20/11/2016 17:58 SAST | Updated 21/12/2016 14:06 SAST

The School Year's Almost Done And Parents Are Freaking Out About Childcare

Apparently playing unsupervised in the street just isn't the done thing anymore.
Three weeks of paid leave, five weeks without childcare. Happy holidays, everyone!

Teachers may be counting down the days but for most parents, summer holidays are a nightmare. Public schools close on December 7 and only reopen on January 11 next year – that's five whole weeks. But most South Africans only get three weeks of paid leave a year. Some workplaces don't shut down at all over the festive season, and others only close for the period between Christmas and New Year. As a result, working parents across the country are at this very moment working themselves into knots over summer childcare arrangements.

Robyn Clark Rajab, a lecturer based in Johannesburg, is struggling with summer childcare scenarios for the first time. Their nanny, who usually cares for their 11-month-old daughter, will be on leave from mid-December.

"I guess I will either take her into the office with me or will farm her out between grandparents, aunties and hubby," said Clark Rajab. "I hope she will cope with being around other people and that somehow we can find a solution with family."

Nuzhat Noah, an auditor in Cape Town, is in the same situation. Her 10-month-old son attends an on-site daycare centre at her workplace, but the centre employs temporary staff between 16 December and 12 January. Noah says she isn't comfortable leaving him in the care of unfamiliar staff. But also, the cost of holiday daycare is much higher than it is during term-time.

After complex leave negotiations, the plan is now for her son to spend a week at each of his grandmothers' houses and one week each with his father and mother. The workaround comes with a twinge of guilt - Noah's mother is not in great health, and her mother-in-law has also had to take leave from work to free herself up for childcare duties.

"It's insane but at least I have these options when others do not," said Noah.

Gillian Hanslo and her husband have worked out a similar system to care for their two sons over the summer. One parent takes leave from when schools close until Christmas, and the other takes leave from Christmas until schools reopen. If they're lucky, there are a few days when their leave dates overlap and the entire family can be together.

I think that holiday clubs should be more reasonably priced, but I also don't know how comfortable I would be with leaving my kids with strangers.Gillian Hanslo

Hanslo, an administrative officer based in Cape Town, isn't sure what the solution to the summertime madness might be. "I think that holiday clubs should be more reasonably priced, but I also don't know how comfortable I would be with leaving my kids with strangers," she says.

The assumption that children have a parent or caregiver with a flexible schedule extends beyond the summer holidays.

At Hanslo's son's school, parents are encouraged to attend several events throughout the year, either during school hours or in the early evenings.

"Fortunately between my husband and myself, we've managed to have at least one of us attend, but it must be so incredibly difficult for single parents," she said. "I want to support my children in everything, but if you don't have a very understanding boss, then I can see how this adds to the stress, especially with needing to take a longer break in December to look after your kids."

Not everyone is in a position to take leave over the year-end though.

Alison Visser, an editor based in Johannesburg, says December is always a huge problem. "I can't take the girls to the office, and I can't work when they're around. I have signed them up for holiday school, which is just a week and a half. I have a week off in December, when our department will be working split shifts, but for the rest of the time I have no idea how we're going to work it," she says.

Visser and some colleagues have tentatively planned to club together to buy art and craft supplies and hire someone to look after their children over the period. If it doesn't work out though, she'll try to work from home or rely on play dates.

"If I was president I would can the December holidays altogether. It's ridiculous that an entire country is held to ransom because of one religious celebration."

For Johannesburg-based legal reporter Franny Rabkin, who has relied on a less-than-ideal mixture of grandmothers, parents' annual leave, temporary nannies and a school-based holiday club to care for her daughter over the summer, the solution is clear.

"I think there should be an alignment in society – more holiday time for parents and less holiday time for kids," she says.