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May 17, 2010

The Cost of Care

Simon starts work on Monday, and we don't have childcare. Ha ha ha! HA!...Ha?

Okay, I get that this is just daycare, not college or the Manhattan preschool circuit, but it's still kind of a Big Deal, and something that, although we've (I've) done a lot of thinking about (A LOT), we haven't actually acted on in any real, meaningful ways despite having forseen this eventual situation for, oh, seventeen months and three days, not counting the forty weeks of Wombat's gestation.

We hadn't done anything about it until today, that is, when I begged Simon via a look of silent desperation to please do something. To make some phone calls or set up some appointments or do whatever a responsible parent would do at this juncture--anything to metamorphose this nightmare beast of a situation--all fungus-clawed and woolly-legged and halitosis-tongued--into a fluffy white lamb, perhaps one with a master's degree in child development and a repertoire of toddler-appropriate activities (puppet shows? cooking class? folksinging?) deep enough to fill two or three days per week and for a reasonable price at a location near me.

Simon, on the phone: "We're hoping to drop him off next Monday."

Me, fingers in my ears because I can't take rejection: "Lalalalalalala."

What happened was this: The daycare affiliated with his new job turned out to be...oh, $7,000 more per year than we thought it was. (How this happened I don't know. It's been a long time since I took math, but not long enough for the Math People to have restructured the way multiplication works, I don't think.) (Also, is it indelicate to talk about money by using actual numbers? I think it might be, and yet I persist, because, hello! $7,000! That's a lot! I don't want to say $X and have you imagine I mean $250 when I mean SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. It makes a difference.)

What's even more shocking, however, is that without the annual stipend included (supposedly) in Simon's benefits package, we would be paying as much to have someone watch Wombat as my current employer pays me to MAKE LITERATURE. Okay, I may be overstating my role as a grammar wrangler here, and I'm certainly not comparing the work of raising a child to quality-checking punctuation or anything, but I would be lying if I didn't confess that it's practically my worst dream come true to find out that daycare costs almost exactly the same as my salary, although one is a teeny bit higher. (Guess which one?) (*sob*)

It's one thing to leave your kid in someone else's care when you're making enough on top of that to keep the household in shoes and bacon, but it feels a lot different when you're just breaking even whether you're working and using daycare or else not working at all. At that point, everyone knows you're working simply to work--to do something, to get out of the house, to get away from the kid and save your sanity--and even if that isn't entirely true in some cases (although it almost entirely is in my case), it's still not ideal. A coworker once told me that even though her daycare costs were eating up her entire salary, being able to go to work part-time meant a giant savings in therapy bills; now I understand.

But isn't there an inverse of this option? Instead of working a job so I can pay someone to watch my kid, can't I get paid to watch my kid so I can outsource my job? Anyone? Working mother seeks wealthy benefactor. Are you there, god/Oprah? Oh, it's a nice little thought, that, but then again, even in this pre-childcare chaos I'm not delusional enough to think that I have any business whatsoever hanging out with a toddler five days a week, even if it's the toddler of whom I'm most fond.


Milk moustache!

And thus I must work, for the good of all involved.

So Simon made some calls and I did some (questionable) math (did you know that four weeks times twelve months doesn't equal fifty-two weeks per year? I did not!), and now we're...well, we're exactly where we were last week--with too many comparable options--although now we're also feeling quite poor again. (So soon? Le sigh.)

Here's the thing: the work-affiliated daycare is NOT CHEAP, but it's not cheap because it's highly reputable and well-structured and secure. Further, the kids there are likely to be super-smart nerdlings (which is a good thing), and the place is across from Simon's work, which means no one has to suffer me crying through morning drop-offs. This place also has a looong waiting list, and Simon had to perform some deft acrobatics to secure us a spot--and starting next week at that!--and even though we haven't committed to anything quite yet, I already don't want to turn it down for fear of seeming ungrateful. Getting into this daycare is a bit like getting into Harvard and then going, "Oh, but it's so expensive and I'm sure the state school will be just as good." I'm passionate about saving money, but I'm not stupid.

Our other options are some in-home daycares in more-convenient locations (read: Simon won't have to take Wombat on public transportation) and for lower rates (although not by much), and we really don't know how the quality will match up to Harvard; it could be better than Harvard for all we know, or at least different in a variety of better-for-our-family ways. Are the in-home daycares Swarthmores and Benningtons? Or are they community colleges of the greater Des Moines area? We don't know! (I say this as someone who went to in-home daycares run by unaccredited neighbor ladies well schooled in the Mormon church and not much else, and I also attended public school and then the University of Utah, which isn't a bad place but not exactly Ivy League, and I turned out all right, I think, albeit with a slight deficiency in 'rithmetic.)

If we go with the Great Unknown of an affordable in-home daycare center, we'd be paying pennies a day (okay, maybe not pennies) after the stipend, but I can't help wonder what we'd lose in quality, value, and peace of mind. As a confessed cheapoholic, there are plenty of things I'm willing to skimp on (e.g., wine, shoes, haircuts), but I also know that there are situations in which you absolutely get what you pay for and therefore have to fork it over for quality (e.g., toilet paper must be at least two-ply! no exceptions!). With that in mind, I think childcare is more like toilet paper than it is like wine, yes? Or does it really not matter when the kid is this young and basically just needs to be contained in a cutlery-free room for a handful of hours each week while Mama humps it* for The Man? It's not like this is college-prep daycare, right? OR IS IT?!

We have appointments set up to tour two facilities tomorrow, and I'm crossing my fingers that one of them will blow me away. If we're greeted at the door by a guitar-strumming lamb, I'll know for sure we've found the right place.

*I'm editing a book full of workingman slang. It ain't always purty.

21 Comments

We ended up choosing an in-home care centre because the quality of care was better than any of the (very good) daycares that we scoped out. I think a bigger daycare might be better for older kids, but the cozy feel of a good HOME was our ticket while our daughter is still little.

(And good luck! Finding childcare is the scariest and most stressful bit of parenting that I've done so far!)

Long-time reader, first-time commenter here. I've got a son about Wombat's age, and we pay a small fortune to send him to the high-quality, accredited child care center affiliated with my workplace. Even though it takes a huge bite out of our budget, I have not regretted it for a second. Although I'm sure that home-based care can be fabulous with an excellent provider, I felt like I didn't have the time to do enough research to satisfy myself about the quality of care my son would be getting. We love our center and our son is very happy there. I also love the fact that, as he gets older, it turns into a preschool, complete with age appropriate curriculum. I think that structured center care really shines starting at around the toddler age--it can be tougher with an infant, but you're already past that stage. And I absolutely love having my son close to a parent while he's at "school"--if he's sick or anything comes up it is easy to get to him to check in.

Also, when comparing your salary to the cost of day care, don't get too down if they look about the same. Remember that you are earning social security and probably retirement benefits that you would not be getting if you stayed home, not to mention the career continuity you are maintaining (if you leave the workforce you would likely take a pay hit upon returning). And don't forget that part of your child care expenses are tax deductible.

Sounds like you are thinking about all the right things--and it's great that you have some good options. I'm sure it will all work out no matter what you decide.

I have a LOT of thoughts on daycare and the financial stress of it. In a nutshell, though, it boils down to "what is the price of not worrying?"

We pay through the nose for child care (#1 is in a university-affiliated center, #2 has an in-our-home nanny (!!!) until he's 1 and gets a spot at the center) and yes, we just barely break even with my salary. But I don't worry about them during the day. I know they are happy, safe, loved, and nurtured. And while watching my paycheck go right to child care hurts, it hurts less than worrying about my kids all day would.

Some things to consider about Harvard: Wombat is still fairly little, at infant/toddler rates. Will those go down once he's a bit older and the ratios go up? Paycheck and therapy bills aside, you working brings in benefits as well as career trajectory. Maybe a short term breakeven or even a small loss is worth it in the long run? What is the time or convenience worth? Across the street from Dad's work seems like a pretty awesome location, and kids love public transportation (says the woman who commuted on the bus with a 2+ year old in a sling!).

I hope one of them is the obvious choice and that you all figure out something that works. Keep in mind, though, that nothing has to be permanent, and you always reserve the right to change your mind.

This is such a personal decision I won't even begin to try and give any advice or even share my experience but I will emit a low, keening wail of frustration over the broken brokenness of this broke-ass effed up system. Ahem: eeeeeeeeaaaarrrrggggh. There, whew.

My daughter goes to daycare on 1 June and she'll be one day shy of being four months old. She starts out at a daycare that I found and I like because of the availability of an open slot and their reputation. I have done unannounced pop ins and have always been pleased by the environment and the content and happy babies in the nursery.

The cost is pretty reasonable. Instead of keeping her there, though, we've been accepted into a daycare on the university campus that my husband and I both work at. Being able to get into the university's daycare is like getting into Harvard and the cost about matches.

We are going to try to keep the gulping to a minimum and also keep our bulging eyes in our head and send our daughter to Harvard.

With the higher cost comes peace of mind for me and hubby. She'll be closer to us and the university's daycare offers developmental and educational curriculum since it is ran by our Elementary Education department.

I feel your pain, girly. At least you have the option of in-home care, which I feel I did not.

I know just what you're going through (I'm a poorly paid editor as well). We had our son in an in-home daycare until he was about a year old, when we moved and he started at a larger, more structured day-care center. I liked the in-home care for when he was a baby because it felt more one-on-one. But now that he's 15 months, he really loves activities--art, playgrounds, music, etc., not to mention the interaction with more kids. That's not to say you can't get structure from an in-home day care, but it's worth asking about when you interview them. I also want to echo what an earlier commenter said--check to see when the rates go down. For us, it's at age two. So if you only have to hold on until December, maybe that's not as bad. The other advantage to where our son is now is that it's also a preschool and kindergarten, so there will be continuity with school and the kids in his class. I like that when we have a second child, they can both be at the same place together because it takes both infants and preschool kids. This is a tough, tough decision. Good luck to you!

I think it depends what the home daycare offers. We have used a home daycare (on our street!) for our 3-year old, since he was 3-months. It is fantastic. They do all the curriculum of a preschool but it is still nice and cozy. They know the letters, numbers, colors, shapes, etc...they do a different theme each week, do baking, art, etc....unfortunately, with the birth of our daughter 3 weeks ago, we've had to find new daycare since the owner of home daycare is pregnant with twins and shutting down (a 'con' of home daycare!). We've decided to send both kids to another home daycare but I don't think it has the same qualities as this one...so we'll probably have to look for a preschool for our son at some point. Long story short, home daycares can be fabulous, more so than centers, it all depends what they're doing (and I visited about 30 of them recently, there is a wide variation, for sure!). I also think home ones can be best for babies, but it sounds like your work one could be great too! Good luck, it's a stressful decision!

Oh, my friend, I understand. Hopefully the tours you take will lead you in the right direction (a guitar-strumming lamb would certainly be helpful, wouldn't it?). I definitely got a vibe from taking the tours that made our decision (somewhat) easier. We weren't able to get into (or afford, even if we got a spot) the Cadillac of Daycares, but I know the shorty is loved and well taken care of at her daycare. It helped me to know that a lot of her teachers have their own kids in the daycare -- it tells me they have a personal stake in how things are run.

This stuff is SO HARD. For so many reasons. Just know that whatever decision you make will be the right one. Trust.

I have no idea in regards to waiting lists and your budget and all that good stuff, but friends of mine in Oakland are sending their kids here and are thrilled with it:

http://www.savvysource.com/preschool/profile_sh299_Monte_Tavor_Infant,_Toddler_and_Preschool_Program

Rowan is at an in-home daycare just up the street from my work, and while I have nothing to compare it to, since this is the only daycare he's been in since I went back to work over a year ago, we SO happy about where he is. Sure, he'd probably be exposed to more structured learning at a twice-as-expensive daycare center, but we toured a couple of those places, and they just felt so sterile, with stark white walls and the smell of bleach permeating our noses. The children are grouped by their age, which meant he'd only be with kids his own age. And there was a rotating roster of care providers, not just a dedicated person with whom he could form a bond.

At his daycare, he's with kids who are older, and now there are kids who are younger (he was the youngest when he started there), and I truly feel this kind of exposure far outweighs some pre-preschool program. I'm certain his being at this daycare is what sparked in him the desire to crawl/walk early, and his vocabulary is taking off like a rocket. Our daycare lady is licensed with the state, so we feel confident he's in good hands. She's around my mom's age, so in a way, it's like taking Rowan to grandma's house every morning. Her house is clean and warm and safe, and Rowan is all smiles when I drop him off to play with his friends.

I'm not saying Rowan wouldn't have had a similar positive experience at a daycare center, and yes, it's an absolute crapshoot when choosing an in-home daycare provider (check their references!), but I wouldn't discredit that option, if I were you. If anything, you could try it out, and then it might buy you some time to keep looking for that perfect (read: more affordable) alternative that's just as good as the Harvard option. I mean, it's just daycare, after all. :)

Good luck!

The thing with childcare is that there are no easy answers. I swear its been the hardest part of having a child. I have full time care on site but it's a fortune. We researched lots of alternatives but it's the one we (I) feel most comfortable with. Look into FMLA.. you get 5,000$ and some companies like my husband's do match up to 1,000$.
While it is reassuring in a center especially a reputable one that the staff is watched and rules enforced they do/will get sick often. And its a huge strain when one of you has to leave to go pick them up to rush them to the drs and miss meetings, photo shoots etc. Especially when it turns out it was nothing and oh yeah that will happen.
I wish you the best of luck in whatever decision you make! There are no right or wrong answers it's whatever works for you.

Oh man Leah, this sounds so stressful. I hope you guys find an affordable place that you can feel good about.

And if you need an extra week to scramble, I'm not that far away, twiddling my unemployed thumbs! (For real, if you need me.)

Oh, but The Math People *have* re-arranged multiplication! It's called the lattice method or something or other now. I was researching quick calculations last year when I was preparing to sit for the GMAT (no calculators allowed) and ran across it. It's strange and no-less time consuming than the regular way, so I bit the bullet and just learned all my multiplication tables up to 25.

Breaking even on child care/my salary is absolutely the most insulting thing as an adult that I've ever experienced. I cried when I did the math. I felt worthless and for the first month I wanted to wear a big sign that said, "Seriously. WHAT IS THE POINT OF ME BEING HERE?" (Oh right, health insurance. That's why I'm here.)

It's hard to believe that a 20-something refilling sippy cups and directing art projects costs THE SAME as a college graduate with a decade of work behind her but it's true. It's expensive to work.

Agree with Sundry, it's broken. Add it to the list. In the meantime, you'll find something you love, that makes everyone happy and you'll still get to work. And, in a weird way, it will all be okay and normal again soon.

Its one of the great secrets of the western world that the average month is actually 4.3 weeks.

Lurker here. This issue is very close to my heart.

When my second son was an infant and our usual childcare provider (aka my mother) was laid up for two years with health problems, we did the Cadillac of daycare in the form of a nanny.

I am also a cheapaholic, and for two years I about cried every month as I tried to absorb the fact that we were paying a living wage from our after-tax income. (I still feel woozy when I think about it.) For two years we basically broke even. Unexpected bonuses from my husband's employer were the only thing that got us through that period without major financial disaster.

But. Did I worry about my sons? Never. My guts were at rest when I was at work. So. It was worth it. All the people saying that you must do what allows you to exist WITHOUT WORRY are 100% right -- whether the child is at Harvard, or UCB, or Cal State Hayward.

Also? It's hard to realize this now, but your baby will change as the years go by, and you can make alternate childcare plans when the time comes. So don't worry that this one decision is going to make or break your baby's future. It won't.

P.S. My now-3.5-year-old is now at a childcare/preschool in Oakland (Mills college area) that he and I both love! Plus it is much more affordable. Starts at 18 months; e-mail if you're interested. It's laid back but very solid. Maybe a UC Davis? ;)


Our childcare costs more per month than our mortgage - it is so painful to write that check BUT I have found that you HAVE to go with the place that your gut instinct says is the best otherwise you will never be happy leaving your baby there and you will constantly wonder if you made the wrong choice. It sucks to shell out the dough but it is worth the peace of mind 100%.

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