Childcare: It’s about costly necessity not 'having it all,' study suggests

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's short maternity leave aside, childcare accessibility and affordability is, for hundreds of thousands of American moms, where the conversation about going back to work begins and not in a boardroom discussion of motherhood philosophy and "having it all."

Reuters Photo/John Gress
Childcare is less about "having it all" than being forced into a difficult family budgeting choice, a new study suggests. A high school student returns to school Sept. 19, 2012 after a teachers' strike ended, thrilling parents who had to stay home from work to care for their kids, pay for alternative childcare or leave them with friends and relatives.

Forget the Marissa Mayer controversy. Sure, the critics pounced when Yahoo!’s new, pregnant CEO let it be known that she did not intend to spend more than a week or two on maternity leave. They worried that Ms. Mayer was setting a bad example – that professionally driven women really couldn't take time out to be mom; that she was striking a blow to that “having it all” ideal (wherever that came from); that she was doing a disservice to herself and her baby.

But that all misses the point, a number of advocates are saying. Just take a look at a new National Women’s Law Center report out this week, which evaluates child care assistance availability across the country.

For hundreds of thousands of American women, this, and not the Yahoo boardroom, is where the conversation about going back to work begins. And it is a conversation that is getting harder.

To step back here a moment: Although you wouldn’t know it from the commentary surrounding Mayer, for many American women, maternity leave is less a philosophical choice than a decision influenced by employer policies and child care expenses.

While the US Family and Medical Leave Act says that eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks leave after the birth of a child, it only covers a fraction of the US workforce. (Smaller employers, as well as part-time and contract employees – who are often women – are not covered.) Moreover, the Act does not require employers to pay for this leave, and many parents cannot afford to be without a paycheck for months at a time.

So going back to work quickly is often less about maternal values than it is about family practicalities.

The catch, though, is that the alternative to maternity leave is often childcare – super-expensive, infant child-care.

We wrote a couple of months back about the costs of this. In most states, full day, center-based infant care costs more than tuition at a public college. It ranges from $4,600 in Mississippi to $15,000 in Massachusetts. 

Lower income families, then, are in the worst spot. They are most likely to include a mom or dad with a vulnerable job that either does not pay any leave or does not allow for time off, and at the same time they are the least able to pay for childcare.

Which is where the new National Women’s Law Center report comes in.

There is federal money, distributed to the states, that is earmarked for childcare assistance. But as Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center, told me, only one in six eligible children actually receive this childcare assistance. [Editor's note: Helen Blank's name was incorrectly spelled in the original version; it has been corrected.]

“It’s too little money and it’s getting stretched too thin,” she said.

This week, in its annual childcare assistance report, the National Women’s Law Center found that for families in 27 states, the affordability and accessibility of childcare assistance was getting even worse. Seven states lowered their income eligibility limits as a dollar amount between 2011 and 2012, meaning that a family had to be even poorer to qualify for assistance. Twenty-three states had waiting lists or had frozen intake for childcare assistance; Maryland had 17,058 children on waiting lists, while Massachusetts had 31,260. And in many states, families paid a higher percentage of their income in co-payments in 2012 than in 2011.

“We get stories every day from parents struggling to make ends meet,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and chief executive of, a social media site and advocacy group. “Parents who figure out that the cost of childcare is higher than their pay – that’s not uncommon. So they make the difficult decision of whether to stay in the labor force, or whether to not, and then risk not getting a job later.”

In comparison, Mayer’s decision about when to go back to work is downright cushy. And personal. Her son, who was born earlier this month, will clearly not lack for childcare.

RELATED: 5 top childcare options – cost and value, from day care to nannyAnd hey, if I had a $129 million pay package incentive dangling over my head, I’d be tempted to get back to work ASAP, too. But that’s a problem so good – and so rare – that it perhaps shouldn’t even be part of the national debate.

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