How parents cope with America's child-care 'crisis'

Families try everything from co-housing to collaborative office arrangements to navigate the work-life balance.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Jill Salzman plays with her two daughters at their home, on Feb. 23, 2015, in Oak Park, Ill. Salzman and her husband take turns being home for their girls after school. Child care is a problem for working parents. Salzman runs a networking group for mom entrepreneurs called The Founding Moms to help women incorporate their kids into their working lives.

Toward the end of one recent workday, with many of the city’s commuters already on their way home, Vanessa Smith climbed the stairs to the loft-like expanse of Free Range Office, one of Chicago’s newest co-working spaces, where entrepreneurs and freelancers rent desks and network with other independent professionals.

With one hand holding on to her 3-year-old daughter, Michaela, and the other pressing a phone to her ear, Ms. Smith walked directly toward the conference room and into an experiment in child care. Instead of conference tables or smart boards, the room had everything for the under-5 set – stuffed animals and blocks, mats, and a “Frozen” picture book, even a children’s yoga instructor. And without dropping her business call, Smith waved to her daughter and retreated, with a bit of relief, back into the “grown-up” space of Free Range Office.

“This is just great,” Smith said after her call. A lawyer by training, Smith runs her own human resources consulting firm. She is also a single mother. And while Michaela’s school ends at 3 p.m., the workday for her decidedly does not. “This really fills a gap for me...,” she said. “Would I be getting work done if we were home? Not a chance.”

This is what Liane Jackson, owner of Free Range Office, and Nikki Ricks, founder of a co-working and child-care initiative called Collide Coworking, wanted to hear. Both mothers of young children, and veterans of the work-family juggling act, they know how tough it can be to find affordable child care that supports a few flexible hours of work. So they decided to try to solve that – and, with events like the one this evening, to fill one of the many gaps in what advocates call the mess of an American child-care system.

As has been outlined recently by a growing number of public officials, including President Obama, child care in the United States is a huge problem for a huge number of parents – exorbitantly expensive, underregulated, and often unavailable. In Illinois, as in most states, the average price of infant care exceeds the price of in-state college tuition. For parents in the US, having a baby is one of the top risks of falling from above the poverty line to below it. Lower-income single parents pay on average 40 percent of their earnings on child care, while wealthier, married couples still regularly use up the bulk of one parent’s salary on care.

At the same time, child-care workers are among the worst-paid professionals in the country, with an average income of around $20,000 a year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Parents and teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the advocacy group MomsRising. “Parents can’t afford to pay any more, and teachers can’t afford to be paid any less.”

But as was clear on the night at Free Range Office, parents across the country are trying to figure out innovative ways to make it all work. In some ways their solutions – from living in co-housing communities where other adults help watch children to staggering schedules with a spouse or grandparent – show the depth of what has been dubbed a “child-care crisis.” 

But they also show the determination of families. Couple this with a growing public push for child-care solutions – as well as an increasing number of cities and states that now offer paid parental leave and sick days – and one catches a glimpse of what may indeed be a better future for the country’s struggling working parents.

 •     •     •       

 Ms. Ricks came up with the idea for Collide soon after she gave birth to her daughter, Sloane. She was working five days a week at an architecture firm and, although she loved her job, the idea of leaving her baby most of her waking hours broke her heart. She was also breastfeeding, and Sloane wouldn’t take a bottle. So Ricks decided to shift her schedule – and her company agreed to let her – so that she could spend one day in the office and work the rest of the time from home.

This meant squeezing work into all of those downtimes parenting experts tell new moms to use for themselves. There was no sleeping when the baby slept. Naps for the child were work times for Ricks, as were evenings. And while Ricks and her husband, a copywriter at an advertising agency, felt fortunate that she even had the flexibility to make those compromises, she also thought there had to be a way to schedule in a few hours of work now and then without taking on the expense of a nanny or day care. She started to look into co-working spaces.

“When I had my baby two years ago, I thought it would be so great if there was a place where I could take some conference calls and get briefed on a project,” she recalls. “But there were 40-some co-working spaces in the city and none of them offered child care.”

At first she thought she would start a co-working-plus-child-care space on her own. One such venture, called NextKids, already existed in California, and a couple other similar start-ups were operating across the country. But Ricks quickly decided that she didn’t have the money to do it, and instead created Collide.

She partners both with local co-working spaces and indoor play spaces, such as the Little Beans Cafe, where parents can work in a Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shop while their children hang out with Collide-provided child minders in a playroom next door, which is complete with a mock firehouse, dress-up center, and grocery store.

Ricks was not the only entrepreneur who had thought about starting a co-working-plus-child-care space in Chicago. When Ms. Jackson, a lawyer who was working as a government press secretary, decided to open her Free Range Office, she had intended to offer child-care space as well.

Jackson and her husband, who is also a lawyer, had just had their second baby when they agreed that she should switch to a more flexible career. She was working long hours, caring for her mother, and parenting two children under 4. “Everything was just getting too crazy,” she recalls.

She planned to create an office-like setting where she could network with other professionals on her own schedule and have a place for her children nearby. But then she started crunching the numbers. As Jackson quickly realized, the economics of running a child-care center are difficult at best.

There are a slew of regulations, with a mandated ratio of child-care workers to children that seemed low to the mother of toddlers (in Illinois it is one adult to eight 2-year-olds) and also expensive to meet. She would need to hire backup workers, and would need a space big enough to have child care well away from the office area. All of this was pushing up what she would have to charge clients for either joining the co-working space or using the child-care option – to the point where they might as well hire a nanny, who in that area earns an average of about $15 an hour.

“The free-market economy just fails when you look at child care,” says Sessy Nyman, who directs legislative strategy for Illinois Action for Children, a statewide nonprofit and advocacy group.

The profit margins of all day-care centers are low. Wages are the highest expense for the child-care center owners, but those wages are already meager in most cases. Many, then, try to cut expenses in staffing, food, and facilities. Meanwhile, even the lower-quality care centers – those with the worst-paid staff, and most spare facilities – are too expensive for many parents.

“We’re in a no-win situation,” says Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work consortium. “Parents can’t afford what they’re paying. That’s true for all income levels. For low-wage parents, compound that with irregular scheduling, not enough hours; it becomes a nightmare. At the same time, child-care providers cannot live on what they’re making.”

In Illinois, Ms. Nyman says, many of the lower-income parents who receive state assistance to help pay for child care are themselves child-care workers.

 •     •     •

 This sort of child-care assistance exists throughout the country, but is almost exclusively for low-income families. The federal government earmarks child-care subsidy money to the states, which then come up with their own regulations and funding policies. This, says Sara Gable, a University of Missouri professor who wrote “The States of Childcare: Building a Better System,” has created a complex, inconsistent approach to child care.

People making just over the income cutoff point for subsidies fall off what has been dubbed the “child-care cliff.” In Illinois, for instance, a family of three – usually one parent and two children – making $36,600 a year will pay about $3,200 a year for full-time child care, thanks to subsidies. If that same family makes $38,000, its child-care bill rises to an average of $12,300. Virtually no federal financial support exists for most Americans’ child-care expenses.

Little oversight exists when it comes to day-care quality, at least for middle-income parents. “The idea that children, writ large as a class, deserve to have decent child care while their parents are employed – that’s still a radical notion in America,” says Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

As Ms. Gable explains, the US has a bifurcated approach to child care. One set of programs exists under the policy label of “early childhood education,” which is primarily for low-income families. These programs, such as Head Start, are built with the child’s well-being in mind and are designed to improve health, development, and school readiness.

The second approach focuses on day care so a parent can work. Although basic safety regulations exist within this set of programs, there is far less attention to child well-being. States have different laws about whether some home day-care centers even need a license.

“Why aren’t we making high-quality care for children and employment for parents combined policy?” asks Gable. “The system of child care that supports parental employment doesn’t garner the type of resources or investment in quality because we are still hung up on the idea of mothers choosing to go to work.”

 •     •     •

 There are, however, other arguments against expanded child-care support. The Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks believe that child-care subsidies simply raise day-care prices even higher and force parents into certain arrangements that might not be best for their families. A number of critics argue against policies that channel young children into more hours of day care – something they say is detrimental to children’s development.

Even proponents of expanded support acknowledge that to make a real difference for families, the government would need to embrace a far larger role than seems possible in today’s political climate – with months or even a year of paid parental leave, a sliding scale payment system for child care, and universal preschool.

Still, as Gable suggests, the ambivalence Americans feel about working mothers underlies all aspects of the debate. The number of women in the workforce has skyrocketed in a generation. In 2012, some 71 percent of mothers with children under 18 participated in the labor force, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 47 percent in 1974. Around 60 percent of women with children under 3 are in the workforce. And a 2013 Pew Research Center report found that about 4 in 10 women are their family’s sole or primary breadwinner.

But the public remains divided about what this means for kids. Sixty percent of Americans still say it is better for one parent to stay at home to focus on the family, according to Pew. Yet at the same time, 62 percent say that a marriage in which both husband and wife have jobs, and both take care of the children, is preferable to one in which the husband works and the wife takes care of the home and family. Meanwhile, as many dads as moms tell researchers that they find it difficult to balance the responsibilities of work and home. And the economic toll crosses gender lines. According to a 2012 report by the advocacy group Child Care Aware of America, child-care fees for two children at a care center exceeded median rent payments in all 50 states; in 20 states it exceeded housing costs for homeowners with a mortgage.

This economic pressure is shifting the rhetoric on child care. In general, the country has moved in the past decades from defining social policy choices in moralistic terms toward framing them in economic arguments, says William Gormley, a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and codirector of its Center for Research on Children in the United States. 

“Employers are very important now in pressing government officials at all levels to take child care and early childhood education more seriously,” he says. “Workers depend on affordable, available child care; employers depend on affordable, available child care. A distracted worker is a less productive worker; an absent worker is a less productive worker. And a worker who feels guilty about leaving his or her child in an unsafe setting is a less productive worker.”

Mr. Obama zeroed in on the issue during his January State of the Union message. “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a woman’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” he said.

 •     •     •

 Meanwhile, families are figuring out how to make it work – often by joining forces with other parents. In Cambridge, Mass., Jory Agate always knew that when her daughters returned home from school, someone in their 32-unit co-housing community would be there to help them out. Co-housing developments, intentionally collaborative communities, began in Denmark in large part to provide individual families help with child-care duties. More than 100 co-housing communities now exist in the US.

“We never had a formal child-care setup within our community,” says Ms. Agate, a Unitarian Universalist minister. “But it functioned more like a small town or neighborhood did many years ago ... that just felt incredibly supportive.”

She remembers one time a neighbor was stuck at work, and the neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter “just wandered over for dinner.” On many other occasions neighbors took care of her children. Although she and her wife had full-time jobs and their own daytime child-care arrangements, she believes the “wraparound” care from her community dramatically eased the task of raising children.

Back in Chicago, Monica Lasky helps organize a neighborhood babysitting co-op where parents earn points for caring for other people’s children and then use those points for child care themselves. She and her husband joined when their oldest daughter – now 11 – was 5 months old. “Finding resources like that made me feel like, ‘oh, there is life after childbirth,’ ” she says.

But more often the solutions come from within the family unit. Parents will alter their schedules, or cobble together a few hours of care here, an hour with Grandma there.

Adriana Hutchings of Olympia, Wash., remembers a conversation she once had with her boss at an architecture firm in Seattle. Her manager, who had recently had a baby, complained about how much she was paying for child care and how she pumped milk in a private nursing room so she could give it to the nanny. She mentioned one day that she hadn’t seen her baby awake for two weeks.

“And she felt like she was lucky,” Ms. Hutchings says. “I was like, ‘What? This is insane. This isn’t how it should be.’ ”

She went home and told her husband, Craig, that she wanted to find a job that had more-flexible hours before they had children. She eventually became a massage therapist. After they had children, Adriana worked mostly evenings and weekends, while Craig worked his day job as an environmental chemist so they could trade off child-care duties. When she had day hours at the health club, she dropped her son in the playroom usually reserved for the children of gym members. She was exhausted.

“But at the time, I guess we made it look pretty effortless,” she says. Her friends would invite her out to lunch to pick her brain on how to “make it work.” “They would say, ‘How are you doing this?’ ”

She laughed at the idea. “Everyone is searching. Everybody is wondering, how is everyone else doing it?”

Brad Farris gets this question a lot. Entrepreneurs regularly ask the founder of Anchor Advisors, a small-business consulting firm in Chicago, how they can build their companies while taking care of children or paying for child care. He has sympathy. 

He started his business when he was a single dad. “I had three kids and no child care,” he recalls. “I just treated it as a constraint. I can’t do breakfast meetings. I’ve got to get the kids out of the house. It gives you a very different perspective than those people who do start-ups and can choose any 100 hours of the week to work.”

He would sometimes rely on friends to pick the kids up from school, or help out if one was sick. As they got older, and after he remarried, the flexibility increased. Then he and his wife had a baby together – the fifth child in their combined family. “There were definitely times when I missed deals,” he says. “But that just meant that my business grew differently. The path that I chose was dictated by the flexibility I needed to take care of my kids.”

 •     •     •

 Which, to Chicago businesswoman Jill Salzman, is a refreshingly straightforward concept. When her older daughter was 2 years old, and getting too noisy to hang out with her in her home office, Ms. Salzman started what would become a kid-friendly international networking group for mom entrepreneurs.

Mostly, she says, she began The Founding Moms because she wanted to figure out what other people were doing to incorporate their kids into their working lives. She still encourages members – some 8,000 in 40 cities in nine countries – to bring their children to meetings. But she says many women are cautious at first.

“It’s like our culture makes it seem that if you want to be a real businessperson, you can’t have children anywhere around you,” she says. “But children make you more effective.”

Salzman does see a huge need for more-flexible child care, particularly for mothers. Like Jackson and Ricks, she sees answers in a co-working-plus-child-care space, which she hopes to start herself in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.

Within a week of announcing her plans, nearly 100 women signed up to be notified when they could join, she says. Other moms and dads offered to prepay to reserve space.

She admits that starting the business has been “unbelievably hard” – mainly because she has struggled to find the right space and to explain the “co-working” concept to landlords. But she remains undaunted. “I hear so much about how hard it is,” she says. “And I think, c’mon, there’s got to be a solution. We’ve found solutions to things way more complex than this.”

Others, though, say that the only solution for everyone is major government intervention. Many countries in Western Europe developed programs in the 1990s to ease the cost of child care for working families – in large part to support maternal employment.

“We’ve reached a saturation point, and we just need to recognize that,” says Glass of UT Austin. “I don’t see how this can be done individually and on an ad hoc basis. This is a big job. Expecting parents to just figure it out – it’s like telling a group of parents to start their own school. We just don’t do that.” 

* In the original version, the reach of  The Founding Moms was incorrectly described.

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