The child care conundrum

Day care center? Nanny? SAHM? SAHD? OMGWTF?!?!?

Recently CBS reported recently that “Almost one-third of mothers are now stay-at-home parents, up from a 45-year low of 23 percent in 1999, the Pew Research Center recently found. For many of those parents, the choice isn’t based on parenting beliefs, but rather is rooted in stark household economics: In 31 states, college tuition is cheaper than paying for daycare.” Gone are the days when you could work your way through college as you go; and likewise gone are the days when staying home would reasonably solve the childcare cost conundrum. So the equation seems to be now that we should go to college, get into debt for a degree which will probably just qualify us to work at Barnes and Noble,1 work a few years, then quit because childcare is more expensive than the college degree we’re still trying to pay off.

Oh my god my head hurts.

But it didn’t start hurting with the breaking of that story. It started hurting a while back when my husband and I first tried our hands at figuring out childcare. After all, it’s always something, isn’t it? You solve one problem, and then the next one steps up in line to be tackled. In our case, once it was clear we were definitely expecting a baby, the next mystery to solve appeared: Who was going to watch it?

Here’s a quick rundown of what our situation was at the time (yes, it’s since changed, but I’ll get to that):

Me: Full-time breadwinner 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday, plus every other Saturday

Husband: Part-time financial contributor2 6:00 AM to 1:00 PM, Monday through Friday, and part-time homemaker

I’ve written before about how we managed our chore schedule with our different employment levels, but this issue brought new considerations into the mix. I certainly wasn’t going to quit my breadwinner-job to stay home. No way, Jose. But when we crunched the numbers, it became clear that while it would certainly be silly to funnel my husband’s entire paycheck to childcare outside the home so he could continue working part-time, it was equally silly for him to become a full-time stay-at-home-dad because doing so would have us come up short in our monthly budget.

“Why wouldn’t both of you work full-time, then?” you might be asking. Well , when we moved to a more rural area, we unintentionally changed not only my job, but my husband’s employment opportunities, too. Living in a much more rural area, he met with closed door after closed door, or a simple lack of postings to apply to. We hadn’t factored that into the equation when moving, but it became apparent that it was a long-term problem our household was going to face. So while the concept of working full-time was ideal, knowing how long it had taken for him to get even a part-time job meant we weren’t sure pursuing that was going to be the best use of the planning time we had.3

That left our household with a third option, after striking out “both work full-time” and “be a stay-at-home-dad.” He’d do a little from column A (work) and a little from column B (stay home) by, ideally, somehow finding a part-time job that would never conflict with my job but would help stretch our budget just the right amount. Without any backup family or friends in the area to help in a pinch, this would have to be our plan of action. That this magical unicorn job did not immediately materialize is (you can probably tell already) obvious. In the end, after calculating our long-term opportunities in the area, I took a job offer back in Richmond, and my husband was able to quickly find full-time employment.4 I also have family here who desperately want to watch the baby. This is lucky for us. Our household is also lucky to once again be “staffed” by two full-time workers.

All of this is to say, I have a tremendous amount of respect for wherever people find themselves regarding their childcare situation. It seems like a puzzle that’s set up to be next to impossible to figure out. And to make matters worse, there are these huge Assumptions (with a capital A and everything) that people seem to jump to when it comes to what they think about people who do A versus B. I’m not even talking about the whole career-obsessed-woman versus nurturing-stay-at-home mom aspect that’s a ridiculous binary set up to make it seem like a woman can’t possibly be more than one thing at a time. No, I’m talking about the very essence of the assumption about someone who “gets” to stay at home all day. For one thing, “get” implies that it’s a luxury that, harking back to the CBS study, may not be a luxury at all for some people.

When my husband was preparing to become the stay-at-home-parent, I felt a constant need to tack on “Well, he’ll still work at night so we can make ends meet!” at the end of explaining our plans. I felt as though the “stay-at-home” label for one of us put our household in some assumed income bracket we didn’t really belong to. He wasn’t “getting” to stay home because my job was sufficient enough for our whole household. He was “getting” to, essentially, work two shifts. This didn’t annoy me, but it made me hyper-aware of appearance versus reality.

You never really know what someone’s situation is. I may be jealous of people who “get” to stay home all day–though in truth, I adore my profession, and probably couldn’t take being a stay-at-home mom for more than a week or so before begging to go back to the library. So, my hat is doffed to those who are stay-at-home moms…but I truly have no idea what that’s like, why they’re doing it, or even if they want to. Some people, I imagine, adore staying at home. Meanwhile, some people probably wish they could run back to their working lives. And I’m sure some people are happy some days and miserable the others–which is really about how I feel about my impending being-a-working-mom future. I know there will be days when I’m thankful to be able to sit and answer emails, and other days when I’ll long to be home smelling my baby’s head and getting thrown up on. But to categorize the other scenario as wholly a luxury is to ignore the very real fact that for a lot of people, it’s a situation they’re in out of necessity rather than choice.

That not working is sometimes the most financially beneficial option is staggeringly ridiculous to me, and yet it happens.

We’re lucky right now to have a setup for our little family roughly figured out. We’ll be driving an extra 45 minutes every morning and again each evening, but it’s worth it to us, both because the baby will get to spend the day with family…and because our wallets will weep less over the gas than the day care bill.

Our foray into the world of figuring out childcare has given me a newfound respect for all parents. This situation is ridiculous all around unless Mary Poppins just flies right in and offers to work for free5 (and knowing Mary Poppins, I highly doubt that would happen).

  1. If we’re lucky! 
  2. I don’t mean to delineate snobbily between our earning levels, but I was making about 5x what he made, so the difference was significant to our budget and our connected, realistic choices. 
  3. And believe me, I’m not talking about jobs that look prestigious. I’m talking jobs at grocery stores spraying vegetables. He would’ve bathed those veggies all day if they’d called. 
  4. Something we no longer take for granted. 
  5. This is not to say that I think child care workers are ripping us off–I don’t think they’re diving into pools of money Scrooge McDuck-like. Who is winning in this scenario?! 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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