When my first daughter was three months old, I drove her to daycare for the first time. It was a long ride. I was commuting to my job, which was almost an hour away, and the daycare was even further than that. As an infant, she slept a lot, but by the time she turned one, the distance became untenable. A daycare closer to home was necessary.
But it's not the driving I remember from that first drop off; it's the leap of trust required to leave my brand-new kid in the hands of strangers. We vetted the place beforehand, of course. It was recommended to me by coworkers who all had kids at this same daycare center. There were no TVs at the daycare. The food was supposedly all organic. They gave the infants little tiny baby back massages in their cribs. The place was expensive. We knew that when we signed on, but we figured it was worth it.
I have photos, but even without them, I'll never forget when Sheena, the daycare worker we'd already met and gotten familiar with, took my daughter into her arms, then placed her in a crib. In one of the photos I took, my daughter just stares at me, over Sheena's shoulder, with a look that says, "Don't go."
Yeah, I cried on my way to work.
When we moved my daughter to the daycare closer to home the following year, the facility was cheaper. Like, a lot cheaper. But it was also just not as good. Every room had a TV and DVD player setup blaring cartoons at staring children with blank faces. The food was prepackaged: lots of chicken nuggets and juice boxes. It always smelled like cleaning products and hash browns cooking. It was the best we could do for the location and the cost—especially once my second daughter was born and we were paying double for childcare.
No parent should have to choose between working and making sure they can afford to ensure their children are safe and cared for.
We were lucky. We could afford decent daycare for the years we needed it, until my daughters aged out and we both found ourselves working from home more, better able to balance the childcare situation with less commuting.
But lots of families can't afford even the most basic daycare. Costs are going up sharply even as lots of companies are requiring workers to get back to the office full time. Care, a company that covers some of these trends, says 50% of families live in "childcare deserts" where suitable care for kids isn't available.
Even if you do find a daycare or a nanny, expect to pay an average of $268 per week for one kid at daycare, $510 for two kids, or more than $700 weekly for a nanny. Those national averages have almost doubled in the past 10 years.
Care.com goes on to say families are spending on average 27% of their income on childcare expenses. That's nearly as much as the 30% people are supposed to spend on housing. "Affordable" child care, if such a thing exists anymore, is supposed to be closer to 7% of a family's total income, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This is why a lot of families opt out of daycare or afterschool programs. If a family's income can't absorb those costs, workers realize that all the money they're making is going toward paying someone else to watch their kids. That's why many parents are leaving the workforce; the numbers don't add up. Given the choice between paying someone else to raise your kids or raising them yourself, many feel they have no choice at all. They'd rather cut the stress and commuting out and just stay home.
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What's troubling is that things are getting worse right now for a lot of care providers and parents; at the end of September, a $24 billion program to help childcare businesses get through the pandemic expired. About 220,000 childcare programs have been affected and, so far, nothing has been put in place to replace the funding or help ease the transition out of it.
Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock has introduced a bill to try to address the crisis, but even if there's a temporary fix, it's unlikely the funding will continue indefinitely. And costs will probably continue rising.
I wish I had better news for parents—or for parents-to-be—who are already trying to figure out how they'll balance employment with making sure their kids are well taken care of. No parent should have to choose between working and making sure they can afford to ensure their children are safe and cared for.
But that's really the situation every parent who isn't wealthy is in right now, with no relief in sight.