advice

‘How Do I Find Child Care Without Losing My Mind?’

Illustration: Emma Erickson

Dear Emily,

Ever since my first child needed a day-care spot, I’ve found the process of securing child care to be extremely stressful. Spots are limited in my city and every time my kids need a new care set-up — preschool, before- and after-school care, spring break and summer camps, etc. — it throws our household into a drama spiral as we navigate applications and registration portals and waitlists. There’s (mostly in my head) tension with other families competing for spots, as well as tension in my marriage around division of labor and whose life gets taken over by the process (usually mine).

When all of my parent-and-baby-group friends started going back to work, it became clear who could afford to hire a nanny, who could maybe swing a nanny-share with another family, and who couldn’t afford anything nanny-related and had to look for spots in day cares and preschools. Because most people are in the latter category, those spots are really hard to get. My class-based resentments linger in my friendships with families who can afford nannies. It’s not something I vocalize, but I know it makes me more of an asshole than I should be.

But I also compare myself to the people competing for child-care spots. I felt awkward around my baby-group friends as it became a race to see who could get a child-care spot and who could get highest up on the waitlist for the most popular places. The super-moms had been on top of it forever and I felt like such a loser for not having gotten my kids on a waitlist after my 20-week ultrasound. We ended up securing care through what I have learned is the most common way to do it in my city: desperate pleas on the local child-care Facebook page (a special circle of hell) and networking with friends who knew people with spots. And I somehow still resent anyone who manages to secure a coveted spot in an established child-care center because it reminds me of how not on top of these administrative-paperwork things I am.

Once my kids got to elementary school, I had a similar experience finding before- and after-school care (school runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., so if you want to work outside those hours you need before- and after-care). The waitlists were long full (like you get laughed at for asking to be put on it) and we found a spot last minute with a new program starting in our neighborhood. The program had its pros and cons and there was lots of chatter among the families who were dissatisfied and trying to secure spots in “better” programs. I was just happy to have care at all but felt like a bad mother for not trying to get into those other programs.

Recently, we received news that the program we’re in now won’t be running after this school year, so we’re back trying to find spots for two kids in the existing programs that won’t even waitlist us, or even really tell us how to apply. So my goal over the next few months is to find someone at those programs who will talk to me, and also be back on the child-care Facebook group (which I hate), and I’m also talking to a woman on our street who might provide after-school care. Will see what happens. I know something will work out, but it will be a lot of effort and stress before it does. How can I mitigate that stress and make this process work more smoothly for my family in the future?

Signed,

Aftercare Madness

Dear Aftercare Madness,

How incredibly frustrating for this program to rear its ugly head again after you’d had a period of grace feeling like you’d finally solved it! And how fucked up and unfair that this problem exists in the first place, when really all public schools should have high-quality free or very affordable aftercare until 6 p.m. because parents have jobs. This shouldn’t be a problem that every family is left to scramble to figure out individually, and in other countries it’s not. But here we are.

First, let’s discuss the division of labor in your marriage. Why can’t your partner shoulder some of this burden? If the issue is just that you’ve done it all up until now and so all the information lives in your brain — Facebook loose ties, acquaintances who are in your phone as [Kid Name’s] Mom — you can plan a sit-down where you systematically transfer all that information into your spouse’s brain, phone, and Facebook account. It doesn’t have to be purely their responsibility from here on out, but after having done it seemingly solo for so long, I think it’s fair for you to say to them, “Hey, this round is on you.”

Like all working moms, I have dealt with this issue myself, and while I can’t say that I’ve handled it perfectly, I have gotten lucky in a couple of ways. First, my kids (5 and 8) go to a school that has good, relatively low-cost after-school programming, which unfortunately culminates around five, after which they just sit in the cafeteria stewing in their own juices and causing mayhem til six, so we try to pick them up earlier than that. The other wonderful thing in my life is that, after I got a full-time job, the first thing I did was hire the woman who’d been our part-time sitter to work a contracted number of hours per week, which includes two pickups on days we all have to be out of the house early and one afternoon per week when the kids get to escape the structure of after-school (which can feel a little like Even More School) and just hang at the playground or the library with her. On that day they get their homework done at the library and life is good. We also get occasional date nights or nights out courtesy of this same wonderful sitter. And that’s a problem, because she’s just one person, and we don’t have a robust network of backups. In fact, she just bailed on the early-morning drop-offs in May through the end of school because she got a new nannying gig. Clearly, I’m not exactly nailing it.

I wanted to get you advice from someone whose job it is to think about this stuff, so I asked Lauren Smith Brody. She’s an author and CEO of the Fifth Trimester, a consultancy that helps businesses support parents and caregiving employees, and she co-founded the national nonpartisan nonprofit the Chamber of Mothers.

Brody had a few practical suggestions, like checking your job benefits for child-care help and have your partner check theirs too. “You may have more available to you in terms of FSA reimbursement (for aftercare or camp) or back-up child care, etc., than you realize. And if you don’t have these benefits, band together with other caregivers and make a case for your employer to invest in this stuff.”

She also encourages people in our position to be visible. “Do not hide this need. I suspect that your friends — even those with the nannies — are also struggling in all kinds of ways. We can only solve problems we can see.” In 2018, Brody was doing a conference panel in front of 500 people at the exact time registration opened up for the after care program she was trying to get her sons into, so she whipped out her laptop on stage to sign them up. The clip went viral. “Years later I still hear from people about what seeing this need so nakedly displayed meant to them.”

In that spirit, Brody recommends sharing a network of trusted backup sitters with all of your friends. “If five families have a pool of ten people they all have in their phones, that’s ideal. It’s practical but also bonding, and people want to be your village more than you might realize.”

I have a slight bone to pick with that last one, which seems utopian to me — personally I now hoard my sitter’s number after having one too many plans foiled when she was busy taking care of kids whose parents I’d recommended her to. But that’s probably not the most social-justice-oriented approach, and if I had a pool of ten sitters I think I’d feel comfortable using them to bond with a village of parents.

Or, in Brody’s words: “It’s important to realize that the icky jealousy and bitterness about money you’re feeling is not a character flaw.” The system needs to change, and while it’s our responsibility to work to change it, we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves in the process.

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