For several months, we had worked out a childcare arrangement for Isobel with a family friend who she knew well. It was great and she loved having another child her age to play with during the day, but unfortunately a few things (scheduling, distance, etc.) threw a wrench into the plans and so we began looking for a childcare facility closer to our home for her to attend 3 days a week or so. Brandon is home on Mondays so we didn’t want full-time care because our schedules are often varying and flexible.
Childcare in our area is exorbitantly expensive. Well—everything in our area is expensive. Housing is expensive. Transportation is expensive. We had done some childcare research before Isobel was born, but it was only cursory because at that time we were planning for other arrangements to work out—and they didn’t. We began looking in earnest a few months ago. There were a few problems right off the bat. First, many childcare facilities in our area have long waiting lists, even for older infants and toddlers. (It’s common for daycares to have waiting lists for newborns but at some of the fancier facilities in our area, there were year-long waiting lists for toddlers.) Second, and I want to be completely honest here—we could not afford several of the daycares that did have availability. We were willing to look into a full-time option where there was no part-time available, but soon discovered that the average full-time care cost at some of the nicer facilities that did have availability was north of $1,800 per month. The full-time cost at a daycare right around the corner from our home was over $2,200 a month. We live a comfortable life and our income is above the average for this area. But we cannot afford to pay $2,000 a month for daycare.
We kept looking and eventually circled back to a daycare I’d toured months earlier and loved. They offered part-time care (a huge bonus, since it’s difficult to find) and had a lovely facility, great caregivers in each “classroom” and provided two snacks a day. It’s still expensive, but not prohibitively so. They didn’t have a consistent slot available for Isobel but worked with us to get a couple definite days a week and we’d be able to take another kid’s spot if he/she didn’t show up that day. Eventually we’ll move her into a spot permanently and this was a way to get our foot in the door, so to speak. Her first day was a little dicey, but she did well, ate all her food and played a little bit, although they said she was initially wary of all the new commotion. That seemed to be how things would progress—maybe a few off days here and there while she adjusted, but we expected that.
Yesterday in the late afternoon, I was working and trying to finish up a few more items on my to-do list. I saw my phone buzz and it was Isobel’s daycare. Never a good sign, so I was already anxious when I answered. It was the head caregiver from her room and she told me that Isobel had been crying nearly all day. She had eaten, a good sign, but needed near constant comforting and wanted to be held and it was becoming difficult for the caregivers in the room to give enough attention to the other children. She advised me to come as soon as I could so we could discuss our options. She asked, “Why doesn’t Isobel come more often during the week?” I replied that it was because there wasn’t a permanent slot that she could fill and we were waiting until one opened up. She said that Isobel would probably need a more permanent schedule so she could get used to being there and not have stranger anxiety all over again each time she was dropped off. I agreed, but reminded her that that’s what I wanted—it just wasn’t available. They assured me that they would try to work out what they could and see if they can nail down three or four specific days a week that she could attend.
When I got off the phone, I was at a total loss. Should I be sad? Angry? I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. I would say I was discouraged, but that’s a little too timid a word for how overwhelmed I felt. I called Brandon and told him what was going on. I said, “What can I do? I feel like I can’t win. I can’t take care of her at home and work too, and I don’t know how to help her daycare to make this better.”
In this weird world of modern parenting, there is this horrible dichotomy that says that you can make the best decisions for your children if you “know all the information,” but that also continually promotes guilt and judgment if the decision you choose is not the one that is trendy, not the one that is socially normative or not the one that upper-middle class or well-off families make. Jessica Valenti’s book “Why Have Kids?” illustrated this really well. As a collective society, we wring our hands over breastfeeding or helping kids sleep through the night or practicing attachment parenting or giving them perfectly assembled nurseries or going back to work after an extended, paid maternity leave or discussing the stresses or benefits of being at a stay at home parent. Let me be clear: you have a certain amount of privilege if these are the issues on your parenting plate. For the women who have difficulty breastfeeding and have no maternity leave, or perhaps their workplace doesn’t allow them the time and space to pump, they don’t have a choice. For the parents who don’t have a separate bedroom for their new baby because they’re living in a one-room or studio apartment, sleep training is obviously problematic. And, if you don’t have a separate bedroom for a baby, there is no nursery to decorate—assuming you have the money and time to do it anyway. Attachment parenting? For a mother who has to return to work right away, that “parenting style” is not even on the table. As far as paid maternity leave—it barely exists in this country. Let me say that again because it’s something we like to pretend isn’t a reality: PAID MATERNITY LEAVE BARELY EXISTS IN THIS COUNTRY. Oh, women have the option of twelve weeks unpaid leave at most workplaces. That’s roughly equivalent to six paychecks. How many families can afford to miss six paychecks? 40% of Americans have less than $500 in savings. Could your family afford to miss six paychecks? If you can hobble together enough sick leave, vacation days, personal days and short-term disability benefits, you may be able to eke out six weeks. What happens after those six weeks or two weeks or twelve weeks you’ve been gone from work? Two options: someone stays home and watches your child (maybe you, maybe a family member) or you find childcare. The average cost of daycare in the US is over $11,000 a year. The average wage in the US is about $43,000 per year. After childcare, that average worker is now making $32,000 per year. The average wage in Maryland is about $52,000 per year. If a Maryland resident is paying about $1,700 a month in childcare (or $20,400 per year), they’ve just negated their income entirely. They’ve nearly halved it.
There is a frosted glass placed between the realities of modern parenting and modern motherhood (because there are some issues that intrinsically relate to the role of a modern mother) and the competent and stylish veneer that is too often sold as “real life.” Of course—and I have to say it—this is perpetuated by the parenting-on-display qualities of blogging. You see US Weekly and Life&Style headlines at the grocery checkout proclaiming amazing “post baby bods,” but it gets a lot harder to ignore and hits much closer to home when you see “real life” moms looking amazing post-birth on their blog. Magazines show gorgeous nurseries and talk about exciting new toys or activities for children, but when bloggers showcase the same things, it gets harder to justify that it’s not something you’re supposed to be creating or doing too.
Through no fault of our own, there was a lapse where I was uninsured and did not have health insurance shortly before I found out I was pregnant. It was set to kick back in about a month after we found out. At one point, we received a bill for some standard lab testing and for whatever reason, our insurance hadn’t received the claim yet. The bill was for $11,000. The external cephalic version I had near the end my pregnancy would have cost us over $4,000 out of pocket if I hadn’t had health insurance. (Even still, we had to pay close to $1,000.)
I’ve never realized how vulnerable and inadequate I could feel until I found out I was pregnant. There are a million possibilities for both emotional and financial bankruptcy. Every decision seems like the biggest one you’ll ever make. But I understand that because I have to make decisions in some cases—that they aren’t just made for me because of my circumstances—that I am lucky.
Until there is some momentum and change behind some of these major problems facing modern parents—childcare costs, maternity leave, best practices for a child’s health and well-being—we have to talk about this. You have to be willing to say that you struggle with this too. And if you, a lower middle class or middle class or upper middle class parent, are willing to say that you’ve struggled, then we can start focusing on the people who live at or below the poverty line—about 46 million people in this country. They are the mothers and fathers who have few options and who can’t make the “hard” choices about breastfeeding, childcare and what elaborate decorations to have at their child’s first birthday party, because there may be no choices to be had.
It’s okay for modern parenting to look fun and attractive. Having a child is beautiful and there are beautiful things about parenting. But that’s not the whole story and we do each other and millions of other people a disservice by pretending that these issues don’t affect us too. Start learning. Share parenting challenges instead of hiding them. Acknowledge that there are problems with the system and problems that we also help the system perpetuate.
If I struggled to come up with a three-four week maternity leave, if we agonized over the cost of childcare in our area, if I received a slew of health care bills that could have bankrupted us if not for a last second stroke of luck, if I cannot seem to find any home/life balance most days, if my biggest impediment to having a second child is because I don’t think we can afford it, what are the stark realities facing those less fortunate than myself?