Taylor: Ok, so there’s loads of digging to do, but let’s just talk about Dawn’s experience first. How do you think what we heard represents how families as a whole are changing?
Carey Oppenheim: When I was listening to Dawn’s experience, I was really struck that there are a lot of people who might not be the parent of the child who are playing the role of being a parent. So I think it’s important to have a wide view of what constitutes the family rather than a very traditional one.
David Taylor: So a lot of people playing the role, as you say, and some – like Dawn – kinship carers, not only looking after their own children?
Carey Oppenheim: Exactly that. And there are around 160,000 kinship carers in England and Wales. So that’s around one in 70 children.
So it’s quite a large number. And not all of those arrangements are formal arrangements, often they’re informal arrangements. And those people who are playing those roles need support, whether that’s emotional support or practical support. So we don’t actually know whether those numbers are increasing or decreasing.
David Taylor: And are grandparents in particular being asked to take on more serious parenting roles, a lot of responsibility, rather than just showing up for the treats and the days out?
Carey Oppenheim: I think that’s exactly right. So obviously in this particular case, Dawn’s case, it’s a very particular and hugely responsible role. But as you say, parents are relying so much on grandparents, also because of things like the cost of childcare, and because they’re able to be more flexible, to fill in the gaps.
So if you haven’t got grandparents around, that makes life as a parent really hard.
David Taylor: And do you think it puts a bit of strain on wider families as well?
Carey Oppenheim: It can do. I mean, many grandparents now are also still in paid work, and that’s likely to continue to happen. So how do we square the circle with grandparents working?
Can workplaces enable grandparents to be able to take some leave to look after grandchildren, potentially? We need to be more imaginative about how we accommodate different ways of looking after young children.
David Taylor: And thinking of Dawn’s particular experience, she’s clearly looking after children of different ages, and some of them with some quite complex needs?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, yes. So she talks about both her own daughter who has got health needs, and also her son who has autism. And the evidence is quite difficult to unpick, but it looks as though complex need and the number of children born with special educational needs and disabilities is increasing.
And obviously that poses big challenges, not only for the children themselves but for the people who support them – whether it’s parents or nursery school workers. So I think there’s a lot of unmet need in that area.
David Taylor: Claudia, when you were up there in Sheffield, what was your feeling from Dawn. Did she take it all in her stride, or is she just hanging on, or how is she?
Claudia Williams: She was quite frank that she finds it difficult sometimes. From what I can tell through our conversation she’s coping with it really brilliantly, but it does put restrictions on her life, and that clearly has an impact.
Dawn: Rainbow goes to bed at seven o’clock so from seven o’clock I’m housebound. I can’t leave Rainbow in bed by herself.
So I think little things, just being able to get out to local shops and just being able to just get up and go anywhere really. You’ve got to think about getting kids ready, putting their shoes on, coats on. It’s like 15-20 minutes’ prep time just to go to the shop, just to pick up some milk.
Claudia Williams: Dawn isn’t always as stretched as this – obviously that sounds really difficult. She does have a support network around her.
Dawn: My daughter’s there everyday. She’s got her own little baby.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Congratulations.
Dawn: So she helps me out as much as she can. And my best friend from school, she lives two doors away. We actually moved at the same time to be closer to each other.
Claudia Williams, on recording: That’s amazing!
Dawn: Yeah. So she helps me out with the girls a lot.
Claudia Williams: And that arrangement seems to work out for Dawn’s kids as well. Although it can be tough.
Dawn: Miracle really struggled in the beginning. When I got Rainbow, she was having massive meltdowns constantly. She hated the fact this other person was around.
She’s used to that idea now, and now if we said, “shall we send Rainbow away,” if Rainbow’s misbehaving, we’ll say “shall we just send her away then?” And Miracle will say, “no, no, no, Rainbow has to live with us! She just has to sit on the bottom of the stairs and have time out!”
So, yeah, it’s been a difficult time, but we’re getting there. We’re getting there. We’re all getting used to each other.
Claudia Williams: Because Dawn has obviously had this experience of having young children a couple of decades ago as well as having them now, I wanted to know what changes she had noticed. And the big thing she pointed out to me was technology.
Dawn: I think nowadays it’s all about computers and phones and tablets. Miracle’s not even five and she’s asking for a phone.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Wow.
Dawn: There’s a lot of young kids nowadays that have got Facebook, and I don’t agree with that: six- and seven-year-olds having Facebook, and Snapchat, and Instagram and all these things.
Claudia Williams, on recording: So you know people whose children have Snapchat when they’re like five?
Dawn: Yeah, like six-, seven-year-olds. Yeah.
David Taylor: Carey, what’s your reaction here? Is that something you’ve seen in your research, and is it sort of indicative of a more wider UK trend?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, absolutely. So whether it’s tablets, or internet connections, or mobile phones, they’ve become incredibly widespread.
And I think often we don’t think about it in relation to young children. Three quarters of under-fives have got access to an internet-connected device. And that’s a threefold increase between 2009 and 2019.
David Taylor: It’s amazing, really, in the space of a decade, that we’ve seen that change.
Carey Oppenheim: It is, it is. And I think… I mean the research is still quite early-stage, but it obviously affects how children play, what they play with, but also how parents are interacting with the family and the wider world.
And we see pluses and minuses. On the one hand, you can access these incredible resources for your child. On the other hand, there’s some early evidence that parents are distracted by using their own mobile phone or digital devices when they are also looking after their children.
David Taylor: Yeah, that really hits home with me, because we’ve spoken to dozens of parents during our reporting for this series, and the conversations we were having with parents of children under five… again and again, they talked about both the good and the bad of tech.
Lizzie: Hi, I’m Lizzie. I live in London with my husband Dan and our two children who are five and two: a son and a daughter.
David Taylor: I think Lizzie had a really interesting perspective on how tech had shaped her relationship with her kids, especially her two-year-old son Isaac.
Lizzie: If we’re playing and I’m sort of thinking about how to bring a subject to life, I use technology to reference really quickly and intersperse real-world play with, I guess it’s audio-visual stuff.
So we’ll be talking about, I don’t know, fireworks, right? We’ll do something about fireworks in March when there aren’t any fireworks. And I remember showing my son a film of fireworks or sound effects of fireworks on Spotify.
And I’m sort of constantly amazed that I can just get that up and show him, but we’ve got this real kind of question of: is that part of the flow of play, or is it interrupting the flow of play?
I do feel quite reliant. I often reach for my phone, or for Spotify or whatever, almost as if I’m not enough.
When I was maybe an older child, we were quite early to get tech in our household because my dad was really into everything. So we had the internet in ‘95, and I used to do homework when I was 11, 12, using the internet.
And I remember when the Kobe earthquake happened in 1995, we had to do a geography project about it.
Newsreader: …the worst earthquake to hit Japan since the 1940s…
Lizzie: And we were flitting between web… I mean, I didn’t know what a website was, but we were kind of on BBC, the news website as it then was.
And I put together this project for this teacher. And she was so… I don’t think she’d ever seen anything created with the help of the web before. And she was astonished.
But I felt like I duped her in a way, because I’d been so excited as well that I could bring up an image of Kobe from the day before and print it at home. And so my memory of that is all of this information, but I don’t think I really made sense of the earthquake as an event.
And I suppose that worry does stay with me, that sense of: am I now doing that to Isaac? This sort of impressing with this abundance of beautiful content, but is there context for him that makes sense or that makes it useful for him?
Carey Oppenheim: I mean, I think it’s a really important question about how using that technology, in terms of interacting between parent and child, may change the young child’s perception of the incident.
The evidence suggests that all the things that are important without technology are also important with technology. So if you’re using the technology to engage, exchange, let the child lead you, then it’s probably going to be good. But if you’re using it to ignore each other, it’s probably not so good.
David Taylor: Did you sense – thinking about the lockdown – that we’ve also seen, through access to technology, something which highlights inequalities?
Carey Oppenheim: Absolutely. So it’s poorer families who are less likely to have a good internet connection. And that’s been very, very difficult over the period of the lockdown, so…
David Taylor: And this is their connection to their schoolwork.
Carey Oppenheim: It is. And it’s exposed this very big digital divide between people who have good, fast internet connection, and those who don’t have any or are relying on a single phone. And then we start to see that in terms of the impact of the lockdown on how children are developing and learning.
David Taylor: So one big difference between Lizzie’s experience and Dawn, who we heard from earlier, is that Lizzie is currently working part time and from home, while Dawn’s a full time parent.
But there are so many similarities as well. These are both women who are responsible for such a lot of the childcare.
So Carey, what do your reports tell us about how much mums are working now, and what they’re juggling?
Carey Oppenheim: So really now combining paid work with childcare, if you have a child under five: it’s the norm. And that is quite a task. And many parents, both mums and dads, talk about the stresses and strains of juggling all of those things.
David Taylor: And over the pandemic – it, I suppose, threw up so many challenges – but did you see any new trends emerge at that point?
Carey Oppenheim: Yeah, so mothers were particularly badly affected. They were more likely to lose their jobs during COVID.
But we also – and I think this is interesting and important – see that, for some fathers who were able to work at home, perhaps not for the first time, but they saw childcare at first hand. And they increased the amount, quite considerably, of childcare that they did.
But still, it’s very important to remember that women are bearing the brunt of childcare: around two thirds.
David Taylor: Okay, well I think that gives us the perfect cue to bring in a dad’s perspective.
I spoke to Richard Miles. He’s been married twice, and he’s got kids from each relationship: two older children from his first marriage, and two much younger ones from his current one.
Richard: After I left home and met my second partner, and had children quite quickly, my daughter didn’t speak to me for a long while. So in fact, my 21-year-old daughter has never met her two half-brothers.
Whereas my oldest boy has always been quite actively involved with them, right from the moment go. He doesn’t live with us. He lives with his mates in north London. But we see him probably once a week.
The younger boys like to scrap with him and jump on him and so on. And they have a very good relationship, I would say. The challenge for us is working my daughter into the mix.
David Taylor: So Carey, this is what some people call blended families, right?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, or stepfamilies. Not all stepfamilies are like that, and some have conflict, and some don’t. So they’re just like other families.
David Taylor: And I suppose we must know more about families of different shapes and sizes, just by virtue of the fact there are so many around now?
Carey Oppenheim: Well actually, we don’t know that much, and a lot of the data is pretty old. But in general, the number of children who are experiencing a change in their parents’ relationship – either because they’re separating, or because they’re becoming a new family, repartnering – has grown quite significantly.
We can see there’s a growth in cohabitation; single parenthood, fairly stable now, but one in four families are headed by a single parent; more blended families, so families that are reforming and then have got more complicated relationships. So there’s more change in children’s lives.
David Taylor: Yeah… and it’s certainly been a big change for Richard’s children. And even for him, things have been quite different between his first and second marriage…
Richard Miles: In the first relationship we were both working. And now in the second one, my second wife Cerin, she was working when we met, but with the birth of Zachary three years ago, she decided she wanted to be at home for Zachary, and we’re fortunate enough that we could afford to do that.
So she is the primary caregiver, the primary parent if you like. But we’re just about to reverse that, because I’m stepping back from what I’m doing and going to spend more time in childcare to enable her, in part, to go back to work part time.
David Taylor: That was inspired by what happened during the pandemic, just as you described Carey. He spent more time at home, took part in the childcare, and found he really, really liked spending time with his kids.
Richard Miles: I actually enjoyed being at home much more. My job, at that point, required me to be in the office five days a week doing long hours, out the door seven in the morning and not back until after six, seven, eight in the evening. So I began to see a lot more of them, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Because I was at home I definitely did more around the house, more in the way of childcare. I wouldn’t say I did as much as my wife… we tend to split the chores. I do the decorating and the mucky stuff and a lot of the washing up and all that sort of thing. But, you know, so I, you know, yeah, I guess so, but…
David Taylor: COVID clearly had very different effects on different families. And for Richard, there was definitely an upside to the whole thing. Whereas, Claudia, was it for Dawn up in Sheffield a different experience during COVID?
Claudia Williams: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I should be clear that a lot of what I spoke to Dawn about was really joyful! But when it came to COVID specifically, I think that was really tough for her.
Dawn: I think a lot of the time we just felt trapped because we couldn’t go out. And obviously the kids wanted to go and play out, and they couldn’t understand why we couldn’t go to a park, or why we weren’t taking them out anywhere.
Even though they were so little… I think for Miracle, mainly, because she was that bit older, she couldn’t understand why we weren’t going out anywhere, why we couldn’t go to the park or whatever. And she’d say, “it’s sunny!”
She just knew she used to be able to go to the park and now she can’t, and she didn’t understand why.
Claudia Williams: So we’ve heard about all of these changes, and the pressures families face. And I suppose there’s another parent in Sheffield who I spoke to when I was there, whose story I think really put some of these forces into perspective. And she’s a young mother called Kerry.
Kerry: I walked down because I only live above the road.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Oh you live really close?
Kerry: Yes. We live up on this road.
Claudia Williams: Kerry is 24 years old, and she has a three-year-old daughter called Lexi.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And how did having your daughter change your life? Like your life specifically – you know, your social life, all those different things.
Kerry: Oof, so different. I think it’s changed me as a person. I mean, I used to go out every weekend. Now I’d be in bed by half past seven, eight o’clock, as soon as she’s gone to bed.
So it does tire you out, it does change everything, but I’m happy because I’ve got her. She is, you know, she’s my world. I wouldn’t be without her. I couldn’t imagine life without Lexi.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And what’s she like?
Kerry: Oh, she’s like a little mother hen. She always comforts everybody. You know, she thinks she’s about 10 when she’s about three. She was very kind, very caring. Got a little bit of an attitude, a little bit of a twonager at the minute.
Claudia Williams: Kerry is a single parent, and she relies on friends and family to help her with childcare. And crucially, Lexi goes to a nursery two and a half days a week. But the nursery’s schedule has made it difficult for Kerry to find a job.
Kerry: It’s finding the hours. I mean, even if she did go to nursery every day, Monday to Friday, it’d be something like nine well three, so it’s finding the work that’s to get ten well two, to get to and from Lexi’s nursery.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And were you… before you had her, were you working?
Kerry: I was, yeah. I was working for a charity. And then obviously when I fell pregnant, obviously I left, and then obviously the job wasn’t there to return to. So I’ve been out of a job.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And do you think there’s like enough support for you financially, or childcare wise, to let…
Kerry: It is very difficult. It’s very difficult. I mean, running a house on your own with a child is difficult at the moment without a job. I mean, talking about income: I do get my rent paid for, but I have to pay towards that.
But obviously the only money I receive obviously is the child benefit, which is 80 pound a month. And then I only get four hundred pound as well, which obviously, gas and electric comes out of that, your council tax comes out of that, your water comes out of that, clothing, things like that.
So without a job, you are really stuck, and you do live from day to day with what money you can have. And you can’t really afford luxuries that everybody else can get, because it’s difficult with childcare. So it is very frustrating.
Claudia Williams, on recording: It sounds like it might be quite stressful?
Kerry: It is stressful! Especially when you’ve got a toddler who goes into a shop, and she wants this, and she wants that, and you’re like, “well, I can’t afford that this week”. It makes you feel like you’re letting them down, but there’s nothing else you can physically do.
David Taylor: So that’s Kerry’s situation in Sheffield. Carey Oppenheim in the studio with me, what do you make of that?
Carey Oppenheim: I mean, what really stands out is the love and attention Kerry has for her child. But it also… it just reminds you how hard it is to manage, both when you’re a single parent and also you have very limited money.
And on top of that we’ve had COVID, we’re now in the middle of a cost of living crisis. And when you look at what the research tells you… that families with a child under five are more likely to be in poverty than any other group – that affects well over a third of those children – and also that poverty has been growing faster for those children.
And it’s just worth remembering that poverty has, obviously, a direct impact on how much money you have for food, clothing, heating, but it also affects relationships and creates stress. And that in turn can impact on the amount of mental space and energy you have for your child.
David Taylor: And it can really impinge on the joy and happiness that goes on in a family. I think one thing that I really felt in a lot of conversations that we’ve had with parents was just the emotional weight they brought.
A lot of them were tired, and stretched, and really quite self-critical, and often feeling quite isolated. And you sort of come out of that thinking, “god, are we doing enough to support them?”
Carey Oppenheim: Absolutely. I mean, we know that mental health difficulties – for lots of people, but particularly for parents of young children – have been growing. And that’s not surprising.
So I think, when we think about what can we do to support young parents, it’s just keeping in mind that actually, we need to be thinking about the parent as well as the child.
David Taylor: Do you think people in government are thinking about this right?
Carey Oppenheim: So I think government is still playing catch up in many ways. Some things have been recognised: if you think about civil partnerships and same-sex relationships, you’re recognised in the law, and your identity is clear, and you have the same rights.
So there are ways in which government has caught up. But there are other ways in which we still don’t know that much. And I think we also don’t necessarily know about those informal relationships that you talk about.
And actually we can get very fixed on the form and the structure, but actually what’s important is the quality of the relationship within the family, no matter the kind of family: how strong and good it is, how you deal with conflict. And those are the things that are most important in terms of thinking about how the child is doing.
David Taylor: And with so many people struggling, it must be so important to find other sorts of childcare, right?
Carey Oppenheim: Absolutely, so nurseries, childminders, they play such a vital role in family life. They’re that extra source of support.
David Taylor: That’s next time. We venture deep into the social jungle of an East London nursery…
Julian Grenier: It’s somewhere where parents feel very confident to come, where children love to be.
David Taylor: …and find out what life’s really like through the eyes of under-fives.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Just got bullied by a three-year-old again.
David Taylor: Life, Changing is a Tortoise podcast in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation.
It was produced by Phil Sansom, reported by Claudia Williams, and presented by me, David Taylor – with special thanks to Carey Oppenheim.
This is the first of three episodes, so tune in for the others. And thanks for listening.