Ask any American with young children what their No. 1 household expense is, and you’ll hear the same answer almost every time: child care. Each family finds its own way to manage. Some parents are pushed out of the workforce. Others work jobs they wouldn’t take otherwise, or hold down multiple jobs to meet their families’ needs.
To show you how real families are navigating this child care challenge, HuffPost is profiling parents around the country. If you’d like to be featured in an installment, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Deanna Conley
Location: Newport, Rhode Island
Children’s ages: 9 and 6 years old
Child care plan: Both children attend public school. The family’s child care costs this year consisted of preschool tuition for the younger child before he started kindergarten and a couple of weeks of half-day summer camp.
Child care costs: When she was just starting out with her business, Conley said she probably spent more money on child care than she was making. “Now, I’d estimate probably half of my salary goes to child care,” she said.
Work arrangement: “I’ve been an educator since 2000. Right now I run my own business as a special ed advocate.
“I used to work full time as a teacher. And then when I went back to school for my doctorate, I switched to [65% full time] so I could do full-time school plus teaching a little more than part time. Our oldest was born around that time. Once I finished school, I went back full time as a special ed coordinator.”
The family was able to access subsidized child care through the U.S. Navy, her husband’s employer, although they had to rely on Conley’s mother to pitch in and fill the gap between the time her maternity leave ended and when they got off the day care waitlist. Then, her husband was offered the opportunity to transfer to the Newport office, which the family had been hoping for, so they picked up and moved from Virginia when Conley was eight months pregnant.
“I landed here in the middle of the school year. So for that first year we were here, I called myself an accidental stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t what I planned. It was wonderful time with my youngest. We did end up enrolling my older son in preschool because we were getting close to kindergarten and we wanted to make sure that he had some foundational skills. That’s when I was trying to start my business, because I had a rare opportunity to not be employed by a school system, to kind of create my own path. Those were tricky years because preschool hours were 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. But because I was starting out, I had just a few clients. I would try to make my hours within his hours.
“Now my business has grown and it’s a full-time-job-plus, which is wonderful. Because I run it myself I can again set my hours.” She found a child care center run by the Haven Collection that offered flexible hours and workspace for parents. “For someone like me who ran my own business, I didn’t have to commute. I could work at the same place at the same time. So that was a big help, until he graduated. I cried.”
Conley’s work and child care arrangements lost their stability during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I worked from home and my husband did too, and we kept them both home for like a year and a half — it’s kind of a blur.”
Eventually, their older son enrolled in public school and they found a full-day pre-K program for their youngest. Her older son got on the bus at 8:05 a.m. and was dropped off at 3:15 p.m., so Conley was able to work every day until 2:30, when she needed to “start the pickups.”
“The good part about [my business] is that it kind of matches school hours. There are some days I have to call my husband to do pickup so that I can keep working. The bad part is, my workday doesn’t end at 2:30 p.m. So I’m essentially trying to do a full-time job from ... 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day, which means sometimes I work after they go to bed to try to make up those hours. The blessing is I can create my own hours. The con is school hours don’t match real-life work.”
The parents she works with as an advocate, for example, often call her around 3 p.m., after they are getting home with their own children from school. Conley said she has considered hiring a nanny to cover these after-school hours. “I would almost rather work after they go to bed and finagle it, but we’ve definitely had that conversation: quality of life, sanity.”
What would help her family: “Everyone talks about this village, but there really isn’t a village and I get really mad when I hear the term, like ‘your village.’ We have wonderful friends. We have wonderful family. But the reality is, our parents don’t live in the same state as us — no fault of their own, it’s just how it is. Everyone around us is also doing the same hustle, trying to work and care for kids.
“When things are going well, and we have the predictability of 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., I’m like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ But it’s the unexpected parts of life that no one has any support systems in place for: when your kids get sick, when the whole family is sick. Whenever there’s sort of a bump in the road we have to get really creative. The pandemic helped in some ways in that regard, because we did it all on our own. We worked from home, we took care of the kids ... we got almost skilled in this emergency child care response. Now, last year, my son’s private school calendar was totally not aligned with the public school calendar. And it was terrible. Every month I would do our calendar and just be like, ‘OK, how are we going to juggle this month?’
“I think our biggest obstacle is the unexpected, and there not being a safety net, ever. There’s no person to call, but life still goes on. The people I work with, rightfully, need help with their kids. It’s not their issue that I have kids home sick or kids on vacation. You feel like you’re constantly on a tightrope and you don’t know when you’re gonna fall off.
“When you’re planning to have children, you’re aware of the need to create a college fund, like everybody talks about. You need to plan for college when you’re having kids, but you have 18 years to generate that fund. No one ever warns you about the cost of early child care. And if you’re lucky, you have three months to plan for that, maybe nine months if you’re really on top of it. Nobody talks about it, but your hands are tied. You’re gonna quit your job, or you’re gonna have to pay.
“Developmentally speaking, this is the most critical and vulnerable time frame for kids’ development: 0 to 3. As a society, we’re wildly failing. Parents shouldn’t be just trying to find the cheapest option and putting Band-Aids on child care. That should be when we’re coming together as a society and we are creating the richest, fullest experience — because that is setting the stage for the kids’ entire future. I feel like we need to equally value, or even, I’d say more value, those early years than we do college. As a society, we’re just missing the mark.”