Trying To Find Affordable Child Care Is Not The Job I Wanted

In the past month, I’ve spent close to 60 hours trying to secure child care for my two-year-old son. This is not the kind of job I ever wanted. It’s a high-stakes, unpaid position that often leaves me quite literally with a bellyache. But as the keeper of the family calendar and bank account and the mother who works from home, this task inevitably falls on me.

I would generally describe my partner as supportive, but he has done very little to help with this process, balking the one time I asked him to call to schedule a daycare visit (I’ve booked at least ten to date). Granted, he works full-time for UPS, and his schedule isn’t as flexible. But our situation is pretty common among families in the U.S.

According to a new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), half of all Americans have trouble finding affordable, available, and quality care for their preschool-aged kids. In families who can’t find care, men’s employment is unaffected, but women leave the workforce at a 12 percent increase above their better set-up peers. The study shows that, like me, these women are eager to work more and advance in their careers. Not surprisingly, those most affected are low-income women of color. (You can pretty much drag that last sentence and apply it to every instance of inequity in this essay.)

“When there is an issue finding care, it’s the mothers who are making sacrifices,” says Leila Schochet, the report’s author and policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at CAP. Even if families can afford child care, they may not be able to find it because half of the country lives in a child care desert, where supply is not meeting demand.

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I wasn’t prepared for how complicated it would be — and how emotionally fraught. In one very significant way, my partner and I have been pretty lucky in the child care department. We were living in Boston when our son was born, and after working for many years in grant-writing, I decided to work from home as a freelance writer and watch my infant son until we got to the top of the year-long waitlist for subsidized daycare. We learned about the program from family members and found out that we qualified after some easy Googling and a few phone calls. The daycare voucher, provided by the Child Care and Development Block Grant, covered two-thirds of the $1,500 a month costs. Requirements for this program vary from state to state, and so it’s not always easy to qualify. Only 15 percent of eligible families actually take advantage of this federal program. The other underutilized child care program for families who meet the poverty guidelines is Head Start, which provides high quality, free care, and long term benefits.

The six months my son was in daycare was great for my productivity, but we needed more help, so we moved in with my parents in Washington, D.C., this past fall. My partner quickly got a different full-time job at UPS, where he makes a living wage. My parents helped out by watching my son several hours a day, allowing me to work nearly full-time.

We knew this was a temporary set-up, as my mom and dad planned to spend winters in the South, and so I had already made arrangements for my son to attend a YMCA daycare with a January start date. The program costs about $15,600 a year, more than the $10,000 annual average for center-based care. We couldn’t afford it, but I figured it might be worth the huge sacrifice if I could work more hours. Except, the open spot at the YMCA never materialized, and as a result, since my parents left, I’ve barely had time to work. Our savings have dwindled to zero and my partner’s paycheck is barely enough to cover our expenses. This wasn’t unheard of when I was childless, but I was not prepared for the shame and fear I feel struggling financially as a parent.

While we were languishing on the YMCA waiting list, it became clear that I would have to figure out an alternative plan. And so began the massive, time-consuming search for child care. Each tour played out much the same way: My fun-loving child gleefully beelined for the toys. I would become giddy at the prospect of having a chunk of uninterrupted work time. And then reality would set in — the tours usually wrap with the bad news: it’s either out of our price range or there’s yet another year-long waitlist.

The immense emotional labor of finding help has taken a toll on me. There’s a lot of pressure to find the right someone to raise your child in your absence, and there’s a shocking lack of resources to help parents find quality care. I was pretty clueless about the all-around crappy options available. My partner has remarked on the institutional feel of full-time daycare centers when calling them kiddie rehabs. Half-day preschools are a more affordable option, but they are often full-up (plus, who only works three hours a day?). The quality of home daycares really depends on the owner, co-op preschools put parents to work by requiring them to volunteer, and we don’t make enough money to afford a nanny. Even so, I have to acknowledge how fortunate I am to be able to even have a choice between these different options, because hourly workers with irregular schedules or parents who work nights find securing child care an even more impossible task.

Each tour played out much the same way: My fun-loving child gleefully beelined for the toys. I would become giddy at the prospect of having a chunk of uninterrupted work time. And then reality would set in.

To add to the confusion and stress, it takes a ton of research just to figure out what’s available, affordable, and high-quality. Care.com, a popular subscription-based website that connects parents with caretakers and home-based child care centers, was the subject of a recent Wall Street Journal investigation. Reporters found the site doesn’t do background checks or even verify the credentials of listed caretakers. Rover, the site where you can find a dog-walker, does a better job at screening its contractors. Unlicensed home daycares were being listed as licensed on Care.com, and there have been horrific tales of neglect and molestation and more than one instance of a child dying while under the supervision of a caretaker found on the site.

It’s a helpless feeling not knowing exactly how your child is being treated while you’re away at work. Once, my partner and I hid in the car to keep an eye on a testy teacher who complained that my son cried too much when they made him walk to the park. We weren’t thrilled with her lack of sensitivity to the fact that he had just taken his first steps a few months prior, but we knew that her job was hard. We also knew the employees at the daycare were underpaid because a different teacher also worked weekends at a grocery store to help support her family.

“A large single indicator for high-quality child care is wages for early child care educators,” Schochet says. It is an industry that largely hires women of color and underpays them. “They are earning poverty-level wages in some cases. When early childhood educators are so underpaid and facing the stressors of poverty and not being able to make ends meet for their own families, it undermines their ability to provide quality care for young children.”

Almost every aspect of child care is the responsibility and domain of women. The perception is that it’s the woman’s job to devote all of her time to her child’s care, even when she’s not at home with the kid. Many of my mom friends have told me that all of their incomes go to cover child care costs. While men still make more than women, 42 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners. “Families are increasingly relying on mothers’ incomes to make ends meet,” Schochet says. “So when mothers are unable to work or have to make career sacrifices because of problems with child care, that has real consequences for their family’s economic security. That means more children growing up in homes where families are struggling to make ends meet. That can have long term implications to their well-being.”

It’s a helpless feeling not knowing exactly how your child is being treated while you’re away at work.

Reframing the issue of child care is key. “It’s critical that we see child care as an economic issue. It’s not just a women’s issue or a niche special interest issue,” she says. When women don't work, they don't spend money. It costs the U.S. $57 billion a year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue when women like me are un- or underemployed, and U.S. businesses lose about $12.7 billion each year.

Surprisingly, considering how little progress policymakers have made on this issue in the past, it garners bipartisan support. Democratic Senator from Massachusetts and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed a universal child care plan funded by a tax on the super rich. The Child Care for Working Families Act is floating around Congress. It would cap child care at 7 percent of family incomes on a sliding scale, increase wages for early childhood educators, and target child care deserts. Last year, legislators actually added $5.8 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant budget. This is progress. And if you want proof that providing families with child care helps them immensely, check out Washington, D.C.'s universal pre-kindergarten 3 and 4 program. It is life-changing for the 10 percent of women who were able to get back into the workforce thanks to this free child care. Even so, the District will soon require low wage-earning child care workers, many who have years of experience and little time or money to attend college classes, to have or get associate’s degrees. Advocates are finding ways to contest this disruptive regulation in court.

After I finally managed to patch together a Frankenstein collage of child care assistance that included two mornings of preschool, a nice sitter, and a co-working space with “play buddies,” the YMCA’s director finally called with an opening. My partner huffed as I told him he’d have to call in late to work so that he could do a walk-through of the center. I silently fumed thinking of the endless times I put my career on the line to take care of similar tasks.

He was attentive and engaged at the meeting. Back in the car, I shared that I was feeling very emotional about another upended plan and uncertain if we should take our son out of the preschool he just started to put him the daycare. “That’s why I don’t want to come on these visits,” he mused. “I don’t want to feel so emotional. I feel very protective of our son. I know I have to deal with it, I’m a grown up. But it gives me anxiety.”

That anxiety, he said, comes from his perception that the child care system is set up against parents. He wants to feel happy about sending our son somewhere safe to play and learn so that we can work, earn money, and not be so worried about his well-being all day. I appreciate the thoughtfulness, but still would love the extra help. There are elementary schools to research and summer camp spots to reserve in years to come. This is only the beginning.

But today, armed with a tiny budget, a lot of feelings, and a little more understanding of our situation, together, we mapped out a plan that hopefully will help our small family thrive.

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