Positioning flexibly scheduled ECEC in the chain of childcare by parents working non-standard hours

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  • 1 University of Jyväskylä, , Finland
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This study examined how Finnish parents working non-standard hours (N=18) positioned institutional flexibly scheduled early childhood education and care (ECEC) as a link in their chain of childcare. Interview data, analysed following the principles of discursive psychology, yielded three discourses on flexibly scheduled ECEC: the discourse of the child’s best interest, the discourse of the labour market, and the discourse of equality of opportunity for the child. Flexibly scheduled ECEC was positioned in these discourses either as the last resort option for childcare, a safe haven for the child, a societal service enabling parents to work during non-standard hours or as a place for children’s learning. It is important to recognise the origins of these discourses and reflect on them to improve ECEC services, so that they meet the demands of safety as a link in the chain of childcare and increase the level of parental satisfaction with them.

Abstract

This study examined how Finnish parents working non-standard hours (N=18) positioned institutional flexibly scheduled early childhood education and care (ECEC) as a link in their chain of childcare. Interview data, analysed following the principles of discursive psychology, yielded three discourses on flexibly scheduled ECEC: the discourse of the child’s best interest, the discourse of the labour market, and the discourse of equality of opportunity for the child. Flexibly scheduled ECEC was positioned in these discourses either as the last resort option for childcare, a safe haven for the child, a societal service enabling parents to work during non-standard hours or as a place for children’s learning. It is important to recognise the origins of these discourses and reflect on them to improve ECEC services, so that they meet the demands of safety as a link in the chain of childcare and increase the level of parental satisfaction with them.

Introduction

Childcare arrangements are not solely about practical matters; they also raise moral questions. However, staying at home or using childcare are not necessarily a free choice instead; parents’ childcare arrangements will vary depending on their needs and the range of options available to them (Peyton et al, 2001). Childcare arrangements, including both formal (for example, institutional early childhood education and care [ECEC]) and informal (parental or non-parental) childcare settings, can be viewed as links in the chain of childcare (see Andenaes, 2011). Diversity in childcare arrangements is typically found among parents working non-standard hours (La Valle et al, 2002; Enchautegui et al, 2015). Parents, staff in institutional ECEC, and informal childcare providers, such as friends and relatives, all form links in this chain.

Parents’ non-standard working hours and their impact on childcare and children’s wellbeing have been the focus of many studies worldwide (see Li et al, 2014). The results have shown that multiplicity in childcare arrangements may impair children’s wellbeing (de Schipper et al, 2004) and increase their externalising and internalising problems (Morrissey, 2009). The lack or unpredictability of important family routines has also been reported to threaten children’s wellbeing (Gassman-Pines, 2011; Janta, 2014; Sévon et al, 2017; Hepburn, 2018). A high turnover of educators and peers is common in non-standard ECEC (de Schipper et al, 2003; Siippainen, 2018) and may present children with difficulties in maintaining stable social relations (Moilanen et al, 2016).

The multiplicity of childcare arrangements prevalent among parents working non-standard hours together with the above-mentioned empirical results indicating risks for children’s wellbeing prompted our interest in flexibly scheduled ECEC as a specific and controversial institution. Here, we focus on the discourses parents produced in research interviews on flexibly scheduled ECEC and how they positioned these services as one link in the chain of childcare. It is important to listen to parents, since as the clients of ECEC services, their collaboration is important in improving service quality and better meeting their childcare needs. This study is also the first attempt to bring the concept ‘chain of care’ into the context of flexibly scheduled ECEC and parents’ non-standard work schedules, with the aim of revealing how parents legitimate or discredit its position in relation to other possible links in the chain of childcare.

Chain of care

The concept of the ‘chain of care’ refers to the linking of children’s micro systems, such as the home with formal and informal childcare, the objective being to support children’s overall socio-emotional wellbeing (Andenaes, 2011; see also Sevón et al, 2017). The chain of care concept has its roots in healthcare, where the work of professionals constitutes a chain of coordinated activities that serve the needs of the patient (Åhgren, 2003). Andenaes (2011) introduced the term ‘chain of care’ into the childcare context, and thus institutional ECEC can be considered as one link in the chain of childcare, the ultimate responsibility for which lies with parents. This responsibility can be conceptualised as ‘remote parenting’ (Vuorinen, 2018), which means that the child’s care and wellbeing must also be considered when the parents are not with their child and responsibility for the child is delegated to other links in the chain.

The chain of childcare is based on the idea of shared care, in which institutional ECEC forms just one link (Andenaes, 2011). Parents working non-standard hours typically need extra links in the chain of care, such as informal childcare services and formal, institutional ECEC. Arrangement multiplicity is typical in countries where institutional childcare services are only available during standard hours (see Kamerman, 2006). In Finland, municipalities are obliged to provide ECEC services according to parents’ working hours, including non-standard hours. Despite this, Finnish parents working non-standard hours face many childcare-related challenges (Moilanen et al, 2016). There may be many reasons for this. For example, flexibly scheduled ECEC is not always locally available but instead is often concentrated in city centres (Peltoperä et al, 2017). Moreover, social norms and stigma related to non-standard hours ECEC (Statham and Mooney, 2003) may influence parents’ feelings and in turn their childcare arrangements, leading them to prefer informal childcare (see also Repo, 2004; Murtorinne-Lahtinen et al, 2016; Moilanen et al, 2020).

Due to irregularity in the hours of care needed by children, the number of educators a child meets during a normal day or week is higher in flexibly scheduled ECEC than in regular ECEC (de Schipper et al, 2003; Siippainen, 2018). For this reason, educators take joint responsibility for all the children present, thereby possibly increasing daily instability in the childcare arrangements of individual children (de Schipper, et al, 2003). However, multiplicity in stable settings does not seem to be associated with child adjustment to ECEC or behavioural outcomes (de Schipper et al, 2004; Pilarz and Hill 2014). It can be argued, therefore, that flexibly scheduled ECEC may better support children’s wellbeing than childcare arrangements that use several informal links which, by their nature, may mean low continuity and compromise the coherence of the chain of childcare (Verhoef et al, 2016), not to mention the benefits of the educational aspect offered by formal childcare.

Parental choice of childcare arrangements and non-standard working hours

In Western countries, the concept of ‘parental choice’, while familiar in the context of choosing a child’s school, has been instilled much earlier, in the continuing debates on whether parents are free to choose between work and childcare (Nyland et al, 2009), and on the disadvantages and benefits of home care versus institutional care from the parents’ perspectives (Repo, 2013; Terävä et al, 2018). The marketisation of ECEC services can also be viewed from within the choice frame: more provision means more choice for parents (Kampichler et al, 2018; Ruutiainen et al, 2020).

Parents’ childcare arrangements seem largely to devolve to women, with the result that the mothers of young children may feel the need to justify their participation in the labour market and the consequent need for out-of-home childcare (Repo, 2004; Terävä et al, 2018; Moilanen et al, 2020). This can be attributed to the ideal of ‘good motherhood’, which emphasises both the primacy of mothers in child rearing and their duty to choose childcare arrangements that are in the child’s best interest (Vincent and Ball, 2001; Karlsson et al, 2013; Terävä et al, 2018).

Earlier research shows that parents use diverse discourses to justify their childcare arrangements. The justifications for choosing out-of-home childcare have to do with what benefits the parents’ and the family’s finances as well as the child’s needs and best interest (Duncan and Irwin, 2004; Karlsson et al, 2013; Terävä et al, 2018). From the child’s perspective, parents are typically obliged to offer their child both quality education (Peyton et al, 2001; Jinseok and Fram, 2009) and safety and emotional support (Duncan and Irwin, 2004). From the parental perspective, practical issues, such as the location, cost and opening hours of ECEC services are important factors in choosing childcare (Peyton et al, 2001; Duncan and Irwin, 2004; Kampichler et al, 2018). Parents’ decisions are thus influenced by practicality ahead of quality, especially when the mother is working outside the home (Jinseok and Fram, 2009). In contrast, the discourses on mothers’ own needs and aspirations are rarely socially acceptable justifications for non-parental childcare (Wall, 2013; Terävä et al, 2018), unless they are related to their children’s needs (Duncan and Irwin, 2004).

Hence, while choosing childcare is related to issues of practicality and quality, it is also shaped by the prevailing moral norms and social acceptability (Duncan and Irwin, 2004; Jinseok and Fram, 2009; Vincent et al, 2010; Karlsson et al, 2013). Even then, deciding on the specificities of childcare is rarely a pure choice, but is more likely to have to do with adapting to the availability of formal and/or informal childcare services, potentially rendering the childcare arrangements haphazard (Vincent et al, 2010). Non-standard working hours make parental childcare arrangements an even more contested topic (see Rönkä et al, 2017). This has been observed in parents’ efforts to provide parental care in the first instance for their children during non-standard hours (Presser, 2003), possibly reflecting the ideal of home care or as a way of reducing childcare fees or logistical reliance on others (La Valle et al, 2002).

The impact of parental non-standard working hours on childcare arrangements seems to depend on family form. Children in lone-parent families and dual-earner families live in different realities regarding the number and types of links in the chain of childcare. Children in dual-earner families have fewer links in their chain of childcare and less non-parental care when one parent is working non-standard hours (Hepburn, 2018). Thus working non-standard hours can be a strategy to meet childcare needs mainly through parental care by adjusting both parents’ work schedules (Presser, 2003; Verhoef et al, 2016) to reduce the number of links in the chain of childcare. This so-called tag-team parenting, where parents work different shifts in order to take care of the children themselves, is especially possible when parents’ working hours are predictable (Carrillo et al, 2017). However, this only concerns families with two adults. In contrast, the combination of lone motherhood and non-standard working hours presents lone mothers with atriple demand. As the only responsible parent, these mothers reported being expected to justify their non-standard working hours, and their use of institutional ECEC during non-standard hours (Moilanen et al, 2020). International studies have also found that lone parents working non-standard hours have the most need for multiple childcare arrangements (Hepburn, 2018).

According to both parents and ECEC staff, institutional childcare during non-standard hours runs counter to the social norm of acceptable childcare arrangements (Statham and Mooney, 2003; Rönkä et al, 2017) and good mothering (Moilanen et al, 2020). In another study (Peltoperä et al, 2017), educators’ discourses revealed they have a need to account for their work to make the provision of flexibly scheduled ECEC more socially acceptable. Mothers working non-standard hours have also felt a need to justify working during non-standard hours and placing their children in non-parental care (Murtorinne-Lahtinen et al, 2016; Moilanen et al, 2020). Mothers feel especially guilty when their children spend whole nights or long hours (typically more than eight hours) in flexibly scheduled ECEC and they are unable to spend enough time alone with them (Murtorinne-Lahtinen et al, 2016). The need felt by both parents and educators to justify their actions reveals the more or less hidden social norms related to institutional childcare during non-standard hours. However, precisely how parents working non-standard hours position flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in their chain of childcare has not thus far been studied. To contribute to filling this gap in the literature, the following research questions were set:

  1. What discourses do parents working non-standard hours use when speaking about institutional flexibly scheduled ECEC?

  2. How do these discourses position flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in the chain of childcare?

Method

Study context

In Finland, flexibly scheduled ECEC refers to municipally provided ECEC services that include care during non-standard hours, such as early mornings, late evenings, nights and weekends. This type of service is available when a single parent or both parents work or study during non-standard hours. This partially explains the high proportion of single parents using flexibly scheduled ECEC (as found in the present data; see the next section), as children in dual-earner families do not have the right to flexibly scheduled ECEC if only one parent works non-standard hours.

In Finland, about 7 per cent of the children in ECEC are in flexibly scheduled ECEC (Säkkinen and Kuoppala, 2017). Flexibly scheduled ECEC services are highly subsidised and cost parents the same as regular ECEC (max. € 290/month). The amount depends on family form, family income and the number of children in the family, and is free of charge for low-income families. In our research project, the parents working non-standard hours were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than those working standard hours only (Rönkä et al, 2017), as previously reported by an international survey (Strazdins et al, 2006). Although universal access to flexibly scheduled ECEC is written into the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care 2018, an earlier survey (Plantenga and Remery, 2009) found that only 62 per cent of Finnish municipalities were able to meet the parental need for care during non-standard hours. However, for most eligible parents working non-standard hours the possibility of flexibly scheduled ECEC is a further option in the chain of childcare.

In practice, flexibly scheduled ECEC centres are open from early mornings until late evenings, or 24/7, depending on local parental needs. For each child, care is flexibly organised according to the working hours of their parent/s. In practice, parents book arrivals and departures from care separately for each day one week in advance to facilitate the work schedules of ECEC nurses and teachers and pedagogical planning.

Data collection and participants

The data were collected by interviewing Finnish parents (N = 18) working non-standard hours and using institutional flexibly scheduled ECEC to cover their childcare needs (see Table 1). One of the interviewed parents was a father and the remainder were mothers; the number of single mothers explains the low rate of fathers in the data. In this study, working non-standard hours meant that in addition to typical working hours (between 7 am and 5 pm) these parents might also work between 6 pm and 6 am and/or during weekends and holidays.

Table 1:

Participants

Pseudo-nymAgeGenderFamily formAge of child(ren)Level of education
Anne33femalelone6 yrsBD1
Anniina42femalelone2 yrsVUS2
Eija30femalecouple18 months 5 yrsBD
Elsa32femalelone4 yrs 11 yrsVUS
Katriina29femalelone5yrs 6 yrsVUS
Kristafemalelone5 yrsVUS
Kristiina38femalecouple3 yrs 6 yrs 8 yrsVUS
Liisa36femalecouple5 yrs 7 yrs 9 yrsVUS
Maija40femalelone2 yrs 11 yrs 15 yrs 15 yrsVUS
Maria27femalelone2 yrsVUS
Matti29malecouple18 months 5 yrsVUS
Mervi31femalelone6 yrsBD
Noora31femalelone5 yrsVUS
Olga44femalelone5 yrsBD
Sara42femalelone5 yrsVUS
Susanna25femalelone5 yrs 6 yrsVUS
Tanja24femalecouple18 months 4 yrsVUS
Tiia32femalelone4 yrsBD

Notes

Bachelor’s degree from a university of applied sciences.

Vocational upper secondary.

The data for this study form part of the data set collected for the ‘Children’s socio-emotional well-being and daily family life in a 24-h economy’ project funded by the Academy of Finland. Participants first filled in a quantitative web-based questionnaire administered by the project. Participants were then asked if they would be willing to take part in the interviews. The semi-structured interviews were conducted mainly in the participants’ homes by members of the research group. The interviews followed a thematic interview guide designed beforehand by the research team. The interview themes included working patterns, parenthood, intimate relationship, childcare arrangements, co-operation with institutional ECEC and parents’ and children’s wellbeing. The guide also included specific questions on each theme to help the interviewer to progress the discussion. However, the questions could be presented flexibly and in a different order in each individual interview. For this article, the parts where parents discussed their childcare arrangements and co-operation with institutional ECEC settings were mainly analysed.

Analysis

The data analysis followed the principles of discursive psychology. According to discursive psychology, people construct social reality via language drawn from culturally shared discourses that reveal some general patterns from the wider social context, together with norms and ideologies, and thus cannot be attributed solely to the individual speaker (Taylor, 2006). Two main concepts, ‘discourse’ and ‘positions’, are analysed in this study. A discourse is defined as a distinctive and internally coherent way of creating a particular version of the world (here, of flexibly scheduled ECEC) and making it understandable. It is both discursive and consequential action, and therefore, in interviews, discourses are always being (re)produced for particular purposes (Potter, 2003; Korobov, 2010; Nikander, 2012). Different discourses also differently position flexibly scheduled ECEC. By positioning, we refer to how flexibly scheduled ECEC was perceived in the discourses: in other words, what kinds of morally laden features, such as responsibilities, rights and duties (van Langenhoven and Harre, 1999) were attached to flexibly scheduled ECEC. The positions adopted with regard to ECEC can be interpreted as reflecting or countering existing explicitly or implicitly expressed positions that locate the phenomenon of interest in specific ways (see Wetherell, 2003).

The analysis started by identifying topical themes from the parents’ talk that were related to choosing flexibly scheduled ECEC as one link in the chain of childcare. This process was in many respects identical to other types of qualitative analysis and facilitated the process of deepening the analysis in the direction of discursive psychology and the more detailed analysis of the discourse to be conducted later. After carefully reading the identified extracts, we noticed that childcare arrangements were approached from two perspectives in parental discourse: that of a child and that of a parent. The child perspective was constructed in descriptions where flexibly scheduled ECEC was reported as either a disadvantageous or a favourable choice for the child and in talk concerning the opportunity for the child to learn. The parental perspective emerged in descriptions of the emotional and practical support received or not received from flexibly scheduled ECEC. In this discourse, the benefit of flexibly scheduled ECEC depended on how conveniently it enabled parents to go to work, and thus was constructed from the perspective of the labour market.

Naming the discourses solely from a child or parental point of view was not specific enough; for this reason, we decided to focus the analysis on how flexibly scheduled ECEC was positioned in the parents’ talk. In the positioning analysis, we focused on what kinds of duties (van Langanhoven and Harre, 1999) and desirable or undesirable meanings were attributed to flexibly scheduled ECEC (see Zelle, 2009). In pursuance of defining the boundaries between various discourses and positions, we also focused on various linguistic features (for example, word choice, modality) in the parents’ talk and utilised an online version of a comprehensive textbook on the Finnish language (VISK, 2008) to analyse the forms and functions of the different phrases used by participants to construct their discourses and positions on flexibly scheduled ECEC.

Results: flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in the chain of childcare

Parents (re)produced three main discourses in describing flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in the chain of childcare (see Table 2). Each discourse positioned flexibly scheduled ECEC in a particular way. The discourses, positions and their main functions are presented in Table 2.

Table 2:

Discourses and positions constructed for flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in the chain of childcare

DiscourseDiscourse of the child’s best interestDiscourse of the labour marketDiscourse of equality of opportunity for the child
Positioning of flexibly scheduled ECECThe last resortA safe havenA social serviceA place of learning for the child
Function of the discourseAccounting for one’s choice of preferring non-institutional care by stigmatising flexibly scheduled ECECLegitimating flexibly scheduled ECEC by emphasising its strengths, such as sensitivity, routines and rhythmsArguing for better ECEC services by blaming flexibly scheduled ECEC for its inability to respond to parents’ varying work schedulesDefending equal opportunity for all children to participate in pedagogical activities irrespective of the timing of care

Discourse of the child’s best interest

The discourse of the child’s best interest positioned flexibly scheduled ECEC either as the ‘last resort’ or as a ‘safe haven’ for the child. Flexibly scheduled ECEC was positioned as the last resort in childcare both implicitly (by explaining how parents organise childcare with the help of informal social networks to minimise the use of institutional ECEC) and explicitly (by describing how they do not want their children to be in institutional ECEC, especially at night).

Extract 1

‘I don’t think kids whose parents work non-standard hours are seen any differently from the others, but we have been informed that we make too little use of ECEC. But I think it would be best for the child to spend as much time at home as possible. There’ll be quite enough of school when school starts.’ (Liisa)

Extract 2

‘My mother works part time, so she helps every now and then by taking the kids to daycare and bringing them back home. The reason [for this] is my basic principle that I don’t want the kids taken to daycare when they are asleep.’ (Susanna)

The parent in extract 1 produces an explicit moral statement according to which children should “spend as much time at home as possible”. The expression serves as a counterclaim to the opposite societal view presented through reported speech: “we have been informed that we make too little use of ECEC”. This sentence suggests that, according to some anonymous other (the ‘zero-person’ form used in Finnish; see VISK, 2008: §1347), the interviewee’s children should attend institutional ECEC more regularly, a notion contrary to this parent’s own ideal of minimising institutional care. The counterclaim also contains a perspective-making phrase “I think”, which conveys the parent’s personal commitment to the content of the claim (VISK, 2008: §). In extract 2, the parent also states her personal principle that her children are not taken to institutional care during the night. The use of the modal verb ‘want’ describes the speaker’s mental state (VISK, 2008: §1561): she has the choice of using flexibly scheduled ECEC at night but is not willing to exercise that option. The principle is used to justify her use of a close relative as an additional link in the chain of childcare.

The other position constructed for flexibly scheduled ECEC by the discourse of the child’s best interest is that it is a ‘safe haven’ for the child. Different features of flexibly scheduled ECEC, such as having the possibility to spend time in the same groups as siblings or with particular ‘favourite’ adults or children who are in the same situation of attending care at flexible times, are here constructed as being supportive for the child. The discourse represents a counterclaim to the assumprtion that flexibly scheduled ECEC constitutes a risk or threat for the child’s wellbeing, and thus serves to defend the parent’s childcare choice. This is done explicitly by comparing flexibly scheduled ECEC with regular ECEC settings, as seen in the following examples.

Extract 3

‘But then, in flexibly scheduled ECEC, there’s such a nice rhythm, never anything like the noise or commotion there is in regular daycare. The atmosphere is somehow calmer and more home-like.

[…]

‘There is more flexibility.’ (Anne)

Extract 4

‘Even though during the weekend she’s sometimes the only child there, on the other hand she’s then the centre of attention [laughs].’ (Maija)

In extract 3, the parent uses many positive descriptive and comparative adjectives to construct flexibly scheduled ECEC as more desirable than regular ECEC (VISK, 2008: §365). Listing several positive attributes is used here as a rhetorical device. By using adjectives such as “calmer” and “home-like”, the parent also positions flexibly scheduled ECEC as closer to home care than regular institutional childcare, thereby strengthening the features of home care as an ideal environment for the child. A similar home-like attribution can be seen in extract 4, in which the parent first narrates a situation that may not be desirable for the child: “Even though […] she’s sometimes the only child there”. However, immediately after this, the parent positively describes how the child is “then the centre of attention”, receiving personal attention from an adult. This refers to the home-like situation, constructed as an ideal, which is present in flexibly scheduled ECEC.

Discourse of the labour market

The second discourse drawn on in parents’ talk about institutional ECEC concerns the labour market. In this discourse, parents positioned flexibly scheduled ECEC as a social service that either helps or hinders their non-standard working hours. The most positive descriptions of the flexibility of the ECEC service occurred in talk about how they are “married” to the flexibly scheduled ECEC centre and how “if there wasn’t flexibly scheduled ECEC, I simply couldn’t do my job”. Furthermore, parents not only reported flexibly scheduled ECEC as facilitating their working during non-standard hours, but also enabling them to enjoy their work, which one parent described as “like therapy”. The following example highlights the perceived accessibility and flexibility of the service.

Extract 5

‘We have both kids in the same [flexibly scheduled] ECEC centre. It’s very close to where we live, it’s like winning the lottery.

[…]

‘But you can arrange for attendance at the ECEC during nights, weekends and holidays. I believe they are only closed on Christmas Day.’ (Anne)

Extract 5 contains positive phrases such as “winning the lottery” when describing the importance of flexibly scheduled ECEC in supporting parents’ work and family life. Easy access, indicated by “both kids in the same ECEC centre” and “close to where we live” as well as the possibility that one can “arrange for attendance” whenever needed were emphasised by this parent. The metaphor of “winning the lottery” refers to an unexpected and positive event that is not under the speaker’s own control. The metaphor reflects the reality that the availability of the flexibly scheduled ECEC can differ locally in Finland due to distances and the concentration of the service in city centres. Giving several concrete examples of the accessibility and flexibility of the service highlights its pragmatic value for the parent. In contrast, if desired features are absent, they are described through negative expressions:

Extract 6

‘As soon as I get my work schedules for the next six weeks, I take them to the daycare centre. And there they are, they can’t be changed after that. If I sometimes get extra shifts, the centre is usually already full and there is no room for my children anymore. So, then one has to use their grandmothers if one wants to work extra shifts.’ (Katriina)

Extract 7

‘Quite often, actually, I have to call to say I’m a little late or something. It’s difficult, since their [educators’] working hours are planned ahead and they must leave. “Yes, otherwise great, but we’ll wait outside.” Yeah, nice, just wait there for half an hour in minus 30 [degrees], while I’m still on my way there.

[…]

‘I wish I could pay, for example, pay a little more … more to have it more flexible. Of course, I aim at only eight hours a day of daycare for my daughter.’ (Tiia)

In extracts 6 and 7, parents give experience-based reports of the demands of working non-standard hours and construct the flexibility of institutional ECEC services as an ideal which is not necessarily achieved. In extract 6, this appears in the way in which the parent expresses the need to use informal links in the chain of childcare to cover childcare needs due to sudden changes in working hours because of the inflexibility of the system: “one has to use their grandmothers”. The use of the zero-person form constructs the need for informal childcare arrangements as a general situation that concerns any parent (VISK, 2008: §1347), whereas the modal verb ‘have to’, referring to something which has to be done out of necessity, has negative connotations (VISK, 2008: §1551). Extract 7 continues with a similar description of inflexibility by giving a highly extreme example of the consequences of changes in work schedules in the context of an inflexible system (child and educator waiting outside in extremely cold weather). The opposite ideal is shown in the parent’s use of conditional verb forms (“I wish I could”; VISK, 2008: §137) in expressing her willingness to offer to pay more to gain more flexibility. However, it is noteworthy that the parent immediately justifies this wish for more flexibility by saying, “Of course, I aim at only eight hours a day of daycare for my daughter.” This phrase softens the expression of flexibility, locating it within the acceptable social norm.

Discourse of equality of opportunity for the child

The third discourse drawn on by parents in talking about flexibly scheduled ECEC reproduces the dichotomy between care and education. This dichotomy seems to be especially visible in flexibly scheduled ECEC, where the timing of care is determined by parents’ non-standard working hours instead of children’s pedagogical needs. Thus, in this discourse, parents position flexibly scheduled ECEC as a learning environment for the child and compare what their children gain and what they miss by attending flexibly scheduled ECEC at different times:

Extract 8

‘And when they’re in flexibly scheduled ECEC and in evening care they miss being there in the mornings and having activities like horse riding and things like that. My kids missed out on all that because of being in evening care. Or they’ve missed a trip to church because of not being there in the morning. All kinds of things like that. They miss out on some things like handicrafts, for example, because they are typically done in the mornings, and there aren’t so many activities in the afternoons.

[…]

‘There could be, it’s difficult to arrange, but there could be the same staff …

Yes, so that it would also continue with the staff in the evenings.’ (Sara)

In extract 8, the parent talks about the disadvantage of evening ECEC owing to missing out on some of the daytime activities. The parent seems to position pedagogical activities – that is, activities that are more organised and structured than child-initiated play – as implemented during weekdays and mornings. She also describes the stability of the ECEC staff as one way of building pedagogical continuity into flexibly scheduled ECEC. The desire for change in the future is expressed by the conditional verb in the phrase “could be the same staff”. By demanding that daytime activities continue into the evenings, the parent is asking for equal opportunities for children to participate in pedagogical activities irrespective of the timing of care.

Discussion

This study examined how parents working non-standard hours positioned flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in the chain of childcare. The analysis yielded three distinct discourses in participants’ talk about flexibly scheduled ECEC. By positioning flexibly scheduled ECEC in different ways, parents also constructed different rights and obligations for these services and legitimised their individual childcare choices in a world offering many alternatives.

In the discourse of the child’s best interest parents reproduced cultural talk about the risks or threats posed by working non-standard hours for their children’s socio-emotional wellbeing (see Statham and Mooney, 2003; Rönkä et al, 2017; Moilanen et al, 2020). When flexibly scheduled ECEC was positioned as ‘the last resort’, parents defended their working hours and constructed ‘the good parent’ by narrating how they aimed at minimising their use of institutional care, whereas when positioning flexibly scheduled ECEC as a ‘safe haven’ they defended their solution by praising the benefits of flexibly scheduled ECEC for children. Positioning flexibly scheduled ECEC as a ‘safe haven’ brings it closer to home care than regular ECEC and requires the service to act in ways typical of home care, such as providing calm rhythms and working with small groups of children.

The discourse of the child’s best interest was, as expected, readily apparent in the data, as it is a widely accepted discourse when justifying childcare arrangements (Repo, 2004; Terävä et al, 2018). However, parents’ definitions of service quality (Jinseok and Fram, 2009) and the child’s best interest (Kampichler et al, 2018) varied and did not always accord with their actual decisions. As found here, the discourse of the child’s best interest was used both for and against flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in the chain of childcare. Parents have also been found to have a tendency to legitimise their personal childcare choices by idealising their choice once it has been made (Repo, 2004; Nyland et al, 2009).

Apart from this psychological way of speaking, focusing on children’s wellbeing, parents also emphasised children’s needs from the viewpoint of learning and pedagogical activities. In the discourse of equality of opportunity, parents seemed to implicitly associate pedagogical activities only with mornings and therefore argued for the equal right of children to participate in pedagogical activities irrespective of the timing of care. ECEC staff had also raised this dilemma in an earlier study, where they produced tensional-talk, for example where it was evident that the educators were conflicted …? about pedagogy in flexibly scheduled ECEC (Peltoperä et al, 2020). According to both parents and ECEC staff, differences in daycare schedules should not mean that children attending flexibly scheduled ECEC should be excluded from the educational component of ECEC.

In earlier studies, the quality of ECEC services has been parents’ primary concern when choosing childcare, especially for children over 3 years old and among parents with greater cultural resources, such as a higher education and occupation (Duncan and Irwin, 2004; Nyland et al, 2009; Kampichler et al, 2018; Terävä et al, 2018). However, the talk about pedagogical quality was very marginal in the data, occurring in only a few interviews. This may be explained by an earlier finding that the practicality of childcare arrangements take precedence over quality, especially when parents are stressed (Nyland et al, 2009) or working full time or are from a lower socioeconomic background (Jinseok and Fram, 2009). All these features have been associated with non-standard working hours (see Strazdins et al, 2006). In addition, the marginality of the pedagogical talk might be due to the fact that in this specific context, parents seemed to favour care over education (Duncan and Irwin, 2004). Moreover, because of the limited choices for non-standard hours care, the educational aspect of ECEC may play a more minor role than practical issues, such as location and hours of operation, which tangibly influence parents’ daily lives (see also Peyton et al, 2001; Duncan and Irwin 2004; Kamplicher et al, 2018).

Apart from the construction of a child’s point of view being constructed in two above-mentioned discourses, parents also talked about flexibly scheduled ECEC in relation to the labour market. In this discourse, 24/7 work life was constructed as a parental right and hence the flexibility of ECEC services was considered to be of critical importance: it was narrated at its best as enabling parents to work non-standard hours and thus as answering their childcare needs. Since flexibly scheduled ECEC is only available in a limited number of ECEC centres (see Rönkä et al, 2017), the parental choice for non-standard hours ECEC is limited, and hence parents’ use of childcare can be considered as a non-choice (Karlsson et al, 2013). This finding is inconsistent with the ideal of freedom of choice (Nyland et al, 2009) or of parents’ responsibility to choose (Karlsson et al, 2013). Here, it is also noteworthy that parents required flexibility from flexibly scheduled ECEC, whereas their non-standard working hours appeared in their talk as a given that they expressed no wish to change. This way of thinking reflects the idea of the Nordic model of public services, where childcare along with other social services are universally available (see Repo, 2004).

These three discourses function in different ways. In the first discourse, flexibly scheduled ECEC is compared with other links in the chain of childcare and has to be justified. In contrast, in the second and third discourses, flexibly scheduled ECEC is perceived as a self-evident link in the chain of childcare, with the quality of the service a core concern from both the viewpoint of parents’ labour market participation and that of the child’s learning. The provision of institutional childcare during non-standard hours can be seen as running counter to the social norms pertaining to ideal childcare arrangements and good parenthood (Christopher, 2012; Moilanen et al, 2020) despite the fact that Finland has a long history of dual-earner families and that non-parental care is socially acceptable (Salmi, 2006).

This study has its limitations. First, because the study was designed to research the socio-emotional wellbeing of children whose parents work non-standard hours in the 24/7 economy, it is possible this design guided the interview interaction towards worry talk, possibly influencing how parents talked about their lives and childcare arrangements. Second, it can be assumed that the participants were not wholly representative of Finnish parents using flexibly scheduled ECEC, as potential participants typically decline participation if they are too busy or feel that they do not have much to say (see Rönkä, et al, 2014). Third, we did not compare single and coupled mother’s perceptions of the phenomenon, or users and non-users of flexibly scheduled ECEC as a link in their chain of childcare. One reason for this was the relatively small size of the data set which did not permit reliable comparisons. Research on these issues with larger samples is thus needed. Fourth, the thematic interviews comprised several themes related to families living in the 24/7 economy, and therefore the theme of childcare arrangements may not have been discussed as deeply as it might have been had the interview focused solely on that specific theme. Fifth, interview data can be criticised as non-natural data for discourse analytical research, although such data are an economic way of gathering information on a given topic. In this study, however, owing to use of the semi-structured interview method, the researchers had the possibility to relatively freely control the information stream and keep the talk on topic (Nikander, 2012: 400). Thus, at its best, the interview is interaction inspired by the interviewer (see also Nikander, 2012: 402).

To conclude, since positions constructed in discourses are always situationally negotiated in social interaction (Potter, 2003; Wetherell, 2003), it is important to consider where the discourses (re)produced by the parents in this study come from and how they can be de- and reconstructed. The present findings suggest that the current cultural climate on the different kinds of childcare arrangements could be less rigid so that parents who work non-standard hours would not feel obliged to defend their childcare arrangements. If the use of alternative childcare arrangements, whether institutional or not, is seen as culturally acceptable, this would help people to recognise the diversity of families’ situations and re-examine the childcare choices open to parents.

The parents’ discourses also reproduced some of the ideals of flexibly scheduled ECEC, such as the flexibility of the service and its home-like atmosphere. Practical support for parents requires service availability and accessibility (for example, within reasonable distance from home), flexibility in booking care hours and quality care (for example, a home-like atmosphere, stability in ECEC staff, provision of pedagogical activities despite the timing of care). Since the options for choosing childcare for parents working non-standard hours are very limited, the responsibility for offering the best possible care and education for these children falls on institutions. Enabling parental choice for childcare in the way that best suits their families (La Valle et al, 2002) and good co-operation between parents and educators (Turja et al, 2013) could lessen the negative consequences of the challenging timetables often faced by parents working non-standard hours. Thus, to make it more desirable for parents working non-standard hours, it would be important to improve the availability, accessibility and quality/content of flexibly scheduled ECEC. Satisfactory ECEC services provide parents with practical as well as emotional support, enabling them not only to work but also to enjoy their work, secure in the knowledge that their children are being well cared for.

Funding

This work was supported by the the Academy of Finland (grant number 251410) and a grant to Kaisu Peltoperä by the Finnish Cultural Foundation (Central Finland Regional Fund).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • La Valle, I., Arthur, S., Millward, C., Scott J. and Clayden, M. (2002) Happy Families? Atypical work and Its Influence on Family Life, Bristol: The Policy Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li, J., Johnson, S.E., Han, W.J., Andrews, S., Kendall, G., Strazdins, L. and Dockery, A. (2014) Parents’ nonstandard work schedules and child well-being: a critical review of the literature, Journal of Primary Prevention, 35(1): 5373, doi: 0.1007/s10935-013-0318-z.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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