I’m A Single Mother With A Ph.D., And ‘I Literally Worked Seven Days A Week’ To Make Ends Meet

"At times I would be in the middle of teaching and I would see him writing on the wall. But there’s only so many things you can control at once."

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.

Sherrie Bain and her son.
Sherrie Bain
Sherrie Bain and her son.

Name: Sherrie Bain

Age: 46

Child’s age: 6

Location: Monterey, California

Annual household income: $60,000 this year, as she was finishing her dissertation. In previous years, she did more paid work and earned about $90,000 per year.

Child care costs: Currently none, as Bain watches her son after school at home while she works. However, she anticipates spending $300 to $400 a month on after-school care in 2024.

Work arrangements: Bain is a microbiologist with a Ph.D. in health sciences who has worked primarily in academia. Most recently, she was the senior microbiologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“At the moment, I’m doing some consulting work with a biotech company that’s based in Florida. That’s been my primary source of income since I’ve been taking time off to to write my dissertation over the summer.”

Child care plan: “I’m a single mom. My relationship with my son’s biological dad ended when I was two months pregnant. He’s had limited parental involvement and financial involvement. Primarily I have been my son’s parent.”

Her son, who Bain described as “intellectually-oriented,” skipped first grade and is now in second grade.

“This semester is really the first time that I have not paid for his education, because I’ve had him in a private school up until now. When he was an infant, I was fortunate enough to have child care from my family members. So I had them rotate in and out for the first six months, which was really helpful. But after that, tuition for a day care was about $500 per week. That was definitely more than half my income at the time, but you have to weigh what’s the best environment for your child and try to find what’s going to be most suitable, even if it’s beyond your budget at times. That’s how I looked at it in order to be able to say, ‘I just have to maybe stagger a few bills as best as possible.’ [Child care has] always been a huge, significant part of my expenses.”

Because Bain currently works from home, she hasn’t used after-school care.

“But realistically, starting in the new year it’s probably something that I’m going to have to utilize. That’s probably around $300 or $400 a month. And then, of course, looking at things like vacation time from school, I’m going to have to factor [that] in. I’ve been very fortunate. I have a lot of siblings and nieces who have been more than happy to rotate in during his vacation times in the past. [But] that may not always be possible in the future. What am I going to do when he has a vacation that’s two weeks and I’m in a full-time position again? That’s going to be something that I have to factor into my budget. He does spend about four weeks with his biological dad, who lives in Maine, in the summers.”

“When I first had him, I switched from working in a university setting because I would have to sometimes do evening teaching. So I started teaching high school, just to have a little bit more flexibility in terms of my vacations and so on. But it was still a lot of things to navigate with his vacation times that may or may not have coincided with my vacation times, because even at that young age sometimes the daycares will close for two weeks at some point where they have to give their employees time off.”

Bain pulled her son from several day care centers due to a variety of concerns before finding one where she felt comfortable keeping him. At one center, for example, she began getting called every Friday afternoon to pick up her son because he was sick, only to find him perfectly well when she arrived. Eventually, she realized that the day care was short-staffed and were rotating out which children they had on site in order to comply with child-to-caregiver ratios.

“By the second or third day of taking him [to one center], he started to become really anxious when we would pull up to the building. And at first I thought, he’s just getting used to the place, but he has never been a kid who would cry or be upset when I left him at school. My mom instincts told me that something was happening in the day care. Then I got a call the next day saying that a child had bitten him on the cheek. He had this huge bite mark on his cheek. The next day when I pulled up to that particular place — keep in mind, he’s two-and-a-half years old — he started trembling in his car seat and I just called my boss and I said, ‘I’m not coming in today.’ I ended up having to cut my hours at work until I was able to enroll him in his third school, which turned out to be great.”

He was there until Bain relocated for a better-paying job, which is when she found a pre-K that cost $2,800 a month. “I literally worked seven days a week. I took extra assignments at school, I would do aromatherapy [sales], anything that I could find to supplement my primary income. Anything where I was able to work online, I would do that, so that I would have the income but not have to be concerned about paying for additional child care. ... It was a wonderful environment, and I don’t regret the financial sacrifice — but it was a financial sacrifice.”

During the pandemic, when Bain was working from home, “I ended up just having a little workstation at my dining table for him, so that I could work on my computer online with my students. My wall suffered a lot because at times I would be in the middle of teaching and I would see him writing on the wall. But there’s only so many things you can control at once, and the most important thing for me was that I could be there for him and do something that was also bringing in an income. So if the walls got painted with crayon for a bit, that was fine.”

What would help their family: “I really wish that the private sector would invest in providing some subsidized care for their employees. That would have helped significantly — if I knew he was going to be safe and comfortable, but it wasn’t 100% cost-wise on me. I wish that more employers would do that, and also consider potentially partnering with child care agencies or organizations so employees will be able to have their child in an environment that’s not only safe and affordable, but close by where you’re working, so you may not have to worry about rushing to pick up your child. That’s also been something that I’ve had to consider in terms of where I’ve placed him in the past. I’ve had commutes that were up to maybe an hour and 15 minutes, so I would have to make sure that I had someplace that was close to my job. But then a lot of times it would also mean that it was someplace that was more expensive.”

Employers could also help working parents by being more flexible, Bain said.

“As a microbiologist, I’ve had to work in a laboratory setting a lot. But there are times when I’m writing a report or something like that, [and] I don’t necessarily need to be in a lab. Having the flexibility of saying, ‘OK, I’m gonna designate this day, one day a week, to just work from home’ — especially over the summers — that would be very helpful.”

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