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How 3 sets of parents found childcare workarounds during COVID-19

From forming a “quaranteam” to enlisting family, parents share the temporary fixes that have helped them navigate working from home during extraordinary times.

How 3 sets of parents found childcare workarounds during COVID-19
[Photos: fizkes/iStock; Wavebreakmedia/iStock; M-image/iStock]

Since the pandemic hit, parents across the country have tried to do the impossible: working from home full-time while caring for their children and overseeing remote learning. More than three months into lockdown, the burnout has set in. For many parents, it feels like there’s no end in sight. A summer without childcare or camp stretches out in front of them—and possibly a return to remote learning or part-time school come fall.

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As daycares and offices begin to reopen, parents are faced with a choice: risk exposing their children to childcare centers, if that’s an option, or continue cobbling together ad hoc childcare arrangements. In cities like New York, where daycare centers are still closed to nonessential workers, there are few to no options for parents who are working from home, leaving countless families in a bind.

This drop in enrollment has also left childcare providers struggling to hang on. An analysis by the Center for American Progress indicates that things may only get worse, even as the economy reopens: Without government aid, an estimated 4.5 million childcare slots—about half the total supply—could disappear.

Many parents who have the ability to work from home recognize their relative privilege, given the circumstances. “I understand how fortunate we are to both still have jobs—and not only to have jobs, but to have jobs with flexible schedules,” says Lindsay Wissman, who has been working out of her Ohio home with a toddler. “It’s a level of privilege I have not overlooked. [But] this is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and I know I’m not alone in that.”

As the support structures they’ve long relied on have been compromised by the pandemic, working parents have turned to family members and friends to find temporary childcare solutions. We talked to three parents about the workarounds they’ve turned to while working from home:

We formed a pod with our neighbors

When Ohio seemed to be on the verge of a lockdown, Erin Kutcher conferred with a neighbor. “We got together,” Kutcher says, “and were like, ‘What should we do? Wouldn’t it be great if we could still keep the kids engaged?'” Since all four parents had the ability to work from home, they proposed a pod arrangement—a “quaranteam,” as Kutcher calls it. For two hours in the mornings and in the afternoons, one parent would take care of both sets of children, which would give all of them two hours of uninterrupted time to work every day.

“It gave us a real appreciation for what our daycare instructors go through because those two hours were really intense,” Kutcher says. Even in two-hour chunks, it was a challenge to hold the attention of four kids under the age of six—so Kutcher had to get creative.

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It gave us a real appreciation for what our daycare instructors go through.”

Erin Kutcher
“One parent would kind of be the lead at any given time,” Kutcher says. “And it really became fun to see what each parent would kind of come up with during these times. I am not an artistic person at all, but I went crazy at the beginning of all this and bought all these art supplies. My husband came up with [making] Forky from Toy Story.”

Having two hours a day to focus solely on her work was a boon for Kutcher. But like so many other parents, she found it impossible to keep up with her usual workload. “I actually ended up reducing my hours a little bit just because I was so unproductive,” she says. For much of the day, Kutcher and her husband took turns watching the kids, cramming in extra working hours early in the morning and carving out time to teach their kindergartener to read during the afternoons.

This month, Kutcher finally made the difficult decision to start taking her kids to daycare. “I was really nervous,” she says. “But if we didn’t pay at least to send [them] back, we would lose our spot because the ratios are so reduced.” If she had to keep her kids home again, Kutcher says she would try the pod arrangement again but would likely bring on a childcare worker to lighten the load for both families. “We didn’t know how long it would last,” she says. “So I think if we were to go into this again, we would hire somebody to come help us.”

We moved in with my in-laws

As soon as they got the greenlight to work from home back in March, Stephanie Anger and her husband pulled their 18-month-old daughter out of daycare. But after multiple late nights, the couple quickly realized there was no way they could juggle working from home with taking care of her. “We literally lasted three days,” Anger says. “She’s just at that age where she’s not interested in anything long enough.”

So they packed for a few weeks and headed to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Anger’s in-laws live. “At first, we thought we’d be here for two or three weeks,” she says. “Now we don’t know at all when we’re going back.”

Since Anger’s mother-in-law doesn’t work, the couple has been able to rely on her for childcare during the day. Initially, Anger hewed as close as possible to her daughter’s routine at home in Brooklyn, by doing a 9 a.m. handoff like she would have at daycare and only reconvening for lunch. But as the weeks went by—and they grew accustomed to their new reality—Anger relaxed the schedule.

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To say we’re grateful is just the biggest understatement in the world.”

Stephanie Anger
Anger recognizes how lucky she is to have family members who can pitch in right now. But the current arrangement is an adjustment for everyone, she says. “For my mother-in-law, who is doing most of the heavy lifting with the baby, her life was completely changed, too,” she says. “To say we’re grateful is just the biggest understatement in the world. She just has saved us on so many levels. We do our best to help out with everything from going to get groceries and cleaning and things like that. But her life has changed almost more than ours because we’re still working and have that routine a little bit.”

More than three months in, Anger isn’t sure when they’ll feel comfortable not only returning to Brooklyn, or re-enrolling their daughter in daycare. “If they’re expecting a spike in September, do I really want to go through that process of acclimating her again to going to daycare?” she says. “It’s hard because she’s sort of at that age where she has a lot of separation anxiety.” Anger isn’t sure putting her back in daycare is worth it if she might have to pull her out again in just a few months. But on the other hand, she doesn’t know anyone in Charlottesville, which means her daughter isn’t socializing with other kids right now.

“It’s really a hard call to make,” she says. “When do we kind of just punch back in and live our lives again? When do we send her back versus waiting it out as long as possible? I don’t really know.”

We rely on family and my husband’s flexible schedule

Prior to the pandemic, Courtney Johnson had relied on a patchwork of childcare. For two days of the week, her mother-in-law took care of both her children, and on another two days, they were in full-time daycare. On Fridays, her husband had the flexibility to work part-time and stay home.

But the coronavirus completely upended her childcare arrangements. Johnson and her husband have tried to distance themselves from their in-laws, who are in their sixties, to help limit their exposure. They also took their kids out of daycare. “Daycare is already sort of a germ cesspool on a good day,” she says. “We just felt like that was the right thing to do.”

Johnson says that while they do still see their in-laws, it’s usually only when they’re in a bind and need some childcare help. “This week, we discovered a bump on my daughter’s head,” she says. “We called my mother-in-law to come over and watch our other child while we took her to urgent care.” In recent weeks, their interactions have been curbed further because Johnson and her husband are also trying to protect her sister-in-law, who is about to give birth. “Right now we’re in a very acute stage of this quarantine because my sister-in-law is due this week,” she says. “She could have her baby any minute—when that happens, we all want to meet the baby.”

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Johnson and her husband have both been able to work from home since lockdown began. “My job requires a tremendous amount of focus and lots of meetings throughout the day,” she says. “So I try to get as much time where I can close my bedroom door, where my little office space is.” Though her husband’s work schedule is a bit more flexible, Johnson still tries to be as regimented as possible and schedule out her day, so she can take over with the kids as needed. “He has a role where he’s more reactive,” she says. “It’s nice because it means that the majority of the time that I need to be head down and focusing or taking Zoom calls, he can kind of be on point. And then when something comes up, he can check in with me.”

The stress of the unknown and the uncertainty is just an emotional barrier right now.”

Courtney Johnson
The plan, as of now, is for their kids to start preschool this fall, if Johnson and her husband feel comfortable with it come September. But that won’t exactly simplify their balancing act, since both kids will be on different half-day schedules. “It’s obviously up in the air if it will happen at all—if that will shift based on the pandemic,” she says. “[But] we will have to probably heavily rely on flexible work schedules just to simply shuttle them to and from [preschool].”

For now, Johnson is optimistic that employers will continue to be more accommodating, particularly if schools reopen. “I’m tremendously hopeful that in this new world, as many families are adjusting to this new schedule and what school will look like in the future, that employers will also start to shift how they’re supporting working parents and extend this remote, work-from-home structure,” she says. “If they don’t, it’ll make that new situation for us really difficult, having two kids with two different schedules. The stress of the unknown and the uncertainty is just an emotional barrier right now.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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