It Takes a Village to Raise a Child—But What if You Don't Have That Community?

Families are finding themselves without the proverbial village—and still figuring out how to make it work.

Mother trying to work with young toddler climbing on. her

Agencia / Stocksy

In August, I started a new job—the first time I've worked full-time, outside of our home, in nearly 15 years. It's practically perfect: creative work that I enjoy and can do close to my house and both of my kids' schools. And yet, if my husband couldn't work from home part of the week, and if we didn't have friends and neighbors who were willing to help shuttle our kids to their activities, I probably would have had to pass on this opportunity. Never has the saying "it takes a village" meant more to me—and to many families across the country—than it does now.

But what if you don't have a village? What if, like my family, you don't have grandparents nearby who are able to watch the kids? Or if the cost of hiring private help makes having a job hardly worth the effort? How are parents expected to work in a country that does little to make this sustainable? "We don't support working women who are mothers from day one," says Swapna Reddy, J.D., DrPH, MPH, a clinical associate professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. "We live in a society that just expects women to figure it out."

And that's exactly what many of us are doing in a panoply of patched-together ways. Emily Popek, a communications professional in Oneonta, New York, has become known as the "spreadsheet mom" in her town because she has a working list of every summer program, camp, and activity in her area. "It's a title I wear proudly, but with a little bit of frustration, too, because it shouldn't be this hard to just raise kids and work and exist," she says, adding that paying for private childcare for her daughter, now 11, has had a "massive impact" on her family's budget. "If I need to fill a childcare gap, it comes out of mine or my husband's work time. We just don't have a lot of other options."

Senator Elizabeth Warren

A lack of child care is holding back our economy and keeping parents out of the workforce—it's giving lie to the notion that there's equal opportunity in our country.

— Senator Elizabeth Warren

It's a struggle many families are shouldering, especially when their kids are small. "Before age 5, it's the parents' responsibility to provide child care, yet families are at the lowest earning years of their lives when their kids are young," says Taryn Morrissey, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. "So they rely on family members or neighbors or they take time out of the workforce and make sacrifices in their careers even if they don't want to."

I'm grateful that I was able to be home with my children when they were little, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't think somewhat wistfully about the career opportunities that I could have been pursuing. Or that I wasn't overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out who would care for my kids in my absence. My parents are deceased; my in-laws are in poor health. It was easier—and cheaper—to stay home. So I did.

Johanna Telander, a musician and actress in Tuxedo, New York, often took her kids with her to casting calls, and chose roles that fit into her parenting schedule, but there were still conflicts. "When my son was 4 months old, we were booked to work on a feature film. But then they asked me to stay for an extra day on set and I had no one to watch him," she recalls. "So I pivoted. I started teaching and doing other things that could include the kids. I used to go to 3 to 4 auditions a day. Now I go to that many a year. It really has to be worth it for me to make it work without child care lined up."

Another friend, who asked not to be identified, put it this way: "Sometimes there really isn't a village because you live far away from friends or family. Other times, your child doesn't fit the mold of who the village is willing or able to care for. Self-care flies out the window, careers are lost, mental health diminishes, and relationships can become taxed."

There is a glimmer of hope that one day this won't be the case. The one positive (pardon the pun) of the pandemic is the spotlight it's shone on the disparity between our expectations of what mothers can accomplish and the support we give them to do so.

"We're talking a lot more, especially about childcare," says Reddy. "There are a lot of single-parent households or households where the mom's salary is vital. If women are working outside of the home, we have to have safe, affordable child care."

Earlier this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed a plan to lower childcare costs to $10 a day, with higher-income families spending no less than 7% of their income on child care, and lower-income families making less than 75% of their state's median income fully subsidized. "A lack of child care is holding back our economy and keeping parents out of the workforce—it's giving lie to the notion that there's equal opportunity in our country," says Warren of the proposal. "We can't build a future by shortchanging our babies and families. The more we invest in child care, the better for our families, our small businesses, and our entire economy."

But until that day arrives, parents like me will keep piecing it together—one villager at a time.

Explore More

As the cost of raising a child in 2023 continues to skyrocket, caregivers are leaning on their communities more than ever. Read more of Parents' deep dive into what child care really looks like for American families—plus tips to create your own child care village.

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