As it turns out, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to expose the precarity of child care in America. Quick refresh: In 2020, child care centers closed, schools went virtual, oh and moms left the workforce in unprecedented numbers. In the aftermath, it seemed like elected officials might finally pass legislation that guaranteed parents access to affordable child care. But not much has changed. Women are still the default caregivers in their families whether they work or not, and they are still unsupported by their government and all too often, their employers.
Consider these stats:
In 2021, child care costs amounted to 8% to 19.3% of the median family income— per child.
In straight relationships, when care costs go up, the woman is more likely to cut back at work or leave the workplace altogether.
On average, caregiving costs women $295,000 in lost earning and retirement savings over the course of their lifetimes.
This is not sustainable, and women have had enough. It’s time for leaders to shift their focus and realize that child care is not an individual problem, it is a societal one — with a major impact on businesses and the economy. Enter: #ShowUsYourChildCare, theSkimm and Moms First’s initiative to address the care crisis in the United States by asking companies to show up for their employees and open up about their child care policies.
To get the ball rolling, we asked Skimm readers to be totally transparent about how they organize care for their families, why, and what they think needs to happen to fix a broken system. Here’s what we heard:
Some who left their careers don’t see a path back…
Nikki, 44, accountant, one kid
“By choosing to stay home with my children I have lost the opportunity to grow in my career. I reentered part-time when they went to school but well below what I was capable of doing and the pay reflects that. Now that they are old enough to be on their own, the work available to me is well below where I would be paid had I not left the workforce. Additionally, I have not stayed on top of changing standards and am no longer as qualified as I once was.”
Anonymous, 39, stay-at-home mom, two kids
“I feel so very privileged to stay home with my children, and there is a very real feeling of being undervalued by society for the enormity of the work I do within the home -- that all parents do within the home. Having children is a very time-heavy, and expensive endeavor and it feels as though culture would have women disregard this new humongous privilege and carry on with careers as if no other more important people were tugging on their heartstrings, wallets, and watches (time).”
Lacey Cutler, 40, stay-at-home mom, two kids
“The impact on my earning potential over the past 5 years of not working is likely $500,000 in lost wages and lost retirement. Even though I have ‘worked’ my butt off for the past 5 years raising children and never having a break, and ‘working’ 24/7 even when I’m sick. Not to mention when/if I do try to get back into the workforce once my children are school age, companies will treat me differently because of my ‘gap in employment.’”
Many are struggling even if they have child care…
Rachel, 34, events manager, one kid
“Daycare has more holidays than either of our employers, which means burning vacation days. Our child has been ill frequently, which requires coordination of my husband, and I, and our parents to make sure our child is cared for when they can't attend daycare. It can be hard at times to get traction at work because it feels like our child is always sick.”
Meredith, 36, finance supervisor, three kids
“I drive 45 minutes out of the way each morning to take my children to daycare because that is the closest option for infant care where I live. I have been on the waitlist for over 2 years for another daycare closer to my home. I am lucky that staffing is not an issue at this location, but I have friends who continue to have to keep their children at home because daycare is understaffed. I wish people understood how hard it is to not have choices about child care. I don't love where my children spend the majority of their day, but it's the only option I found that I can afford and within a reasonable distance of my home.”
Tracy Pal, 37, nurse, three kids
Westfield, New Jersey
“It’s very difficult to find a balance of what child care and work hours fit your family and income. It’s a puzzle. I have worked anywhere from full time with an hour commute, 4 days a week, 3 days a week with one weekend day, SAHM, and now random substitute jobs. It’s all challenging with small children. We have tried full-time daycare, full-time nanny, [and] preschool bridged by nanny or parent. Nothing is perfect, kids get sick and can’t attend daycare or preschool, nannies can also be unreliable – we went through 5 until finding our ‘Mary Poppins’ in our price range. Also, my husband did not have paternity leave and I needed assistance for several weeks postpartum.”
Many wish society would get with the times…
Deanne, 40, physician, two kids
“I’m a very busy surgeon who essentially works two full-time jobs (60-80 hr work weeks) with night time call. My oldest is in school and youngest in daycare at the same school so my husband picks up the slack after school and if kids are sick. When my children were younger we had full-time help. I needed the flexibility of having someone in our home that would care for my kids even if they were sick. My husband doesn't work but instead runs the household. I think if the roles were reversed, [if] he was the doctor, we wouldn't have had to have help or daycare. But the gendered expectation is that he gets some non-kid free time. I do think that everyone deserves a break because kids are hard, but I don't think I would have been afforded that break.
Julisa, 33, workforce planning leader, one kid
“The student loan pause has been a blessing while we've been paying for daycare but now that it's ending soon, we will have to reprioritize in our household. It seems like we make a lot of money (and we do comparatively) but I have a lot of school debt and those payments are going to be very high because of my income which won't factor in that I also have to pay for child care.”
Lilia, 31, teacher, one kid
“Child care shouldn’t cost more than a mortgage or rent. [It] is more difficult and less affordable now than it was 30 years ago. Support outside of immediate family (if you’re lucky to even have that) seems almost nonexistent.”
Megan, 29, administrative and research support coordinator, one kid
Fort Collins, Colorado
“We utilize the dependent care FSA, but the maximum of $5000 doesn't even cover a quarter of the annual cost of daycare. It is incredibly frustrating.”
Sara, 39, pianist, one kid
“It’s an impossible situation. Our culture promotes an ideal of self-sufficiency that has always depended on the single breadwinner formula. Not only has this not been an achievable reality in decades (and seems like it was only achievable for white people for a few decades around the 50s due to social programs that got cut to nothing), it also insults the measurable financial contribution of household management and child care. There is no income, no social security, very little recognition, and no guarantees. It feels like dangling over a bottomless pit, trying to hold on to your loved ones while wondering if you’ll end up homeless without resources in your old age.”
Many are still waiting… literally on a list…
Nina, 32, instructional designer, one kid
West Dundee, Illinois
“The state of child care is awful here in the US. It’s sad that the lowest cost of child care is still as high as renting an apartment ($900+) or a mortgage payment ($1,500+). I wish people knew how hard it is to find child care and ensure you have it before you go back to work. In most places, you’re on a waitlist or you’re crossing your fingers that they still have an opening for you. Most places make you pay to reserve a spot each month and that spot isn’t even guaranteed. Search sites are nonexistent or not helpful – I had the best luck with asking a Facebook moms group. About 90% of the places you call months before your child is born will tell you they do not have an opening which is terrifying when all you’re trying to do is focus on safely delivering and bringing [your child home].”
Molly, 34, IT manager, two kids
“It is so hard to find daycare for newborns. I had to find a spot for my newborn as soon as I hit 13 wks pregnant and even then some places had 6-month waitlists. Newborn care costs $475 a week and even with my high salary I wonder: ‘Is it worth it.’ I feel like the United States doesn’t give a shit about families and as a mom I constantly feel like I’m dropping the ball somewhere trying to take care of my kids, my relationship with my partner, the house, and myself (always last on the list).”
Anonymous, 42, court management, two kids
“It really feels like every mom for herself – when my kids were younger, there were always a limited number of spots available and if you didn't get on waiting lists you might not have access to care. At this time, I'm trying to find a part-time nanny for [the] summer, and I've had several people commit and then back out at the last minute. I am so incredibly stressed and it's affecting my performance at work.”
Athena, 44, public health and climate justice consultant, one kid
“It’s impossible. We were on 10 different waitlists since she was 3 months old and didn’t get into daycare until she was 2.5 years old. One place called us the year she started kindergarten to say she had just made it off the waitlist and they had a spot for us! And then it costs more than a college education and multiple days a month are not covered if staff are out sick, or the basement floods, or any myriad of problems.”
Many see that child care providers can’t afford to work in child care…
Brianne, 40, technical editor, two kids
“Military families can use several resources for finding child care and it is sometimes offset based on rank and need. While it's tough to stomach paying $250 a week for child care in the summer, that really breaks down to $6.25 an hour – sometimes less – for the provider. And yes, there are multiple children, but I can't imagine the people who are required to have early childhood education degrees are making much above minimum wage at child care centers, which also sucks for them.”
Anonymous, 39, sustainability manager, one kid
Half Moon Bay, California
“It is dismal! Where we live, there are only a couple daycare or preschool centers, and one of them is at risk of shutting down due to the lease of their building. Waitlists are years long. We tried a couple nanny shares but it is very challenging and didn't work out. Even stretching the budget of two well-educated professionals with only one child, our nanny could barely afford to live in our area and needed support from "safety net" programs. It feels like a no-win situation.”
Ashley, 42, school counselor, two kids
“As an educator, I understand firsthand the crisis with the lack of willing and certified child care workers. The limited number of workers minimizes the number of adults to meet the appropriate safety ratio in a child care setting. This means that enrollment numbers are down and waiting lists are exceptionally long at any facility worth sending your kids to. Supply and demand has driven up the cost of child care to make it nearly unattainable for many people. “
Christina, 34, sales, one kid
“It is not easy to find a spot for your child and even less likely to find a place that really meets all of your wishes. My child has been watching the iPad at school lately which is irritating to me, but I don’t feel I have a choice. Additionally, they’ve just announced a 6-week closure due to a staffing shortage and I literally do not know how we are going to survive it.”
Many suggested solutions…
Kecia, 44, self-employed, one kid
“Subsidized costs for parents, universal public preschool, national nanny registries, training, and standards (including high pay for caregivers), and government-guaranteed family leave policies would all be steps to helping families both parent and work in our country. Being self-employed, I took entirely unpaid maternity leaves for my three kids, and yet the high costs of child care made it more difficult for me to consider full-time work. Look at how other countries help parents out, it is embarrassing how little awareness we give to these problems in our country!”
Anonymous, 42, attorney, one kid
“I work for the state government – I am consistently baffled that our state doesn't have a state-operated daycare for government employees to use that's either free of charge or reduced cost. I would love to see MORE daycare centers and to have the cost of child care subsidized or [I’d like to] at least receive a more substantial tax credit.”
Colleen Johnson, 35, implementation manager, one kid
“Any sort of assistance programs for families who have adopted. The adoption, most of which was put on credit cards, has cost around the amount of my annual salary, with ongoing expenses until finalization. The added daycare expense is a huge burden. I also wish there was a national law making it so all women regardless of company or type/length of employment are eligible for maternity leave.”
Reader responses have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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