Though it’s a major expense for most families, consistent child care for children of working parents provides economic, educational, and personal value. Here’s why it’s a good bang for the buck—not just for families, but for us all.

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I didn't have children so other people could raise them. And yet, like millions of young families led by working parents across this country: For eight hours a day, five days a week, during all the months that are not summer (I'm a teacher), my children are cared for by people who aren't me. Or their father. Or their grandparents. Or anyone else who, by blood or marriage or other binding legal document, might be expected to invest in their well-being. Instead, they're looked after by daycare providers.

An image of money on a yellow background.
Credit: Getty Images.

And yes, I pay them. And it's expensive. In 33 states, infant care costs more than in-state tuition for four-year public college. In our household, like many families, the monthly tuition bill has been a source of stress. 

The national average cost for care of one child is between $9,200 and $9,600 per year, which represents more than 10% of household income for a married couple, and 34% of average income for a single parent. For many families, due to multiple children and location, the yearly total is much higher (in 33 states, for example, infant care costs more than in-state tuition for four-year public college). Many parents either can't afford this expense or feel dispirited by how much of their working wage goes toward what they must pay to be able to work in the first place. But in our societal conversations about child care's cost—and as we work toward making it more accessible for all—it's essential that we fully acknowledge what we're paying for. 

It has never been more apparent how much value daycare provides America's workforce.

According to Dr. Nina Banks, a professor of economics at Bucknell University, "women had become the majority of the workforce" by January 2020, "representing 50.04% of workers, reflecting an upward trend in women's labor force participation," and highlighting their role as "major contributors to growth of national output." As the economy shut down last year due to COVID-19, however, and both in-home and licensed centers closed, women's labor force participation plummeted due to many working mothers quitting jobs or reducing hours to care for children. Banks cites data that shows "in September 2020 alone, when the school year began, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force (a number that was over four times greater than the number of men who dropped out)."

Though it is no surprise that fewer workers negatively impacted the economy, data like this has ratcheted up the discourse on how essential it is to create and maintain systems where it is both possible and desirable for mothers of young children to return to work. Recent public policy reflects this: President Biden proposed a Child Care Growth and Innovation Fund, and the new democrat budget blueprint includes major investments in addressing child care shortages and making childcare both more equitable and affordable for working families. 

And thank goodness. It takes a village, right?

But for some families—especially after the seismic perspective shifts of the past 18 months—economic value pales in comparison to values that are more individualized. For example, I kept having conversations this summer with families—specifically women, many of whom welcomed their first child in the midst of the pandemic—who were struggling with several costs of reentry, one of which was whether or not to rejoin the workforce and rely on daycare centers. Why? Because somewhere within the compressed stress-bubble of this past year, these mothers had internalized the belief that they, as the parent who essentially had not left their child's side for the entirety of that child's pandemic-dictated life, should continue to be there for...all the rest of their life, too.

Childcare, of course, is a very personal decision, made after careful consideration of values, finances, and now a family's susceptibility to COVID-19 and its variants. But guilt over not being the only source of love and guidance in your child's life should be recognized as an unwarranted emotional expense, and then discharged.

According to Dr. Terri Sabol, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, "breakthroughs across a diverse range of fields, including neurobiology, epigenetics, developmental science, and economics, all point to the importance of developing skills early in life to maximize children's potential," and that "decades of rigorous evidence demonstrate children thrive when they attend high quality out-of-home early care and education programs." This is especially true, she says, when their classrooms "are characterized by warm, supportive, and stimulating interactions with their teachers." 

Daycare workers are not replacement parents, but they do provide an expanded web of social experiences, educational observation, and even love. When my son was almost one, Kayleen encouraged him to take those twenty steps across the room. When he was two, Shari showed him how to tighten the Velcro straps on his shoes. When he was three, and I had to leave his field trip to the apple orchard early to return to my own classes, I remember the exact, familiar way he curled into the arms of Ronilyn, his head cradled between her neck and shoulder, while I staggered away. It broke my heart, but it also demonstrated I wasn't the only one capable of comforting him. 

And thank goodness.

By the time I resumed working after my daughter's birth, I had learned to replace the guilt with appreciation. Dr. Sabol points out that "parents are better parents when they are less stressed," and "stable, out-of-home early care and education reduces parents' stress, allowing them to be better employees and parents." My ability to both have children and return to my career—an essential duality our economy needs if it is to recover—felt possible not only because of logistics, but because I knew my daughter was being educated by other people with other passions. It was Karen who taught her to finger-paint, Gwen who taught her Christmas songs, and Kay who daily spun her hair into twists and braids.

Dr. Kameron Dill, a psychologist and the Director of Pediatrics at Sundstrom Clinical Services, says "it is often helpful for parents to have an identity outside of being a parent" and that regular childcare with trusted caregivers helps provide parents "time to reflect on and obtain their own needs, which in turn helps 'fill their emotional bucket' for when they are with their children again."

I explore the woods with my children. I tickle them on pillow mountains and whisper with them under blanket forts. I read aloud whatever books they bring me. I fail in many ways—the impatient response, the field trips I can't attend, the playdates I don't have time to schedule. But my mother love is fierce, the most powerful and propulsive force I've ever experienced. So it makes me sad to remember, during my son's early life, how much I fretted about whether I was abandoning him each morning I retreated from the daycare door. 

I don't fret about that any more. 

The pandemic has shown us how much parents will both attempt to do and give up for their children. For parents who, out of necessity, shuffled or reduced hours, or dropped out of the workforce altogether to care for little ones, this next period of returning to the office—filled with many folks figuring out what to do with the children—will likely be fraught with some cost-benefit analysis.

Dr. Anne Larson, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Center for Early Education and Development, says "if parents are going to re-enter the workforce and send their children to daycare settings, they need jobs that can pay for the exorbitant costs often associated with care, highly trained (and therefore better-compensated) providers who can be consistent educators to children in their earliest years," and policy changes related to reaching families for whom childcare isn't working. Some of this is being addressed, thanks to the new Child Tax Credit payments, states passing legislation to subsidize care, and employers offering childcare-related benefits.

It might also help if, as a society, we don't wait until the next global catastrophe to underscore how much value not just daycare centers but their individual workers provide, for both children and their parents.

This fall, I will continue modeling good hand-washing and mask-wearing techniques at home, and then—thank goodness—I will send my children to daycare: to the teachers who brave the madness of glitter because it brings my daughter joy, who make it possible for me to teach teenagers about the power of their words, and who create systems of support that allow millions of parents to go into the world and do good work. These are the people in my tribe who help us all thrive, and their labor is worth every penny.