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This is what it’s like to live in a childcare desert

A mom in rural Colorado shares how she’s balancing a full-time job while caring for a six-month-old with limited childcare support.

This is what it’s like to live in a childcare desert
[Photo: Israel Sebastian/Getty Images; Connor Betts/Unsplash]

Before she moved to rural Colorado, Erin Ax Allgyer had lived in New York on and off for 15 years. When she eventually needed a change of pace, she decamped to Telluride, an affluent ski town in Colorado. During the pandemic, Allgyer met and married her husband, and after having a child, they decided to relocate to another Colorado resort town, Steamboat Springs.

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But even all those years in Manhattan—where daycare spots may be more coveted than prime real estate—couldn’t have prepared Allgyer for the mad scramble to find care for her own daughter in a childcare desert. A local newspaper recently reported that parents were lining up outside a daycare center in Steamboat Springs, with one parent even camping out overnight only to learn that the center had no openings. Sure enough, when Allgyer—who holds a doctorate in school psychology and works for Colorado’s Department of Education—sought out childcare, she realized she had virtually no options. Many wealthier families seemed to rely on au pairs and nannies, but there were few affordable alternatives for parents like Allgyer.

“There was only one center-based daycare in this town that I could qualify for,” she says, “and they didn’t take a waitlist because there was such a great need.”

Allgyer talked to Fast Company about the juggling act of holding down a full-time job while caring for her six-month-old daughter, and why she’s trying to seek out more creative solutions to the childcare crisis. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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“I never thought [childcare] was going to be an issue”

I intended to move to Telluride for about three months for off-season. I ended up staying there for five years. It’s a beautiful town—I think the prettiest ski town in the U.S.—but extremely small and extremely remote. When we had our daughter, and even before actually, we were looking at moving to a bigger town, but staying in Colorado because we liked the lifestyle. We’re both very active, so the outdoorsy, kind of rural lifestyle was more our speed. We [also] got priced out of Telluride. With COVID, the billionaires replaced the millionaires in our town, and we just couldn’t afford to live there anymore.

We picked Steamboat Springs, where we live now, in part because I had grown up coming out here and [because] we both just liked it as a bigger town than Telluride, but [with] all of the same good stuff and small town feel. It’s closer to Denver and there’s a hospital here. Because we were moving—my daughter was born in October and we moved here in January—I did not get my name on any daycare lists. I never thought it was going to be an issue. It’s been kind of a joke to me because I knew, living in Manhattan for so many years, that people put their kids on preschool waiting lists and go on interviews years in advance. But I’m in rural Colorado, and I never thought this was a thing here.

“No one was taking a waiting list”

I was able to ascertain through different Facebook mommy groups that there was only one center-based daycare in this town that I could qualify for. I started calling in December, and they didn’t take a waitlist because there was such a great need. [That] was their rationale, and the woman just told us to keep calling back. I got a list of approved home care providers, and all of those people were full, and similarly no one was taking a waiting list.

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I currently have a babysitter two days a week, but I can’t say that every week the babysitter will be here Tuesday and Wednesday because she also works with other families. She’s $18 an hour, so I ended up paying around $100 a day for not even a full workday. [Even if] she was miraculously able to work for us [full time], we probably wouldn’t be able to afford more than just a couple of days.

I would say I am the primary caregiver during the day. [My husband] actually started a house painting business, which is one of the reasons we moved here. His schedule is kind of flexible, but he has to be on site to do his work. My [current] job has always been remote. My direct boss has been extremely generous with me in that she knows the issue I’m facing. Typically, the expectation is that I would be available between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Microsoft Teams, if my boss or any of my team members need to get a hold of me. That’s the expectation for all team members; it’s not just me.

People on my team are really sweet about [my daughter] being in meetings if she has to be there. But usually, she sits in her little Baby Bjorn bouncy chair at my feet, and that’s where we do our workday. I do a lot of work after hours [and] on weekends. She’s only six months, so she’s still in the stage where she doesn’t move. When she crawls and when she walks, I think it’s going to be a different ballgame. We [try] to call the daycare center every two to three weeks. And even though the message says, “We don’t take a waitlist,” we still leave our [voicemail]. The daycare director is wonderful about getting back to us, but she always says she needs to hire people.

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I’m hoping that either we can get her in there, or we’re talking to a couple of families about a nanny share. I would still see us doing two to three days a week. I don’t know if I’m going to have to block off Mondays and Fridays to do at-home work only and no meetings. I haven’t thought that far ahead. But I can’t do this if I have another child. I would not be able to either afford care, or work from home and care for two children. That would be impossible.

“I don’t really know how to be a change agent”

Among local Facebook groups here in Steamboat, I’ve posted probably half a dozen times that I’m looking for childcare; I’m looking for a nanny share. And then I just started to change the language I was using to say: Are there any creative solutions? Could groups of families get together to each take a day or two to help each other out? It was less about how I [could] personally find childcare for my daughter. I was interested to see what other communities were doing. [There was] no local response to that, and none of my Facebook friends suggested anything similar either. The overwhelming response that I got was more individual. It was: Hire an au pair. That’s a very one-sided, kind of affluent response.

I just think we’re such an individualistic society. If the solution is ‘once you find daycare, you’ll be fine,’ then that kind of thinking is why we’re probably still in this crisis. This is the issue that my mom faced when [she] was a working mom, when I was a kid, and this is now the next generation. Is my daughter going to have this burden as well?

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I don’t really know how to be a change agent, and that to me is hard. I did a little Google search for grants. If our community pulled together, could we start to write some grants, either state grants or federal grants? And I just don’t know how to start that conversation. I can reach out to organizations here. I did write emails to one of our City Council members, who is on the early childhood taskforce or something, and I did not get a response.

I don’t know where to start. And if I have a tiny bit of energy to devote to this—between the work that I do, raising my daughter, taking care of our two dogs, spending time with my husband, and being active outside—I don’t want my tiny bit of energy to be in vain.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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