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Full-time Job, Zero Formal Child Care

“It didn’t start this crazy,” says Alexa Luna, a physician’s assistant in Oradell, New Jersey. She tells me her convoluted child-care arrangement began as “a temporary fix” to get through the pandemic. To enable her to work three weekly 12-hour shifts at a hospital 40 minutes away, her husband, Sebastian, a biomedical engineer, drops their two daughters — 3-year-old Violet and 7-month-old Liliana — at her parents’ home on his way to his own workplace two hours away. But Alexa’s parents both have paid jobs of their own. Her mother, Rose, works one 90-minute shift as a school crossing guard in the morning and another in the afternoon. Her father, Max, works full-time for a bank on a hybrid schedule. The grandparents also have a shared side hustle as security staff at MetLife Stadium. When the girls are at their house, Max watches them during Rose’s work shifts. (Both Rose and Max opted to use pseudonyms for this interview, as Max’s employer has communicated that remote employees shouldn’t have child-care duties during working hours.)

Hiccups arise constantly: A half-day of school alters Rose’s crossing-guard schedule or Max has a morning doctor’s appointment or there’s a Monday Night Football game or summer concert at MetLife. “If my mom is working until 3 a.m. and has to get up at 7 a.m. to do her crossing-guard shift, I can’t expect her to watch the girls that day,” says Alexa. On those days, her brother, who lives in Hackensack and works nights and weekends as a physician’s assistant, can usually help out. Or, sometimes, Alexa’s mother-in-law, a small-business owner, misses work to watch the girls. As a last resort, Alexa calls out from work or persuades a co-worker to switch shifts with her.

New data from the U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey found that among parents with children under age 18, about 22 percent said that in the past week, their child care was provided by a relative other than a parent, making it the most popular form of child care in the country. Just over 8 percent reported using a formal day-care center, and about 5 percent said they’d used a babysitter, preschool, or before- or after-care program. The data for relative care was fairly consistent across income brackets (20 percent of those with a household income over $200,000 used a relative for child care, as opposed to 22 percent of those making under $50,000). The use of day-care centers and nursery schools increased as income rose, but still remained an uncommon choice, suggesting that the cost of child care is only one factor in the equation. Perhaps the most surprising figure in the data set: Sixty-one percent of parents said they didn’t have any child care at all, including 35 percent of those with children under age 5 and 54 percent with children ages 5 to 11.

Of course, there are parents who make do without child care or resort to patchwork care because they can’t afford anything else, says Misty Heggeness, an associate professor at the University of Kansas focusing on women and economics and a former senior adviser and economist for the U.S. Census. And programs like Universal Pre-K and Head Start, a free early-learning program that targets low-income families, often don’t provide enough hours to accommodate a working parent’s schedule. If a parent can’t end their day early for pickup, “they aren’t going to be able to use that Head Start seat,” says Natalie Renew, the director of Home Grown, a nonprofit focused on increasing access to home-based child care. “Especially if they have an in-person job.” Just one percent of those in the Household Pulse Survey said they used Head Start as their child care.

But there are also parents who opt for informal care — or work with no child care — because they simply prefer it. Researchers from the U.S. Census posit that there may have been an uptick in this practice since the pandemic, when virtually all parents unwittingly got a taste of it. Alexa would be comfortable sending her kids to formal child care but likes her current arrangement better. “I offered to put my daughter in day care and my mom said ‘no,’” she says. “My parents love having them, honestly. My dad feels lucky that he has had the opportunity to work from home and get to know them.” Her older daughter attends private preschool three days a week, but she still saves $2,250 a month with this arrangement. As a thank-you, Sebastian takes the entire family (including her brothers) out to eat on Friday nights.

“Even if child care were free, we are finding that there is a group of parents that would not take it,” says Linda Smith, director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, which conducts surveys on parent preferences. Both Smith and Renew say there is no silver-bullet child-care offering that can solve the care crisis for working parents; schedules, needs, and means vary from family to family, and most families prefer a solution tailor-made for their setup.

The widespread child-care staffing crisis has likely also contributed to the push for informal care. Child-care workers still receive poverty wages (the average is about $14 an hour nationally), leading to burnout, high turnover, and the destabilization of an already fragile industry. “We are hearing stories from families that if they don’t get to the day-care center first thing in the morning, the center may say there is no seat for you today, or someone called in sick and the classroom is closed,” says Renew. There is no cushion in the system to create reliability. Informal care has more flexibility, particularly in the unpredictable situations of ear infections or snow days. “A sick kid can’t go to day care, but it’s a bit different if it’s Grandma’s,” says Renew.

Informal care has more flexibility, particularly in the unpredictable situations of ear infections or snow days.

Before the pandemic, both of Abby Davisson’s sons, then ages 4 and 7, attended a full day of public school and then went to an extended-day program, which provided child-care coverage from 7:50 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. A babysitter picked the boys up and took them home. The family, who lives in San Francisco, lost all of that child care when the pandemic began in March 2020. When the restrictions were lifted in April 2021, Abby and her husband, Ross, decided against reenrolling their boys or hiring a new babysitter. The kids do still attend camp in the summer and pop into after-care in emergencies.

Opting into this child-care-lite lifestyle required a major overhaul of both parents’ careers. Abby, a corporate executive, published a book and opened her own consulting company; her husband launched his own investment-management firm. They work for themselves on flexible schedules so they can trade off on school pickups and shuttling to school activities. The money for the babysitter was rerouted to a virtual assistant, who, at $600 a month, plans birthday parties, books travel, researches summer camps, gets them quotes on home projects, and helps with business tasks. The couple also moved their boys into a private school, so there has been “zero cost savings,” says Abby. For her, child-care spending was always an “investment in our careers.” Now, the family is investing differently.

Abby says they’ve chosen to opt out of most child care partly because her children benefited from having more downtime at home with their parents. “My older son, who had been having some social challenges at school, really came into his own during the pandemic,” she says. “He was able to recharge his batteries.” She also noticed that her parenting priorities have evolved. “When they’re really little, you can outsource a lot of the ‘jobs’ of care (changing diapers, feeding, putting down for naps) and still keep the ‘relationship’ parts,” she says. But as her kids grew older, she realized she wanted to be around when they wanted to talk, “especially as they get into the phase where they’re developing values.”

For Sarah Feinberg, the “zero-child-care” lifestyle came down to finances and her daughter’s preferences. Feinberg is a single parent by choice who lives just outside of Washington, D.C. Before the pandemic, she paid for two days of an after-care program, relied on grandparents two days a week, and muddled through on Fridays by working remotely and blocking off her calendar from meetings. Post-pandemic, with her daughter, Gali, now in fifth grade, she relies entirely on standing after-school playdates, screen time, and one day of grandparent support, in order to do her job as the chief financial and administrative officer at a nonprofit. She taught Gali to walk home from the school bus stop and installed a keypad lock so that the 10-year-old doesn’t have to carry a key. If she had opted for full-time after-care, it would have cost her $700 a month.

Sometimes Feinberg’s focus gets interrupted or her daughter’s TV time lingers longer than she’d like, but she says that her employer understands that her setup is a financial necessity. As a single parent, she’s been forthright that work will sometimes overlap with her child-care duties when interviewing for jobs. “If a place is like, ‘No, you have to be in the office 9 to 5 always,’ then I know that is not a good place for me,” she says. “I have a kid, and there are some times when I’m going to have to be remote to be with her, but I can still get my work done.”

Other working parents are breaking under the strain of no consistent help and plan to revert to their pre-pandemic strategies. Justin and Jill Bertelson live in Boise, Idaho, and don’t have formal child care for their three kids, ages 6, 4, and 1. The older two are enrolled in part-time preschool and half-day kindergarten, overlapping for only eight hours a week. The couple owns their own business and tries to schedule as many Zoom meetings as they can in their youngest’s morning-nap window. But often the toddler wakes up and interrupts.

They have high-school-age babysitters in the afternoons and on Fridays, but none of them have a formal contract with the family. The schedule constantly changes as the sitters take sick days or make other plans. Jill describes the arrangement as a “headache.” She frequently texts sitters to see if they are coming and then rearranges her schedule when they cancel. The non-working hours she has with her kids are often spent cleaning up after them and prepping meals. (Her babysitters are energetic and enthusiastic, but often leave the house a mess.) Jill is due with her fourth child this June and swears she is going to hire a full-time nanny then. She anticipates that a nanny can pitch in with driving, meal prep, and cleaning and help her invest more time in her own career. She says that she encourages her employees to travel to professional conferences each quarter, but that she struggles to go to any herself. “Often I feel stuck, like this is all we can do,” says Jill.

Heggeness says that employers, and society at large, often have “blinders on” when it comes to the time and energy “parents are putting in to patchwork their own child-care solutions.” Renew adds that policymakers need to revamp affordable child-care advocacy efforts to include the role informal caregivers play, and take into account that child-care solutions will vary for each family and work situation.

There were snowstorms along the East Coast the week I spoke to Alexa, and it upended child care for thousands of people who rely on day cares and schools for their kids, including my own. But Alexa and Sebastian were able to work. Max and Rose watched the girls and even offered to keep them overnight if the snow got worse. Alexa says she and Sebastian are done having kids, but her brother is getting married in May, and once he has children of his own, he plans to use the same arrangement. This time, Alexa may be the one called to fill in the gaps. “By the time he starts having kids, mine will already be in school,” she says.


  • I Know What You Did on the Playground
  • Sick As a Mom

Rebecca Gale , 2024-02-02 13:00:31

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