I Fought For Paid Parental Leave In My Town. Then Came The Child Care Costs.

Kristin Dunn is an elected official and mother of two young children. Here's how she fought for change and shares the division of labor in her home.

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 in order to meet their families’ needs.

In order 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 parents@huffpost.com.

Kristin Dunn and her family.
Kristin Dunn
Kristin Dunn and her family.

Name: Kristin Dunn

Age: 33

Children’s ages: 5 years and 15 months

Location: North Carolina

Occupation: Dunn works as a housing manager at a domestic violence shelter. She also serves as an elected commissioner for the town of Laurel Park, and she receives a small stipend for this role. Her husband works at a company that produces automotive suspension products.

Annual household income: $100,000

Monthly household take-home pay: $6,390

Monthly child care costs: $1,580

Child care plan: Both children attend the same full-day childcare center, where the family receives a sibling discount. The 5-year-old will begin year-round kindergarten later this year. While this will lower monthly daycare payments, it raises the issue of what the family will do during school vacations, which comprise a total of 14 weeks out of the year.

During the summer, “she’s gonna probably do a day camp until three in the afternoon,” Dunn said. She acknowledges her privilege in being able to pick her daughter up at 3 p.m., but notes that camp costs will add up quickly. She added that their monthly mortgage payment, at $1,627 per month, is only slightly more than what they currently pay for childcare.

Work arrangement: Dunn’s job is 36 hours a week, and her husband works is 39 and a half hours. For an upcoming annual day off, Dunn said, “I don’t have paid time off yet because I [just] started [the job], so we’ll just think about whether he’s gonna go into the office for three hours, and then I might go into the office for three hours. When the childcare center is closed, we usually have a flex schedule.”

On a normal day, “we get the kids out the door, and if they get to school by 8:15 a.m., they can also have school breakfasts. My daughter likes to have two breakfasts every morning. Then I get to my office at 8:30 a.m. If I have late meetings, he’s been able to do pickup at 5 p.m. A lot of the time he’s coordinating with the supervisor. I’m salary, he’s hourly. [On] Friday afternoon to be like, ‘Who’s going to pick up the kids?’ is a pretty normal conversation. [This week] he said, ‘Well, I took her to dance earlier this week. So I took off an hour early earlier this week. I’m gonna work a full Friday.’

“We are very good co-parents. I think that we’re really lucky to live in 2024. And our house is a mile from [my work], daycare’s a mile in the other direction, so we are really lucky.”

What would have helped her family: When she began her term as commissioner in 2021, Dunn had one small child, and successfully advocated for an increase of paid time off for family and medical leave. “When they showed me the policies, I said, ‘Well, I think that we can increase these standards.’ So the really big push that I made was to say that we would have six weeks of paid FMLA for all full-time employees of the town government.”

“I had done a lot of research with the local nonprofits and [realized] if we’re going to be competitive, if we’re going to be a workforce that people want to stay at, how can we implement [paid parental leave]? I remember calling the mayor on his cell phone, and he said, ‘Well, we follow all laws.’ And so I said, ’Well, can we do a presentation to everybody? Because the laws are not meeting basic minimums.’ So we had a staff member do a presentation with a university student, and after everybody on Council heard the presentation, they voted 100% yes to support paid FMLA.”

It was not the first time Dunn had successfully advocated for paid parental leave. During her first pregnancy, she was working at a non-profit and “got four paid weeks to be the written standard” at that organization.

When she was pregnant a second time, with her son, she was working at another agency. There, she said, she was told there was nothing in the budget for paid leave.

“I had signed up for short-term disability and I think I got pregnant 17 days later. You had to have the policy for a full 10 months before they would pay you anything. The insurance agent, he was really nervous. He said, ‘If you give birth, on the last day of August,’ he said ‘I can’t pay a dime.’ I gave birth September 12th to my son, and he was so nervous. He was like, ‘Our policy almost won’t pay for this leave.’ But we made it. My son stayed in there a little longer. By 12 days I made it. Not a stress someone needs at the end of their pregnancy, especially when they already have another small child.”

When it comes to the division of labor at home, Dunn believes having more equity will require systemic change — and that starts with paid leave. “I will tell my husband at times where, maybe I’m folding the laundry by myself again, I would say, ‘Do you know that I’m folding laundry by myself because of systems? It’s not because you’re not a co-parent, but I was the one who had leave with my babies. I learned my baby’s cues more than you did.’”

Dunn said she was grateful to see men who work for her town “paving the way” by taking six weeks of paid leave when their children were born after the leave policies were changed.

“If you really want two-parent households to be successful, then you have to start treating both parents as the primary parent. That’s in the workplace and that’s with work-life balance, and that’s my husband being like, ‘Maybe I’m the one taking the kid to dance class every week.’”

Another challenge for families is the availability of high-quality child care. “In Henderson County where I reside, we have around 2,000 babies born every year. And we have 70 infant spots in licensed childcare centers.” When Dunn brought up these numbers in a a community meeting, “the older males were like, ‘Where do these babies go?’ and I was like, ‘Well, this is why your colleagues don’t come back to work.’

“We have had two centers close in December in our county alone, because they couldn’t afford to stay open anymore. At the same time, you’re seeing these waiting lists.”

Government subsidies could help open up more childcare spots and retain workers, who Dunn says are underpaid at $13 an hour. She calls them “the workforce behind the workforce,” and understands how hard their jobs are: She spent five weeks between jobs working part-time at her children’s daycare center.

“After I put in my notice at a job, my next job wasn’t going to start for a little while. And so one morning, I dropped off my children. I looked at the director and I said, ‘Do you need any help?’ And before I could like finish talking, she started furiously nodding.” She said Dunn could work as many hours as she liked.

Dunn calls her five weeks of part-time work “humbling.” Her last paycheck there was for $260.

“It’s not easy. It’s very labor intensive. And when you do the math, you couldn’t afford to live in your community.”

In spite of the low pay, Dunn says that when she crunched the numbers, “one of the smartest budgets would have just been for me to work in childcare, right when I had both of them. Because I wouldn’t be paying that high tuition [if my children attended at no cost]. That was wild, that you could go from being an executive director at a nonprofit to that all of a sudden being like, ‘I make $13 an hour [and] it makes more more sense, since I’m not paying tuition.’ I’ve heard many families say that they could not afford to pay for two kids [in child care].

“One thing that we’ve done in my house is that my daughter will tell anyone in the community when she needs clothes to be mended, she says that Daddy is going to get out the sewing kit. It’s like a like a myth that she’s learning to dispel because she’s never had a mom sew her clothing. I’m really proud of these tiny little micro-changes within a household.”

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