We got a lot of comments, emails, and texts about our post last Friday (and to everyone who reached out, we send a profound thank you). One major, and somewhat unexpected, takeaway was that many, many women whom we know personally have left the workforce due to the “prohibitive” expense of childcare. Not because they necessarily wanted to stay home, or because they were generally OK with staying home – but because it didn’t make financial sense to keep working.
As my friend Christa told me, she quit teaching because “My take-home pay would have all gone to the nanny, and since I don’t have the earning power my hubby does, he continued his legal career, while I took on all the home and childcare responsibilities.”
Does it seem like a bad deal to you that parents who want to work are essentially being pushed out of of the workplace because they can’t afford childcare? Yep, it seems like a bad deal to us too.
Childcare ranges from somewhat expensive to very, very expensive. To get a more concrete idea of what we’re talking about, I did a quick, informal poll of my friends and professional network on their childcare costs, and here’s what I found. (I live in Los Angeles, so these numbers are almost certainly high compared to other areas of the country, but they’re still instructive.)
- In-home daycare: $215-250/week per child, or about $12,100/year for one child
- Center-based daycare: $275-375/week per child, or about $17,000/year for one child
- Full-time nanny: $400-700/week, or about $28,600/year, and this can easily go higher if the family is paying taxes and benefits as they arguably should be doing; hourly rates are generally the same for 1-2 children
Let’s not forget: by and large, this is post-tax money, my friends. So to get a realistic estimate, in terms of earning needs, you really need to double my numbers. Looking at these rough figures, It’s pretty easy to see how a family could face circumstances where childcare costs nearly equal – or even exceed – one partner’s after-tax salary.
Good luck with that daycare application process. Given the costs outlined above, finding a great daycare for your child is clearly the less-spendy option, at least assuming you only have one child. But there’s another wrinkle: you can only go with the less expensive option if you can get your baby a spot at a great daycare in the first place. I cannot overstate how challenging this can be.
When my husband and I were expecting our first, we got ourselves on waitlists for five different daycares before I was out of the first trimester. Of these five, we got a spot for our son in only one. And we were lucky to get it. The only reason we knew to start looking so early is because a more experienced mom tipped me off about how tough the daycare admissions game can be; otherwise I probably would have found myself 6 months pregnant with no shot at finding space anywhere.
When I was pregnant with my second, I told our daycare center director about my pregnancy before I told my mother. Literally the morning I got that positive First Response test, I called the director at 9:00 a.m. and asked her to put baby #2 on her waiting list. The only reason I told my husband I was pregnant before I told the daycare director was because he happened to be home when I took the test. Otherwise I would have called her first. I’m not kidding. Excellent infant care is crazy hard to find. (It’s slightly less harrowing to find a spot for your kid if she’s 2 or older. Slightly.)
It’s the same story in other big cities. My friends in San Francisco, New York City, Atlanta, and Chicago report that high-quality daycare spots are equally hard to come by in their cities. So this means for a lot of families, the only choice is the far more expensive choice: hiring a nanny, at north of $25,000 per year. In a two-parent household, that means the lower-earning parent probably needs to be making about $50,000 a year for it to be better than break-even. Yikes.
Just so I can really strike fear in your heart, let’s consider, for a moment, the situation faced by single parents earning less than a six-figure salary, or two-parent households who need both salaries to make ends meet and absolutely cannot fork over 12 grand a year (or more) for childcare. What choices do those families have?
Happy Mom = Happy Child. Many organizations have studied the overall happiness of working moms vs. stay-at-home moms, and the jury is out on that question (assuming you can ever get a meaningful answer, which I personally doubt). However, the studies are unanimous on one point: the happiest moms are those who are satisfied with their choice – whether the choice is to work, stay at home, go part time, whatever.
And the happiest children come from homes where the mom is happy.
That point is so important that it bears repeating, so I’ll let a professional do it for me: Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research for the Council on Contemporary Families, says, “The evidence suggests that kids are happiest when their moms are happiest.” (Read more here.)
In other words, moms leaving the workforce because they can’t afford childcare – rather than because they actually want to stay at home full-time – is not great for moms or their kids.*
If a mom quits her job primarily because childcare is too expensive to justify her continued employment, the reality is she’s likely going to feel sad and a little resentful, no matter how much she loves her kids. Because OF COURSE she loves her kids; that is not up for debate.** We are all human though, and if we have to give up something meaningful to us and to our identity, even for those people we love the most, there are going to be side-effects. Pretending otherwise doesn’t get us anywhere.
This status quo hurts both parents. The 60+ hour, always-on culture we discussed in our last post isn’t helping matters. In two-parent families where one parent is the sole breadwinner, that parent understandably feels additional pressure to take the 7:00 p.m. conference call. And the early-morning meeting. And go on the cross-country business trip. And so on. This leaves the stay-at-home parent feeling isolated and like they’re doing it alone.
Again, from my wise friend Christa:
“It is also difficult to be the one left at home while your spouse works long hours and is chained to the blackberry. It’s hard to make all the minute to minute decisions and handle all the feeding, fights, and tears alone. Especially when you grew up believing you could be anything.
The kids are getting to an age now where it’s not so hard, and there are a lot of things I love about being their #1, but the journey has been dark at times. It would have been easier if quality, affordable childcare were more readily available, so that I could carve time out to use my own fancy college degree. If the work culture for [my husband] was different and his hours more flexible. If the pressure to DO IT ALL were not so ingrained in us all.”
Christa needs a hug. I need a hug. We all need hugs. And we need government-subsidized childcare.
Unsurprisingly, working solely to pay for childcare strikes many parents as a bad deal. It strikes me as a bad deal. So I’m just going to go for it and get political: we need government-subsidized, high-quality, readily-available, flexible childcare. (We also need way better, paid maternity leave, but that’s a subject for another post.)
Germany and Japan are also doing it better than we are. As the New York Times recently reported: “In Germany, where many mothers are still expected to fetch their children from school at lunchtime, a new law guarantees state day care for all children older than a year. Even in Japan — home of the salaryman — the prime minister just announced plans to create more day care so mothers could work.”
There are signs America is moving in the right direction, and at the very least people are talking about this dilemma – Michelle Obama recently spoke of how she had to take her 4-month-old Sasha to a job interview because her babysitter had recently quit. That sounded pretty real to us.
But we need MORE action from our leaders. If we are serious about eliminating sexism in the workplace and improving choices for all parents in this country, we need to get serious about better childcare options. Just an idea… how about a tax credit for all families’ work-related childcare expenses? Candidly, we’re not tax experts. We’re parents. And we are advocating for making it easier for families to pull off more general productivity out there. Again, no judgement… just logic, or so it seems to us.
Have an anecdote to contribute? Feedback for us? Work/life/parenting subject you’d like to see us address? Please post in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
* This post is NOT about moms who stay at home because they want to stay at home. I will reiterate something I’ve said here in the past, which is that Heather and I are unabashed feminists. We want women to have CHOICES. If a mom chooses to leave her job because she prefers to be at home with her kids, we could not be more supportive of that choice. We tip our hats in respect, and send hugs and high-fives to those moms, because that is hard work. This post is not about those women. This post is about women who stay at home when they would have chosen something else if money wasn’t a factor.
** I am serious, that is not up for debate. We don’t play Mommy Wars here. Any comments suggesting working mom = bad mom or SAMH = bad mom or anything along those lines will be swiftly deleted.