Why is reliable and affordable child care so hard to find?

It’s no secret that many parents heavily rely on childcare in order to work outside of the home.  And one of the most common pieces of advice that every working mom-to-be gets is “find reliable childcare”.  While this may seem obvious, actually finding both reliable AND affordable childcare is very, very difficult.  But how can this be true?  Working mothers have been in the workplace for decades so shouldn’t support systems, including childcare options, have caught up to address their need of reliability and affordability?  Well, not really.  And here’s why:

Childcare providers are people, not robots.  As difficult as it is for us to figure out how to balance work and life, our childcare providers need to, too.  So if you hire a full time nanny, he or she is inevitably going to fall sick at least once or twice a year, or they may have an unforseen personal issue to address.  They may need to take a vacation, and that vacation may need to be at a time when you are not taking vacation.  In fact, childcare providers have many of the same needs that we have as employees or business owners – after all, they are working professionals as well.  But what that means is that there will be a small degree of variability in their reliability – and that degree of variability can cause immense amounts of stress on working parents.

So what can you do about it?  Set clear expectations from the get go when you hire a nanny or childcare provider.  If you need punctuality, make that clear.  Unlike other jobs where there when and how you work is less important than results, childcare doesn’t have that characteristic.  Be understanding, but figure out how to work around life challenges.  Agree to vacations, but insist that planned vacations need to be agreed to one month in advance.  As for sick days, I used to ask my nanny to call me even if she thinks she might be sick the next day (if she was able to predict) because any notice to find a back up is better than no notice at all. Find a back up care option.  This could be you and your significant other each working half days, arranging a work from home option with your work in case of emergency, a retired friend or relative willing to step in, or having daycare center with a drop in option.  Check out sites like Urban Sitter or Care.com that can help with emergency back up care options.  If you can afford it, and this is what many well off executives do, have more than one nanny.  That way you’re always covered no matter what.  Affordable?  Not for many.

Daycare facilities don’t allow sick children to attend.  Daycares help take some of the reliability issues away – with a daycare you have guaranteed care on any day that it’s open and a huge plus is that for up to two children, this option is usually more affordable than a full time nanny.  However, if your child falls sick, you’re pretty much screwed.  Most daycares won’t let you bring a child with a fever, vomiting or if they are very visibly ill.  And this policy makes sense – no one wants to spread illnesses around, but it wrecks havoc on a working parent.  Not only do you have to take time off work to care for a sick child, you may run the risk of getting sick yourself and then having to either take more time off to recover or find a way to work through it.  (Believe me, we’ve all been there.)  Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurence.  Most children, in their early years, can easily fall sick between four to ten times a year between respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, and this is on the higher end for children in daycare.

Is there much you can do about this?  There isn’t much you can do to ensure your children never fall sick, but ensure you have good care options when they do need to stay home can help.  Find a friend or a relative that’s willing to watch them while you at least put in six hours or so.  Don’t forget to wash you hands and be particularly careful about hygiene when your kids are sick.  Nothing is worse than falling sick after you’ve just spent your sick leave caring for someone else.  One new reality we have to face in the 24/7 connected environment is that most employees, while they may stay home when sick, will keep working.  The results oriented focus means that sick or not, personal issue or not, children or not – you still have to deliver at all costs if you want to keep your reputation, promotional opportunities, guard your salary and bonus, or in some case, just to keep your job in this tough economy.

Your kids, your problem.  Sadly, many workplaces take on an attitude of “your kids, your problem.”  And this makes sense, your children are not your employer’s responsibility and there is no agreement that your workplace needs to take into account the reliability or lack thereof of childcare options.  Some offices have taken this to heart and introduced amazing, on-site childcare options and back up nanny on call services, but they are in the minority.  What’s worse, many working parents feel afraid to even bring up these challenges at work when they experience difficulty for fear of being parent-tracked, or calling attention to anything that could be perceived as them not being 100% committed to their job.

What to do?  Work for as empathetic an employer as you can.  Sometimes, companies with younger cultures where a majority of the employees don’t have children are immune to the challenges you’ll face.  Try to find companies that allow you to work from home 50% of the week or more, or that have flexible policies that everyone is taking part in (e.g. 80/9 work week).  When considering positions, don’t get confused by perks that are focused on productivity at work vs. policies that are in place to help you really have a life outside of work while maintaining your career.  There really is no easy answer to this one, but take heart – it’s not just parents that struggle with this.  Anyone that has any commitment outside of the workplace (eldercare, personal hobby, etc.) has a hard time with this.

The cost of childcare is astronomical, and the way standardised childcare works doesn’t make sense for the new 24/7 global, connected culture.  Standard childcare is available primarily during business hours unless you hire a baby sitter or nanny that can help you outside of those hours.  Have a global job and need to take unplanned calls from 6am to 7am or 7pm to 8pm?  Good luck finding a babysitter that is willing to work for one hour at a time or “on demand” with little to no notice.  Services are catching up with the “on demand” part – Urban Sitter boasts that most job postings receive enquiries within 15 minutes of posting, and you can manage payments entirely through their system.  But they don’t solve the issue of what childcare providers would really want to take on a job at the very last minute for less than three hours.  And, after paying for steady daycare during the day, hiring anyone additional after hours isn’t affordable for everyone.  Night care? It’s available, if you have about $200 or more a night.

What can you do?  Coordinate schedules with your significant other if you have one.  Define who’s going to be lead parent so that both your careers don’t take hits.  Find a work at home position if you can, and preferably a job that’s more focused on your local market vs. global.  Avoid business travel where you can – travel is expensive for parents when companies don’t provide childcare (or even petcare) costs.  Have faith the economy will catch up.  Companies like Trusted and Urban Sitter are already swooping in.  In India, 24 hour childcare centers are now available for busy dual-income families.  If the thought of someone else putting your child to bed every night doesn’t sit well with you, that makes sense.  I don’t love the idea of it either.  The other option is to push back at work and set firm boundaries.  Last minute childcare is not an option for all.

Until things change (and eventually they will have to), the affordable, reliable, and practical choices for many working parents are still few when it comes to childcare.  Let’s hope this changes sooner than later!



Categories: Diversity, My Thoughts

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