Ask any American with young children what their No. 1 household expense is, and you’ll hear the same answer almost every time: child care. Each family finds its own way to manage. Some parents are pushed out of the workforce. Others work jobs they wouldn’t take otherwise or hold down multiple jobs in order to meet their families’ needs.
In order to show you how real families are navigating this child care challenge, HuffPost is profiling parents around the country. If you’d like to be featured in an installment, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlotte of Michigan poses with two of her children.
Name: Charlotte (prefers not to share last name)
Children’s ages: 5, 3, and 1 years old.
Location: Rochester, Michigan
Occupation: Charlotte is a trained social worker who works full time for a health insurance company. She has an additional contractual job working about 10 hours a month doing case management. Her husband works full time at a clinic for autistic children as a board-certified behavior analyst.
Annual household income: $165,000
Weekly household take-home pay: $2,200
Weekly child care costs: $500
Child care plan: The 5-year-old attends a public kindergarten. Because Charlotte works from home, she is able to meet her daughter at the bus stop every afternoon. The two younger children attend day care four days a week and are cared for by their grandmother one day a week.
“We had a really traumatic experience with my daughter for her very first day care. This was a day care that was rated highly. There was a new teacher in her classroom, and they dropped her on her head. She had a large hematoma — it looked like a watermelon right on her head. We were concerned that she had fractured her skull, and thankfully, she didn’t. But the way the day care reacted was just very defensive. So we switched to a [new] day care and we actually commute 20-30 minutes each way, because we’re so terrified of switching [again], but also due to prices. They gave us a discount last year when we hit three kids, which they didn’t have to do. Day cares in our area are very expensive.”
Their eldest daughter is not currently enrolled in any care after school. Charlotte was able to shift her hours from 7:30 a.m.–4:00 p.m. “She comes off the bus, and I’m almost done.” Finding time to do her case management work, including mandatory meetings, can be tricky, however.
“If I have to meet with people, I have to kind of work it around my husband’s work schedule. Sometimes I’ll drop my daughter off at my husband’s work because sometimes he’s able to have her there for a few hours because it is a clinic with kids.” Her in-laws are also available to help out at times, but not on a regular basis.
“We pay more money on child care than we do our mortgage. All our income is going to that. Both of us have master’s degrees, and we’re basically just not able to save money.”
Work arrangements: “It’s chaos. We both are all over the place. My husband also has a chronic illness that makes it hard for him to function on a regular basis. We wake up, I walk my daughter to the bus. He will take [the other two children] to day care, which is 20-30 minutes away, and then he drives another 40 minutes to his job.” Charlotte works a full day at home and also takes care of any kid-related tasks such as doctor’s appointments.
“Today, my mom is here with the kids. So she’ll get my daughter from the bus stop. Otherwise, I’m there to get her from the bus stop. My husband will be done with work at 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. He’s about 45 minutes away, so he’ll be home at like 6:30.”
Both Charlotte and her husband sometimes need to do work in the evenings as well, and this complicates the routine.
“We really need a bigger car for me because, typically, we have to do a lot of car-switching. We have to switch cars at some point if he dropped [the kids] off and I have to pick them up because he’s working late. I have to go to his job to get his car so we can switch and then I can take the kids home. There have been times where I have to drive like 30 to 45 minutes to his job just to get the car, pick them up, and come home.”
She will sometimes squeeze in some work hours for her contractual job in the evening, as well.
“If my husband works late, he typically puts the kids to bed, otherwise, we do that together. And then it starts all over again,” she said.
“Both my husband and I grew up with a stay-at-home parent. I grew up in a fairly upper-middle-class area where I kind of felt like people had a lot of free time. Parents were always volunteering in our schools. And now I’m just like, I can barely even remember my daughter has a homework assignment due tomorrow. You’re expected to bring things, you’re expected to be raising money for places — but I can’t. We can barely keep it all straight.”
It still works out financially that it makes more sense for us both to work, but it’s difficult. We’re both just doing so much and we feel so depleted and yet we don’t have the money to show for it. We don’t have the Disney vacation.
When the family welcomed their third child, they hired an au pair, which seemed to make sense cost-wise, totaling a bit less than having all three children in day care. But the au pair left soon after she started, and the whole ordeal was so negative that they didn’t consider trying to find a replacement.
“We can’t afford the nanny rates, and babysitting rates in our area are so extremely high that we couldn’t even do that. My husband was between jobs for a period of time last spring; it ended up being longer than anticipated due to some administrative issues, and we could not survive on one income. We pulled one of our children from day care at that point. [The] other two we had go for a few days a week. It still works out financially that it makes more sense for us both to work, but it’s difficult. We’re both just doing so much and we feel so depleted and yet we don’t have the money to show for it. We don’t have the Disney vacation,” Charlotte said.
“I’ve never not wanted to work. Part of that was my mom was out of the workforce for 20-plus years. I would never feel safe not working because I’ve seen her experience of trying to get back in there. There are some times when I wish that I could work [fewer] hours and then be able to cut back on day care. And then there are these super-humans who I see who are like, ‘Oh, just work from home and have your kids at home,’ and I’m like, ‘How is that even possible?’ I feel a lot of guilt that it seems so easy for some people.
“We want to be saving more money, we want to be doing more things, and I’m trying to further my skills. But at the same time, there is part of me that wonders. It would be great if I could work [fewer] hours, cut back on day care costs. I don’t really see a world where that’s possible right now.”
What would help their family: “I know everyone is always like, ‘It takes a village,’ but we’re in such a hyper-individualistic culture that it’s, ‘You do you and I’ll do me.’ We have a church community that we’re connected to where people are very giving, but most people in our lives are just sort of hyper-focused on their lives. You’re expected to pay for help.
“The last time we were able to save any money was during the pandemic, with the child tax credit. My husband was laid off for a period of time, when we had a child on April 4 of 2020. We were all stay-at-home workers. Absolute nightmare — my husband was unemployed but it was like a paid family leave. His COVID pay was actually paid family leave.
“There’s a lot of policy things that could make it easier — universal pre-K. We don’t qualify for a single thing. We don’t qualify for WIC. We’re in that sweet spot of not having enough discretionary income to save money, but we also are not qualifying for any federal benefits.
“I want the [day care] workers to be paid well, and that’s something I think that they deserve. That’s where a policy solution, like additional funding, would be amazing. And a lot of that was present during COVID. It was nice when [student loans] were on pause. We were ready for the student loan forgiveness.”
While the family’s income level enrolled them for a $1,000-per-month payment on her husband’s student loan, she explained that they can’t afford that much while still paying for child care.
“It almost feels like we’re penalized for having children. We’re in a country that is supposed to value families. I’ve never felt more unsupported than being a parent in the United States.”