The high cost of childcare has put me under so much pressure

Since resuming my business after finishing maternity leave 5 months ago, my little boy has been attending nursery for 15 hours a week (3 half days). He enjoys his time there and I enjoy having a few uninterrupted hours to myself to work on my business. However, I soon found that 15 hours just wasn’t enough for me to keep on top of everything and I was falling behind on things like accounting, admin and marketing. Furthermore, whilst I was earning enough to cover his nursery fees most months, my income was too low to qualify for a 20% discount through the government’s tax-free childcare scheme, though I have so far been receiving this discount as it is based on projected income rather than actual income.

Determined to reach the minimum income of £659/month and to not have to pay this money back in my next tax return, I made the difficult decision to put my son in nursery for an extra half day a week from this month (20 hours total). It’s a risk, because without that 20% discount, his fees are now higher than I have been earning on average so far and I don’t know if having an extra 5 hours a week to work will enable me to meet that government-imposed target. (Thankfully, my husband has a full-time job to pay for our other bills!)

Running my own business has never been about the money – I could earn more working a minimum wage job. Rather, being self-employed allows me to do what I love, to have more freedom and the flexibility to fit my work around family life. But the high cost of childcare and unfair eligibility criteria of the tax-free childcare system have put me under so much pressure, either to spend every elusive moment of free time figuring out how I can earn more, to give up on my business entirely and be a full time stay-at-home mum (which is no less hard work), or to try to find a part-time job I probably wouldn’t enjoy that fits around childcare arrangements, just for the guaranteed income.

Working so hard to make so little profit makes me feel a failure as a businesswoman, and choosing to work for so little financial benefit instead of spending more time with my son makes me feel like a failure as a mother (even though I believe we both benefit from his time in nursery). I’m constantly questioning if I’m doing the right thing, all because of an ill-thought-out policy which discriminates against those with low incomes.

The national living wage is set to increase significantly in April, which is likely to push up the minimum earnings threshold for tax-free childcare even higher. The cost-of-living crisis means the cost of my ingredients have soared and my customers have less disposable income to spend. I feel like I’m being squeezed at both ends, and being a self-employed mum is not as idyllic as I had imagined it to be! The tax-free childcare system needs to be changed – the minimum earnings threshold should be lowered for part-time/zero-hours or self-employed parents with an unpredictable income, or based on household income rather than individual income, or even better scrapped entirely to stop making low-earners jump through hoops just to get the same discount full-time employees get!


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