By Sabrina Sweeney

It seems whatever way you look at it, the people who care for children, are undervalued.

Whether it’s the childcare worker or the mother – there are some fathers but it’s still overwhelmingly mothers who choose to stay at home to look after their child – none of the parties vying for our vote in the forthcoming general election are pledging to adequately fund the role of looking after young children, in what is arguably the most important period of their lives – the early years.

It’s clear that the female vote is an important one for opposition parties. As Labour and the Liberal Democrats draw their battle lines, there have been many promises made regarding childcare.

The centrepiece of the Lib Dems manifesto was a pledge to give working parents more choice by offering 35-hours-a-week ‘free’ childcare, available from when their baby turns nine months. Lib Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran said the £14.6 billion policy was "an investment in the country's future", while party leader Jo Swinson said the scheme would “finally give parents more choice about when they return to work and unlock their untapped potential for our economy”. Ok, I hear how getting parents back to work before their child can even walk will boost taxation but what about investment in a child’s future? Their wellbeing should be our priority. Existing government childcare schemes are vastly underfunded as it is and nursery employees, despite being responsible for giving the youngest children a strong start in their educational journey, are among the lowest paid in the workforce with the result that many nurseries are struggling to recruit qualified staff.

Labour, meanwhile, has promised 30 hours a week of ‘free’ childcare for every child from the age of two and pledged to open 1,000 new Sure Start centres – one in every community. The demise of these centres – proven to be of huge benefit – under the Conservatives has been to the detriment of children across the country so this would be a very positive step if Labour were to win the election.

However, as welcome as these promises may be to some, I wish I was hearing a party manifesto, which tried to win the vote of women who want to stay at home to look after their children and are content to take a break from their career – on a short-term basis or otherwise – to do so.

It’s true that parents are struggling to cope with the costs of childcare. There are many women who want to return to work after their second or third child but find it pointless because their salary doesn’t or barely covers the cost of childcare. Parties are right to offer help to those families. But for all of those women there are just as many who would choose to stay at home to raise their children if they could. Instead, financial and societal pressures has them returning to work in some capacity even though this is not their first choice.

When trying to appeal to women voters, politicians immediately talk up subsidised institutional childcare as though it is the only barrier to fixing the gender pay gap. In doing so, they ignore the fact that many parents stay at home because they feel it is in the best interests of their children. In reality, the gender pay gap has less to do with children and more to do with the way in which society values women (but that’s a whole other column). If a party can allegedly afford to offer ‘free’ childcare for all two to four year olds or indeed babies from 9 months old, then it should add this amount to child benefit and allow families to choose whether to spend it on childcare or on nurturing their children at home. This would be real choice. It is absurd that a government is willing to pay someone else to look after young children yet not support families to do it themselves if that’s what they choose. I wish there was a party that could show me it valued women – and men – who choose to care for children, whether that’s as a nursery assistant or a mother; a party with policies that don’t reward those in work at the expense of those caring for a family.