Childcare: Controversial, Expensive, Complicated, Necessary
People ask me about childcare all the time. How to pay for it, how to find it, what I do with my kids. Other than what to eat for lunch, which credit cards to use, and how to buy used cars, I think childcare is the most asked question I get from readers. And it’s the one thing on that list I haven’t devoted a lot of time to writing about.
Probably because I’m not a childcare expert. Probably because I’m not a parenting expert. Definitely because childcare prices and arrangements vary wildly by family, age of children, family composition, region, country, and even state.
In short, it’s complicated and I do not have answers for everyone and this post will not provide solutions for all situations. What I can share are the decisions my husband and I have made and how they’ve impacted our family in the four years since becoming parents to four-year-old and two-year-old girls.
The Childcare Imperative
Let’s start from the beginning: if you have little kids, someone will need to take care of them. This is an immutable fact of being human. Our babies are born helpless and remain so for a really long time. Unlike the day-old baby cow I met on Kidwoods’ preschool field trip that could could walk, eat, moo, and put herself to sleep (at one day old!), human babies are worthless on the independence metric.
Historically, mothers were expected to perform all childcare duties with help from extended family members (who were also women). Currently, families are diverse in composition (not everyone has a mother, or just one mother, so that terminology is outdated), society’s view of gender roles has evolved (though it could stand to evolve more… ), and extended families do not necessarily live near one another. Yet, human babies have not taken the hint and wised up. Culturally we’ve evolved; biologically, we remain helpless at birth. Geez, babies, way to screw things up.
The Many Ways We Make Women Feel Bad
Our culture is SO GOOD at making women feel SO BAD for… well, just about everything. Birthing and raising children is a flashpoint for negativity and there are heated opinions on all sides about how everyone else should/should not birth/raise their children. In the absence of the proverbial supportive village, we seem to have created a village of judgement, shaming, and no one actually helping to change a diaper.
Women–lucky us!–are singled out in this judgement/shaming exercise and there’s still a cultural tendency to assume the burden of care-taking is on women (and especially women who happen to have a male partner). The male partner/father-person is not typically asked about his birth plan or his post-birth childcare plans or chided for returning to work too soon/too late or encouraged to take time off to adjust to parenthood or expected to have “daddy brain.” He’s supposed to blithely continue on with business as usual while the mother of the child grapples with the messiness, the pain, the sleep deprivation, the blood, the loss of self, the self-doubt, the visceral of parenting.
Thankfully, many families have evolved past this stereotype and enshrined a more equitable division of labor. But as a society and a culture, there’s still an undercurrent of expectation that women should stay home. There aren’t enough protections or support systems in place for new parents: parental leave policies at most companies are either non-existent or outdated, daycare can cost as much as a four-year college education, and the workplace flexibility that would allow parents to maneuver around school/daycare schedules is often a pipe dream. Our country has systemic issues with supporting new parents and, unfortunately, I am not authorized to solve any of these problems.
Adding to this dumpster fire are the hateful screeds hurled at “working mothers” (by the way, what about “working fathers” or “family women”?). There are accolades for stay-at-home mothers who are “putting their children first” and “doing the hardest, most rewarding job on earth” (side note: if it’s the most rewarding job on earth, why is it an unpaid internship with erratic hours, no on-the-job training, and a boss who grabs your boobs all the time?). There’s an insidious belief that women who “choose” to stay home will have happier, better adjusted kids and–by extension–a happier husband/man-person. Because women are–to this day–expected to serve and serve with a smile.
It’s no better for the mothers who DO stay at home with their kids–either by choice, out of financial necessity, or out of social pressure–because they’re the victims of career-shaming. Questions such as, “what do you plan to do when the kids go to school?” and “since you’ve been out of the workforce for so long, how will you ever get another job?” and “what do you do all day?” are commonplace for stay-at-home moms. “It’s too bad you’re wasting your degree/skills/experience by staying home” is another one of my favorites. Gee, THANKS A LOT shaming village, for assuming that taking care of children is a “waste” of time/experience and for negating the fact that many of us are fulfilled by the time we spend with our children.
Summary: Mothers/Women Cannot Win
Here’s what I’ve learned: society will criticize any decision you make regarding your children. If you go back to work, you’re not putting your children first. If you stay home, you’re not tending to your career. You can’t win, so let’s just ignore all of that. Let’s throw these expectations and stereotypes out and start fresh.
Today I’m going to share what I do for childcare and why it works for me and my family at this point in our lives. This is not a condemnation of people who do something different. This is not a judgement of people who do the same thing. Rather, this is an honest rendering of the struggles I’ve had with deciding what to do with my children all day, every day (it’s a lot of hours, people).
What works for your family might not work for the next family. What you believe is best for you and for your children might not be best for your neighbor’s family. There is space for divergent viewpoints here, we respect those differing opinions, and we allow room for everyone to sit at this table. So let’s get to it.
There are also economic realities surrounding this discussion and for many families, this is not a choice at all. Some families do not have the luxury or privilege of even entertaining the idea of both parents working, or of one parent staying home. I know that for some families, the choice to have two working parents isn’t a choice at all–it’s a financial necessity. And I know that for other families, the choice to have one parent stay home isn’t a choice either–it’s a financial necessity. This conversation isn’t intended to ignore the financial imperatives that force many families into their childcare arrangements. I’m aware that the ability to choose– the ability to even consider options–is a luxury and a privilege in and of itself.
Your Feelings Might Change (Mine Have)
How you feel about parenting/working is likely to change over time as your children age, your career evolves, and you do/do not have additional children. And that’s ok! It is ok to be a person who changes and evolves! In fact, I consider it a sign of maturity. I say this because I, myself, have changed my mind quite a few times since having our first daughter four years ago.
Before we had kids, and especially before we had two kids, I knew I’d want to stay home with them full-time. After actually having children, I felt differently. I also know plenty of moms who discovered the inverse: they knew they’d want to go back to work after having kids and then, once they had them, they decided they wanted to stay home.
All that to say, it’s often not a linear, black-and-white decision-making process. Plus, you’re usually making this decision before your first child is even born. So you’re positing what you might or might not want to do with the rest of your life based on a yet-to-be-met small human being who will take one look at you and scream for milk. And if you’re birthing a child, your hormones are in a bizarre place. Sounds like an ideal recipe for making a great life choice.
I Pay For Childcare and I’m Proud Of It
At present, we pay for two days per week of daycare for Littlewoods (age two) and Kidwoods (age four) attends free preschool at our local elementary school. In my book, I talked about how proud I was that we didn’t pay for childcare for our first daughter. Now I’m writing about how proud I am that we DO pay for childcare for our second daughter. This wasn’t an easy transition for me. I equated spending money on something I could do myself (watch my kids) with failure as both a mother and a financial writer. After all, I’m the queen of insourcing and DIY and I’ve written–and still believe to an extent–in stuff like the following:
Paying for services cements your reliance on money and distances you from your most valuable teammate: your partner. Instead of using chores as an opportunity to grow closer, you’re using money to make the daily realities of your life less real (source: Day 24 of my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge).
But there has to be some gray area. There has to be some nuance in how we apply the concept of insourcing. What I’ve realized is that it’s not a frugal failure to pay for something I can do myself. It’s a frugal evolution. Spending money to enable something that matters to me is frugality. Spending money in alignment with my highest and best priorities is frugality. At least, it’s my style of frugality for right now. I love my work and I love my kids. I need time for both.
What We’ve Done Over The Years
Since having Kidwoods four years ago, we’ve utilized a variety of childcare options:
I worked from home as a part-time freelance writer until Kidwoods was two years old. This worked OK because she took three (and then two) naps per day, which gave me several solid blocks of time to write.
When she turned two (and I was pregnant with her little sister), Kidwoods started going to a preschool program two mornings a week. She loved it, we loved it, and we expanded that to four mornings a week. I was writing my book at the time and needed more uninterrupted blocks of time to hammer out chapters.
Littlewoods was born and I continued to write part-time while she napped, hung out on my chest in the baby carrier, or nursed (I would wedge the My Brest Friend pillow between my body and the table, baby would nurse while I typed, baby would fall asleep and nap, and I would continue working). This mode worked super well for me while my kids were infants.
In fall 2019, Kidwoods started going to all-day preschool for three days a week at our local public elementary school, which offers a free preschool program. She loved it so much that we’ve since expanded it to five full days (Monday through Friday). I was keeping her home on Fridays so that she had a ‘home day,’ but she kept requesting to go to school on Fridays and started lobbying her teachers to tell her parents that she could come on Fridays, so now she goes every day.
At that point (fall 2019), we decided to put Littlewoods into daycare two days per week. At age two, Littlewoods has hit the point where it’s almost impossible to work while she’s around. I found that with both of my kids, it wasn’t a problem to work when they were babies (babies sleep a lot, or like to be worn in the baby carrier, or will hang out in their bouncy seat and giggle at toys). Toddlers, on the other hand, do zero of those things.
I’ve started to notice that at age four, Kidwoods is amenable to drawing, painting or reading at the table next to me while I work. She likes to tell me that she has a conference call and that I need to be quiet–this suits both of us quite well. Since she’s in preschool full-time, I don’t usually work when she’s around, but her ability to play in parallel to me working is ideal for our many, many (many) snow and sick days.
In terms of other types of childcare, we’re beyond fortunate to have an adopted grandma neighbor who spends one morning a week with Littlewoods (she did so with Kidwoods before pre-school was full-time). This same fairy godmother of a person comes over one evening a month (after we put the kids to bed) so that Mr. FW and I can go out on a date night!! This once-a-month date night works well for us and, thus far, we haven’t hired a babysitter (not to say that we won’t in the future).
Once or twice a year, my in-laws watch the girls for a few days so that Mr. Frugalwoods and I can go on a kid-free vacation together. These little trips are miraculous and we credit them with helping us retain and strengthen our marriage (we celebrate twelve years in June!). If we didn’t have an adopted local grandma and our parents to offer this luxury childcare to enable time alone together, I think we’d struggle with maintaining our connection to each other.
Rounding out our childcare arrangements is my massage/childcare coop, whereby a massage therapist comes to my friend’s house and we take turns watching one another’s kids while the other mama receives a massage. We do this once a month and the arrangement is genius!
For everything else that we need/prefer to do kid-free (dentist appointments, volunteering, book club, ladies’ night, etc), Mr. FW and I trade off watching the kids. We have a shared online calendar and we plan out our volunteer/social commitments so that one parent is always available to be home with the kids.
Not having family members nearby is tough and I envy friends who can drop their kids off at the grandparent’s house anytime. But, we feel very fortunate for the community we’ve built here and there are at least ten people within a mile that I could call to help out with the kids at a moment’s notice.
Undergirding all of this is the balanced division of labor that my husband and I have. We share household and childcare duties as equally as possible (he does drop-off, I do pick-up; he puts Kidwoods to bed, I put Littlewoods to bed; he cooks, I do laundry; he grocery shops, I clean), which has made all of these configurations and reconfigurations tenable over the years. We approach childcare as something that’s the responsibility of both parents and we’ve made these choices together over the years in accordance with what feels best for our family at each point in time. Before having kids, I (erroneously) assumed we’d be in one static mode until they went to kindergarten. Now, I realize that every year–every season, actually–is different. To that end, I’m still not sure what we’re going to do this summer since we don’t want full-time childcare, but part-time for both girls would be ideal… Like I said, it’s ever fluid.
Lean Into The Phase Of Life You’re In
I’m all about Leaning Into The Phase of Life You’re In (I put it in all caps because I’m trying to make it a Thing). I cannot operate in the same way I did when I was single, when we were pre-children, when I lived in New York City, when we had one child–I have to adapt and change with each new iteration of my life. Sure, I’m the same person, but I am constantly adjusting my routines and decisions. I need to make my life work for me based on the restrictions, parameters, and benefits of whatever phase I’m in.
My kids won’t be little forever, they won’t need expensive childcare forever, so I’m leaning into this phase. This is what I need, what they need right now. More to the point: this is what we’re choosing to do right now. Will we choose something different next year? Maybe so! In my opinion, being flexible, being willing to admit I was wrong, and being willing to try new things is what facilitates a full, enjoyable life.
Less Time With My Kids Makes Me A Better Mom
Getting diagnosed and treated for my postpartum depression was the first step in the process of recognizing that I needed (and wanted) to pay for childcare. Prior to taking medication to treat my depression and anxiety, I vacillated between a fierce, over-protective guarding of my kids and an apathetic desire to never spend time with them. I wasn’t rational and everything I did was weighted down by the fog and lies of depression.
After treatment lifted the curtain of self-doubt, remorse, and anger, I was like, “Oh! I think I’d be a better mom, a better human, if I had some time to myself to work every week. Let’s make that happen!” And my sweet, patient, loving husband was like, “Yes! I’ve been saying this for years! Let’s visit daycares tomorrow.”
Mr. FW has long been in favor of paying for part-time care for our kids because he could see that I wanted more time alone to work. But until my depression was treated, I saw paid childcare as a weakness and an indication that I’d failed as a mother. I’m here to say this loud and clear for anyone struggling with this:
Taking your kids to daycare/preschool/nanny/grandma’s house does NOT mean you’ve failed as a parent. It does not mean you’re any less of a parent. It does not mean you don’t love your kids.
The inverse is equally true:
Staying home with your kids–and not working outside the home–does NOT mean you’ve failed as a person. It does not mean you’re any less of a person. It does not mean you don’t have interests/passions/skills/hobbies outside of your role as parent.
I need balance and I need time away from my beautiful children. You guys, I need a chance to miss them. When I’m away from them, I’m 100% focused on my work. When I’m with them, I try to be 100% focused on them. Before, I was in constant bifurcation. I was trying to write while they played, trying to reply to emails while they ate lunch, and trying to have conference calls with them on my lap (in case you’re wondering, that does not work).
Constant multi-tasking made me exhausted and angry. It’s impossible to do both things well at the same time. Now that I have dedicated work days, it’s much easier for me to have the time, and more crucially the mental energy, to fully engage with the kids when I’m not working.
Is this THE BEST, the MOST RIGHT thing for my children? I don’t know. But I do know that they’re better off with parents who aren’t exhausted, angry, and stressed all the time. I think “Happiest Parent On The Block” is a book someone should write. There’s such an ultra-focus on making our children happy and on raising them RIGHT and on micromanaging their social, emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, and mathematical development, but precious little devoted to, you know, keeping their parents alive, fed, and sane.
Personal Fulfillment, Success, and the Making of Money: All OK
For way too long, our culture has denigrated the success of women. Women aren’t supposed to want to make money, be leaders, or experience success. Women are supposed to tend to the successes of others, to nurture, support, and provide the framework for success to thrive. You can guess what word I’d like to employ to describe my feelings on that… You’ll have to guess because Frugalwoods is a PG sort of place.
There is NOTHING WRONG with wanting to earn money, with wanting to have a career, with wanting to find fulfillment outside of traditional support roles. There’s also NOTHING WRONG with finding deep fulfillment from NOT working outside the home. The key is having the ability to make a conscious choice that aligns with your values, that fosters your priorities, that’s financially tenable, and frankly, that makes you happy.
The only person who’s really and truly going to care how your lived your life is you. So you’d better do what works for you. Also, your kids might care a little bit, but as Kidwoods put it so aptly the other day: “Why do I have to come home with you after school? The after-school program has cookies! I want to stay for the cookies!”
How do you manage childcare? What decisions have your grappled with in this balancing act?
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