08/12/2010 11:14 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Should We Pay Grandparents To Look After Our Children?

Over the weekend my husband, myself and our baby daughter all came down with various illnesses that led me to label our home the House of Pestilence.

Like magic our mothers sprang into action. While I groaned in the bathroom, my mother whipped me up hot chicken broth; while my husband coughed into his jumper, my mother-in-law kept our daughter entertained.

By the time our little girl came down with a milder but still quite nasty version of my bug we were in good enough shape to take care of her without recourse to the sick bag.

I wondered, not for the first time, how we would ever repay these wonderful women.

We already rely on them for two days of childcare a week, allowing me to work part-time while avoiding the childcare conundrum that friends describe, without irony, as "heartbreaking" - not to mention expensive.

Christmas is coming but a fat gift under the tree doesn't even begin to cover it. Should we actually be paying them for their help?

According to the charity Grandparents Plus, one in three families overall and half of single parent families rely on grandparents to help look after children. Age Concern has put the value of this free childcare at £3.9billion, a figure likely to rise as the effects of recession and public spending cuts begin to bite.

From April next year, the government is hoping to bring in so-called Grandparents' Credit which would change national insurance arrangements to make sure that grandparents don't miss out on their state pensions if they give up or reduce work to help look after children.

But is this enough? Now that we are living longer, many grandparents – let's face it, mainly grandmothers – are not only juggling paid employment and helping out with childcare, but also caring for elderly parents.

A poll commissioned by Grandparents Plus last year found that 60 per cent of parents supported some form of payment for this vital work. So should the government actually pay?

The answer to that question has got to be: dream on. Even if they should, they won't. Our society has always relied on the unpaid caring work of women and this is no exception. The government has so far resisted the idea of allowing grandparents to receive the child care tax credit, which can currently only be used by parents for nurseries and registered child minders.

Needless to say, when I raised the idea of paying my mother from my own pocket to look after her beloved granddaughter, she pretty much laughed me out of the room. My mother-in-law would barely let me finish the sentence. To them it's a pleasure they would probably pay us for (hmm, now there's an idea...)

I have heard of people who do pay their parents and it sounds kind of complicated. What does it do to your relationship when your mother is both the woman who still tells you to wrap up warm...and your employee. Not sure I could cope with that one.

So it looks as though my husband and I will continue to rack up our limitless debts to our mothers and resign ourselves to the fact that we may never be able to repay them. Having said that my mother does like to remind me that she will be old and frail one day, so there might yet be a way...

Laura Smith is a freelance journalist, writer and editor who has written for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Marie Claire and the Evening Standard.