Childcare and Working Parents: The Juggle Is Real

You can’t afford spiraling child-care costs, but you can’t afford not to work. Either way, you have no financial safety net. You’re scared, mad, and second-guessing your choices. We hear you.

Childcare Problems Illustration Juliette Borda

Every day, Bree Casson wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and gets her three children, Ryan, 8, Maggie, 6, and Gabby, 2, ready to go to school and child care. Bree leaves at 7:30 for her job as a teller at a local bank in South Portland, Maine, so her fiancé, Tor Andresen, carries out the rest of the morning routine and drives the older two to school before bringing their toddler to a sitter. 

With Tor working a steady 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. shift as a restaurant supervisor Monday through Thursday, Bree handles the pickups after she gets off work at 5:10, getting Gabby first. Bree then rushes across town to collect her older children at their school after-care before 6:00 or she’ll be charged a $1-perminute late fee—something Bree can’t risk, considering that her family already spends a whopping 55 percent of their monthly household income on child care. Altogether, the pickups take 45 minutes, and Bree doesn’t get home with her kids until 6:30, so dinner and bedtime are later than she’d like. Bree handles some evenings with the kids alone, while Tor works a second nighttime shift. She sums up their life in one word: chaotic. “As I’m running around, trying to be where I need to be, it’s anxiety-inducing. I don’t ever allow myself to stop and think about it all,” says Bree. “Otherwise, I’d be paralyzed by fear.” Unfortunately, the weekend doesn’t offer any respite from the juggle. Since Tor’s home, Bree picks up additional shifts at her old job, clocking in some Friday nights and most Sundays at McDonald’s. In total, Bree pays $768 a month in child care, compared with her monthly rent of $650—a situation that reflects a national trend: Child care for two children now costs more than rent in most parts of the United States, according to the Economic Policy Institute, an independent, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. Says Bree, “I usually finish out the month with 60 bucks left over, if I’m lucky.”

The Exorbitant Cost of Child Care

Bree and Tor aren’t the only parents barely scraping by because child care consumes their budget. According to Child Care Aware of America, (CCAoA), a nonprofit group in Arlington, Virginia, nearly 11 million children younger than age 5 are in some type of child-care arrangement, whether it’s center-based, home-based, or family and neighbor care. And it’s prohibitively expensive: In 30 states and the District of Columbia, center-based infant care costs more than in-state college tuition. “This is an extreme crisis,” says Michelle McCready, chief of policy for CCAoA. “When we talk with families, they tell us they’re spending more than 20 percent of their income on child care, and we know that this causes panic.” Child care is considered affordable if it eats up no more than 10 percent of a family’s income, but in most American families (especially with a single parent) the bill is well over 30 percent.

Emily Farrer and her husband, Andy, of Taunton, Massachusetts, would be in that group. But they work opposite shifts so that they can take turns caring for their kids, ages 7, 5, and 2. Until last year, the family lived with Emily’s parents to save on bills and get help with child care. 

While the Farrers are now in a house of their own, Emily’s mother still fills the child-care gaps because the couple’s shifts overlap. Andy is a network administrator for a public school, so he’s out the door well before breakfast, while Emily brings their older two kids to school. During the day, Grandma watches the baby and then picks up the middle kid from preschool and the oldest from the bus. 

Most of the time, Emily, a cake decorator at BJ’s, meticulously arranges her bakery schedule three weeks ahead of time and coordinates with her mom and her husband to keep the kids watched and fed. Sometimes she makes it home in time for dinner, but other nights Emily works until 9 p.m. “In addition to not seeing Andy often, I don’t see my 7-year-old, Cece, much either, and she hates it,” says Emily. “Cece said that she would rather stay home from school to spend time with her family because that’s more important. She’s even said she wished she was sick so I could stay home because once when she threw up, I called in.”

The Farrers’ patchwork arrangement is typical for families with young kids: Without paid leave or government-subsidized child care in place, everyone’s inventing their own support system from scratch. “We see parents all the time who compromise on quality because there’s no alternative. They cobble together different friends and family to watch the child when they can,” says McCready. “You see the American family trying to piece this all together, and it’s nearly impossible. But, studies show that kids do much better developmentally with consistent care at every milestone.”

Unsettling Options or None At All

Child care is not just a family issue but a common workplace problem. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan policy institute in Washington, D.C. , businesses in the U.S. lose more than $4 billion a year because of gaps in child care when parents have to miss work because someone needs to take care of their children. 

Even those with child care can’t always find programs flexible enough for shifting work schedules, days off from school, and unforeseen events. Many child-care centers require set hours and days a week, and schedules that change can force parents to do an unending, stressful child-care dance. From the child-care providers’ perspective, it’s a break-even business at best, and one of the lowest-paid professions in the U.S. “It’s such a labor-intensive industry,” McCready says. “Staff are working more than 40 hours a week for very little.” Child-care workers earn an average hourly wage of $10.18—ironically, not enough to afford child care for their own children. The average wage for a dog walker: $10.69 per hour.

Because of cost and time constraints, some parents opt for unlicensed centers. But even those that are regulated have varying standards, depending on the state and local regulations. In 2014, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act was signed into law. It requires states to follow basic health and safety parameters, including emergency preparedness and background checks on child-care staff. “However the CCDBG only applies to those programs that receive federal funds,” explains McCready. “There remains very little in place for unlicensed care.”

Many parents don’t even have the option for child care at a facility. They live in what is known as a child-care desert. As defined in a study from the CAP, these are zip codes without any centers or so few that there are more than three times as many children under age 5 than there are spaces available. The study showed that 42 percent of children under age 5 live in a child-care desert, across a sample of eight states.

Why So Many Parents Just Quit

Some families are lucky enough to have grandparents or other relatives to pitch in or even provide full child-care coverage. But that’s far from the norm. Amanda Farler is an artist and screen printer in Columbus, Ohio, and her husband, Josh, is an auto mechanic. They use a child-care center for their 4-year-old daughter, Penny, but can only afford it because it’s a subsidized program for struggling families, and they received an additional scholarship. Even with the scholarship, child care is their biggest bill, surpassing their rent.

Amanda leaves for work at 7 a.m., and her husband drops Penny off at the child-care center at 8:30 a.m. Amanda picks her up at 5:30, goes home or runs errands, and makes dinner. Josh gets home around 6:30, and they eat together and start the bedtime routine around 7:30. Sometimes Josh takes Penny to the park and they push their bedtime rituals back to 8:00. Penny’s always in bed by 8:30, but she’s a bad sleeper and doesn’t fall asleep right away. After she’s finally down for the night, the couple does household chores.

With hardly any time for each other, Amanda says her days feel like a challenge. And that doesn’t even take into account when Penny gets sick. “I usually take off because Josh doesn’t have any paid leave, so I end up missing work more often than he does,” Amanda says. “But if it’s more than one day we have to trade off, and he misses a day’s pay. If it continues to a third day we have to ask his parents to call off work.”

For now, Amanda and Josh are staying afloat. When parents—let’s face it, mostly moms—quit their job because they can no longer afford to work, they suffer long-term financial repercussions, including lost earnings, missed raises, and years-long gaps in retirement savings. For example, a teacher making $44,000 a year who takes a five-year break from the labor force will lose a total of $706,778 in lifetime income (including retirement savings and lost wages), according to the Center for American Progress. A social worker who makes $33,000 per year and takes the same- length break will lose $476,556.

It’s hardly surprising that parents make the difficult choice to stop working. The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t have paid family leave, and it remains woefully underfunded when it comes to child care. Says McCready, “Other countries give bigger tax incentives and make them available to more families, and we provide nothing. You can have two incomes, good jobs, and child care is still out of reach. Parents end up quitting their jobs because it costs more for child care than they’d be making.”

What Needs to Happen Now (Make That Yesterday)

Child-care facilities are regulated differently from state to state, with some minimum health and safety protections established at the federal level. Some states, however, exempt certain child-care facilities, including faith-based or some home-based providers. There are no consistent standards for education levels or training for child-care providers, and 28 states don’t require pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree or child-development training. While the current situation is bleak for many parents, we can all help change some things for the better.

First, the CCDBG is in peril. To fund it, Congress must provide $1.4 billion to the states. Without this additional funding, nearly 217,000 kids are at risk of losing access to child care, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. A simple call to your legislators (find yours at usa.gov/elected-officials) will help get the ball rolling for the needed funds. While you’re in advocacy mode, ask your state legislators to consider a larger child tax credit. Parents currently can receive a tax credit worth up to $1,050 for one child and $2,100 for two children. CAP recommends up to $14,000 per child to be paid directly to a child-care center. Says McCready: “Bottom line, we need to call on policy makers at every level to make serious investments in child care to support working families, businesses, and communities.”

Managing child care for yourself and making calls to policy makers is no easy feat for parents like Bree. “You don’t have time to think about anything else except how you are going to get through the next day,” says Bree. “You can’t even worry about the next two days or the next week, and certainly not the next month.”