Finding Childcare Has Become A Competitive Sport

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Before kids, I worked part-time as a college professor. It sounds like a fancy job, but it wasn’t really. The kids called me “professor,” but I wasn’t on salary and collected a pretty meager part-time paycheck. After my first son was born, I took the semester off (without pay, of course), but had every intention of returning to work.

After all, I was only working part-time, which would mean I could still spend lots of time with my baby, and as small as my salary was, it was necessary for us to pay our rent and bills — and god knows we were tearing through our savings just to get me through my maternity leave.

In some ways, we prepared pretty painstakingly for parenthood. We researched birthing options, pediatricians, baby swings, baby carriers — the works. But we didn’t quite think about how it was all going to come together financially. We just assumed that it had to work out somehow because that’s just what parents did, right?


Once we finally sat down to crunch some numbers, we quickly realized that paying for childcare while I worked would cost us more than me simply staying home with our baby. Of course, me not working was going to break the bank too, but paying for childcare while I worked? Not an option.

Not only that, when we called daycare centers in our area, we found that all of them (yes, every single one) was completely booked, no spots open. When we surveyed babysitters in the area, we learned that the average rate was $15 per hour —and that was a minimum.

So we made the choice for me to stay home with our son full-time until we figured the whole thing out.

This is the story of many families, unfortunately. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, basically.

According to a survey conducted by NPR (along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), one third of 1,000 parents surveyed nationwide found securing childcare difficult. Part of this, of course, is the astronomical cost associated with childcare. If childcare in some areas costs more than rent or college tuition, how exactly are families supposed to make that work? It’s no wonder so many parents end up dropping out of the workforce when their kids are small.

But besides that, there is simply a scarcity of childcare out there, as I learned when I called area childcare centers to learn about possible care for my baby. The Center for American Progress recently published their analysis of childcare options around the United States. After analyzing 7,000 zip code areas in eight different states, they found that 48% of these locations had childcare shortages. The report labeled the areas with shortages “childcare deserts,” which they define as “a ZIP code with at least 30 children under the age of 5 and either no child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many children under age 5 as there are spaces in centers.”

So basically, almost half of all Americans live in “childcare deserts,” and find it nearly impossible to find childcare for their kids, because in many places, it just doesn’t exist.

In a recent NPR article, aptly titled, “Child Care Scarcity Has Very Real Consequences for Working Families,” journalist Jessica Deahl recounts the story of a mother named Megan Carpenter, who couldn’t find daycare for her baby once her maternity leave ended. Carpenter, of Alexandria, Virginia, had to put her son on waiting lists at over ten different daycares. Additionally, she had to pay fees to be added to each waiting list, at about $100 a pop. So she was out over $1000, and still hadn’t secured childcare for her son.

In the end, Carpenter had to ask her mother and mother-in-law to take time away from work to cover childcare until a spot opened for her son.

Of course, not all of us have the option of grandparents who can cover childcare, and certainly not all of us can pay thousands to put our children on daycare wait-lists.

Not only that, but not all of us have the time to scout out every single childcare center, spend endless hours on the phone with them (often on hold, am I right?), or wait in long lines at 5 a.m. in order to secure a spot in a program. (This is actually what I had to do once to get my son into a preschool program, and is par for the course in terms of securing spots in all kinds of children’s programs in the New York City metropolitan area, where I live.)

Finding good, high-quality, and truly affordable childcare should not be like this. It shouldn’t be something any of us have to fight this hard for. It shouldn’t be off-limits to people who don’t have the money or resources to find it or secure it. And none of us should have to be up at night worrying how we will balance it all without losing our financial livelihoods.

This is our children we are talking about. I don’t think anyone can deny that they deserve the best we can give them — and that means that something seriously needs to change when it comes to childcare options in America.

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