Handing our children over to someone else’s care, especially when it’s for a full work day, is no small thing. Ideally, we want care providers to be our partners in raising our kids. A great childcare provider doesn’t just make sure that children are safe, fed and clean. She also nurtures children’s curiosity, character, and overall development. He communicates with parents about what he has observed during the day and honours parents’ desires and wishes for the care of each child.
Childcare providers don’t earn much, especially given the pricelessness of the duties we entrust them with. At the same time, childcare is incredibly expensive. It constitutes a huge proportion of a two-income or single parent budget, especially for young parents at the beginnings of their careers. Unfortunately, we have no magical solution to make childcare affordable, although we can tell you what we did to make ends meet and why we decided to invest in childcare.
In this post, Sara and Sadia try to present the realities of childcare costs in the US and Canada, since we were both shocked by the sticker price and its impact on our lifestyles.
The Reality of the Costs of Childcare
When my daughters started public school, it felt like I got an enormous raise. Daycare got cheaper as our girls got older–prices tend to decrease by $10-20 per month per child per year of age–but the first year was a massive shock to the bank account. Two infant tuitions in the Austin suburbs came out to US$1650 a month, more than our mortgage. That was 7 years ago, so prices have gone up since. The US$1500+ didn’t include add-on options that became available at age 3, such as soccer lessons, gymnastics time, computer classes and Spanish activities.
I honestly don’t know how I would have made ends meet had I not still been married. We needed both incomes. Full day summer childcare prices for elementary-aged children are comparable to that of infant care, and I confess that this summer was financially challenging on just my income and the child support payment that my ex-husband provides. I really couldn’t have done it without the promotions and raises I’ve earned since my daughters were born.
The irony is that we had researched childcare options and costs. It was only after we decided that we were at a point at which we could afford daycare that we attempted to get pregnant. We just hadn’t budgeted for twins.
The care my kids received was worth every penny. I hadn’t realized going into it that childcare would be our family’s largest expense, but in retrospect it makes sense. Hiring the right childcare provider is an investment in my children’s future, not just their professional success, but also in their personal successes and sense of self. We got back a lot more than we paid for: lifelong friendship and mentoring, people with a real stake in my daughters’ development, and a healthy, happy, wholesome start. A couple of weeks ago, my 7-year-old daughter J had a theological question she didn’t feel that I was answering adequately, so she sought one of the staff members from her old daycare to discuss her concerns with her.
What saddens me is how little childcare providers are paid. I don’t know whether it was the financial structure of our program alone or whether this is typical, but I learned from one of the assistants I hired occasionally for evening babysitting that she earned less than $10 per hour caring for my children in her regular job. She was assisting 20 hours a week in the infant room at a program that was open from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm. In short, the people caring for my children wouldn’t have been able to afford to put their own kids in the program.
By the end of 2013 we will have spent over 30K in daycare for our 2-year-old twins, also significantly more expensive than our mortgage. When we were expecting we saved up money to help supplement my 13 months at home with Molly and Jack, (luckily Canadian benefits granted me 50 weeks of paid leave at C$501 a week and I used paid vacation for the remaining month). What we didn’t expect was to be living on an even tighter budget once I went back to work.
When you combine the immense daycare fees, cost of transportation to and from work, along with business clothes, some weeks it often feels that I’m quite literally working for very little money. On days when the washer has broken and you are about to tear out your hair in frustration it helps to think big picture. This is the most expensive time of our life (until we have two children in college 15 years from now), we just need to grit our teeth and count the days until full day kindergarten – 700! (but we’re not keeping track).
Why We Made the Decision to Go Back to Work
I never considered being a stay-at-home mom. For a few months, we toyed around with the idea of my now ex-husband being a SAHD, but that wasn’t for him either. For him, his military career is more than a job, although he is loathe to admit it. Serving others through his army service is my ex’s calling, and he’s really good at it. He would have never been able to live with himself if others were fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan while he changed diapers.
I have an intense personality and my extroversion is off the charts. Even during the 8 weeks between my daughters’ release from the NICU and my returning to work, we were out and about all the time. With my husband away on training, and later on deployment, it was just me and the babies in the house. I needed adult contact, adult conversation, and adult challenges.
I wanted to be able to be the best mother I could be. For me, that involves finding fulfillment and challenges outside my children. Having my own intellectual and social needs fulfilled by my job, I can focus on being for my children what they need me to be.
Perhaps the scars of my turbulent relationship with my mother have made me this way. I just don’t want my children to ever be burdened by my needing them for fulfillment. They should be free to explore their own lives, not spend their time validating mine.
There was also a financial aspect to my returning to work, although money never mattered enough to us for that to be a primary consideration. Enlisted soldiers in the US army don’t earn a whole lot. I was the primary earner in our family, thanks to a higher level of education (my MA to his high school diploma) and my job in software.
I love my children immensely, and with costs considered we seriously thought about one of us staying home for a few years to be with the kids, but when I took up a part-time contract with my work during the last six months of my maternity leave I remember how much I missed my day job. I missed my connection to the outside world, my former self and my career aspirations. Part-time work would have been an ideal balance for home/work life, but living in a big city, with little to no part-time daycare options and having a job I love this was not a feasible option for my husband or I. When I returned to work full-time although their were struggles, especially related to illness in the first six months, I was more focused when I spent time with my kids. I wanted to read the extra story at bed time and I wanted to build Lego towers with my kids because time was limited I made sure to make it quality time over quantity time.
Tips to Make it Easier
We cut our non-childcare expenses to the bone. We cancelled our landline telephone and used our cell phones only, with no data plans. We cooked all our food at home and packed our lunches; we couldn’t afford to eat out. My ex sold his beloved gas-guzzling 1968 Cougar and bought a more practical car. I worked through the night while breastfeeding to make up the time I missed at work when the babies were sick. While our neighbours hired cleaning ladies, we didn’t. We didn’t have cable TV, go to the movies or go shopping beyond groceries and clothes for our growing babies.
My employer provides an option to set up a dependent care flexible saving account. In essence, my employer sets aside US$5000 of my income to be spent on daycare before calculating my income tax. This has the effect of putting me in a lower income bracket for the purposes of income tax, reducing my tax burden. As I spend on daycare through the fiscal year, I send in receipts to prove where that money has gone, and the FSA management company reimburses me from the money that was already pulled out of my paycheck.
Financially we had to make some cuts to our cell phone services, cable and other frills so we could make it work. We also sold a bunch of items we didn’t need any more to help with the initial pinch. Big hurdles were when the kids got sick and we needed to make other arrangements during the day. Having family members as emergency back-up, flex-time at work or sitters who you can call in a pinch (at an added expense unfortunately) helped us survive. Knowing that there was an end date and having supportive people around us made the adjustment possible, I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.
What Other Options Are There?
There are programs out there intended to help reduce the financial pressures of childcare. There are tax rebates and assistance programs, although the latter involve huge amounts of red tape and often have internally inconsistent rules.
Centre-based care isn’t the only option. In-home childcare can be cheaper than centre-based case, but you’re dependent on the availability of a single person. You might be able to barter for care, providing your care provider a place to live and having her “pay” her rent in childcare hours. If you have family nearby, perhaps you can get free or greatly reduced care from them.
There’s the most obvious answer, one which many of us MoMs have chosen: one parent stays home and makes a non-paying career of being his or her own childcare provider. That comes with its own financial challenges, particularly if you were accustomed to living on two incomes.
We’re not experts here, just two moms who’ve felt the pinch. Please tell us how you address the issue of childcare costs for your family.