I recently turned down the opportunity to interview for a job that I have wanted for over four years, as long as I’ve been a registered nurse. I have two young children — a 2-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son — but a need or desire to be at home with them full time was not the reason I contacted the hiring manager and politely but firmly declined to meet with her.
I love my kids, dearly, in spite of their chaos and sticky fingers and endless need for diaper changes and snacks. However, I wanted this job. I wanted to go back to work, to the profession I had pursued and loved for so long, to be an adult around other adults, to get in the car in the morning with a travel mug of coffee, to wear scrubs and chart on a computer and gossip with coworkers in the break room. I wanted a paycheck, and a benefits package, and all of the material advantages of gainful employment.
I wanted this job. But I couldn’t take it, because I sat down with a calculator and did basic math, that no matter how much I tried to finagle, amounted to the same depressing sum. Even as a full-time nurse, with four years of experience and a competitive salary, after taxes and work expenses, I would barely earn enough to cover the cost of a nanny or daycare, both of which would add up to over $2,000 a month for two children.
There’s a pervasive idea that the lifestyle of a stay-at-home mother is a choice, made by women of privilege, ones whose husbands can support them, who have the luxury to leave their careers for a life of playdates and carpools. But any person who has had the same demoralizing argument with their calculator, who has tried to reconcile the expenses of childcare with the modest incomes of professions like nursing, teaching or so many others, knows that the reality for so many women and men is that staying home isn’t a choice but a very real necessity.
As a skilled and highly trained registered nurse, with two bachelor’s degrees and multiple certifications, I don’t make enough money to go back to work. It’s that simple and that cruel. If anything, after the increase in our tax bracket, I would likely negatively impact our family’s bottom line.
I know I am not alone in this position; that, in fact, millions of other parents in the United States face a similar dilemma. Dual-income households pre-kids are forced to become single-income households post-kids because, unlike so many other parts of the world, we live in a country where childcare is exorbitantly expensive and often inaccessible, an advantage afforded to some instead of a right of all.
The cost of childcare in the United States increased by 70% between 1985 and 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In an oft-cited 2015 Economic Policy Institute study, the cost of childcare exceeds the average cost of college tuition in 33 states and the District of Columbia. According to the same study, in most parts of the country, families spend more on childcare than rent.
I am in an extremely privileged position. I live in a dual-income family, and my husband earns enough to support us, pay our mortgage, expenses and student loans, on his salary. For me, not returning to work hurts more on a professional and personal level than it does on a financial one.
But for many Americans, either single parents, parents with lower incomes, or families at or below the poverty level, who typically spend 30% of their income on childcare, that is not the case. Government assistance to low-income families for childcare exists but is minimal and inaccessible to most. In fact, despite the rising cost of childcare, government subsidies have fallen to their lowest level since 1998, due to a decline in federal funding.
As a result of the prohibitive costs of childcare, many families are left in an impossible situation where it makes more sense for a parent, most often the mother, to stay home with children than to return to work. This, in turn, leads to larger and larger numbers of women dropping out of the workplace. Since the late 1990s, the number of stay at home moms in this country has steadily risen, despite three previous decades of decline.
I am now a part of that statistic — a stay-at-home mom out of necessity rather than choice. I am educated, skilled, and experienced, and I had the opportunity to pursue a job I would have loved. But I turned it down because my salary would barely cover the costs of a nanny or daycare. I know many nurses in similar positions or nurses who work only night shifts and survive on little sleep so that they won’t have to pay for childcare.
I am not an economist. I am not a policy expert. But I feel, in my gut, that something is broken here. Decades ago, women were trapped inside of the home because of a lack of equality and opportunity. And today, in 2018, many of us are still trapped, because of the cost of childcare. It benefits no one to have skilled, capable women driven out of the workplace in huge numbers.
There have been attempts at solutions for decades, since the days of the Great Depression and WWII. President Obama attempted to address the issue, with a call for the federal government to dramatically expand the Child Care and Development Fund, a federal program that provides states grants for childcare assistance programs to help low- and middle-income families.
Despite these attempts, childcare remains a cost-prohibitive issue for so many Americans, particularly women. Having children and a career shouldn’t be a privilege afforded to the rich. If any parent wants to work, they should be able to. Childcare shouldn’t cost more than a mortgage, and childcare workers deserve better pay for the important work they do.
We have to do better, for our families, for our workers, and for our children. We must accept that this is a national economic priority, not simply a minor, household problem. In many other nations, including France and Belgium, childcare for working parents is a fundamental right instead of a luxury. There are multiple avenues to address this crisis, multiple answers proposed by intelligent, capable people, and various solutions that are financially sound. We must find a way to retain women in the workplace, because it benefits everyone.
I love my children. I love spending the days and weeks and months with them, even if a part of me grieves for the career I left behind. But if I am totally honest, I want better for them, especially my daughter. I don’t want the cost or inaccessibility of childcare to be the reason she leaves behind a job she loves one day. We should all want better for ourselves, for our kids, and for our country.