The first time I walked into Kim Perrelli’s office in Ocean Township, New Jersey, it was hard not to notice the babies. Perrelli is executive director of Child Care Resources of Monmouth County, a nonprofit that helps people access affordable childcare. While it’s not a childcare center, the organization’s policy is that new parents can bring infants to work with them for the first six months after birth or until they’re mobile. After that, the office welcomes children as needed by the parents.
While some may think having children in the office would be disruptive, Perrelli says that’s not the case at all. “Babies are quite content when they’re with their parents,” she says. “With the intention behind this program, it just works. And not only does it work for mom and baby, the entire workplace benefits, even the skeptics.” With infant care averaging roughly $13,000 per year in her area (in nearby New York City, the average is over $16,000 a year), a six-month period where parents don’t need to pay for care is a benefit worth thousands.
The rising cost of care
Parents are increasingly looking for ways to help defray the escalating cost of childcare. A July 2018 survey by Care.com found that one-third of respondents spend 20% or more of their household income on childcare. Childcare is not affordable for 7 in 10 families, and one-third of the survey’s respondents said the cost of childcare either caused them to wait longer to have children or have fewer children than they would have liked. The survey reports that the average weekly cost for an infant child is $211 for a daycare center, $195 for a family care center, and $580 for a nanny. Job search website ZipRecruiter pegs the average national weekly salary for nannies at $627. Analysis by real estate website HotPads.com finds that the average cost of childcare is almost as much as the $1,500 national average for rent in the U.S.
The Child Care and Development Fund provides a block grant to every state to assist low-income working families with childcare access and improve quality of care, but just 1 in every 6 families who are eligible for assistance actually receive it, says Grace Reef, president of Early Learning Policy, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based government relations group focused on issues affecting families with children. Funding only goes so far, and “so, as the cost goes up, you’re helping fewer children,” Reef says.
But even middle-income families, and families with higher earnings, struggle with the cost, forcing them to make tough choices. The Care.com survey found that 26% of respondents either would or have put themselves in debt to pay for childcare, and 41% of parents report making major budget cuts to pay for care.
Sharing the care
For podiatrists Shannon Cairns and her husband, Daniel, three children under the age of 5 in daycare meant a nearly $2,800 monthly childcare bill. While it may seem like the two-doctor family could foot that bill with ease, the couple is trying to get their private practice in Watauga, Texas, to grow, and each has large student loans, so the cost was a struggle. They switched to part-time daycare which cut their bill to $1,500 per month for three children, but that didn’t leave Shannon with enough time to work effectively.
Neither wanted to leave their medical career entirely, so the couple decided to split their time in the practice. They stagger their hours so one of them is home with the children while the other is in the office. Their oldest son, who will attend kindergarten in September, attends preschool for the social aspects at a cost of roughly $800 per month.
The relatively new arrangement is not easy, Shannon admits. Sometimes, one spouse’s hospital rounds happen at 5 a.m. before the other goes to work. “You don’t think about [having a large family] going into it. Oh, the cost of childcare is going to be a lot and it’s going to be really hard,” she says.
Elizabeth Malson, founder of Sarasota, Florida-based Almslee Institute, a nanny training center, says she’s also seeing more families share nannies. It’s not a proportional decrease in cost–nannies typically get paid more based on the number of children in their care. However, on average, Malson says families may decrease their costs by roughly 25% by sharing nanny services, and the nanny gets the benefit of steadier work.
Some parents are finding other creative ways to manage childcare costs. Child-friendly coworking spaces are catching on. In-home daycare is one option some parents choose, especially for young children, Reef says. Childcare co-operatives are created and owned by employees and may provide care at a lower cost in some cases. Their structure may range from services similar to babysitting to more academically structured programs.
Asking the right questions
Regardless of the arrangement that works for you, Reef says there are some important questions to ask about the childcare situation. First and foremost, is the caretaker licensed? State requirements for childcare worker licensing and training vary, but at a minimum, a licensed worker has had a background check and isn’t a known risk to children.
Also, think and ask about safety. What measures does the caretaker or facility provide for child safety, and how closely are children supervised? Are the caretakers trained in CPR? If you’re visiting a facility or in-home daycare, do the children look happy? Are the staff members engaged with them? What background do they have in child development? Increasingly, both parents and legislators are recognizing that early childcare is more than just support for working parents–it’s a learning opportunity, Reef says.
“Over the last couple of decades, childcare has gone from a work support for parents so that parents can get a job and keep a job, to also recognizing that all the brain development that happens in those earliest years really matter to set the foundation for future school success,” she says. “And that’s why it’s important to ask questions.”