Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.
My partner and I haven't always known exactly what we've wanted out of life and parenthood, but after having our daughter in 2019 and realizing the extent of child care costs in the United States, we decided that one child is more than enough.
I didn't even take maternity leave at all when my daughter was born. I met with my company's HR department and found out that, although I was a salaried employee with health benefits, paid maternity leave was not one of them. So I chugged along, teaching online classes while my daughter grew bigger and bigger inside me. And after she was born, my laptop stayed right by my side as I cradled her in one arm and typed emails, ever so slowly, with the other hand.
The chair of my department at the time had tried to urge me to take a leave of absence, writing in an email, "Having a baby is a marvelous experience, but it is draining, time-consuming, and sometimes stressful."
I sighed audibly, sitting in front of my computer, wishing things were different. "Unfortunately," I wrote back, "due to my financial circumstances, I'm not in a place where I can afford to take unpaid leave."
And now, while part of me likes to entertain and straight-up romanticize the idea of adding a second child to our family, I've become much more prudent and grounded in reality. I want to give our daughter the best early education and child care experience that we can, and we simply can't afford to multiply that cost by two—or more—with both my partner and I holding non-tenure-track jobs in academia.
As a new parent, I found myself wondering: Have child care costs always been this high? How has everyone done this before us? And which parent ends up having to sacrifice their own career to offset the expenses? It seems like something has to give, or maybe it's us who have to bend to this seemingly rigid system.
The Drawhorns. Annalise Mabe.
For Meagan Rome, the cost of child care was so high compared to what her husband would be making monthly, they called it a wash and agreed on him staying home as the resident caretaker instead of having him trudge off to work where they'd barely break even.
"We only have one child, because the cost of daycare would have negated the money my husband brought in," she says.. "So he was a stay at home dad for the first 5 years of our daughter's life, and we live on one income."
My partner and I find ourselves sitting around the dining room table after our toddler has gone to bed, hashing it out: Should we work just so our salary can mainly send our children to school or daycare? Should we hold onto our jobs, our careers that we've worked (and studied) years for? Or should we stay home with them, embrace the years that they are little, knowing we are doing the best we can with the resources we have?
This is the dilemma that so many parents are faced with.
Robin Ramsey has a Masters degree but quit her job when she had her first child. "I've only gone back to work super part-time to contribute to child care costs," she tells Parents. "We are seven years into this whole parenting thing, and I'm still not utilizing my education, largely due to these child care concerns and costs."
Berg Kris, a single mother of three, tells Parents she has been among the "working poor" since her children were born, and is only now starting to finally make what passes for a living wage. "Summer camp was an excruciating choice," she says. "Do I pay more to provide what, on paper, is a solid enrichment opportunity, or do I cross my fingers and hope the county Parks and Rec affordable summer camp doesn't traumatize my kids?"
Many parents are getting strategic, factoring in child care costs to their family planning, and spacing kids out five years or so apart so as to not incur the financial burden of sending multiple children to daycare all at once. And some parents are actively making the choice and the financial sacrifices to have more children despite the high costs of child care.
Courtney Maxwell Smith tells Parents that she and her partner "decided to be poor and have one parent at home with the first four kids. I put school off for a while so that could happen. We have five kids, but the sacrifices we've made have been worth it... My husband does like being home with our littlest now, but is stressed about the jobs he can't do since this affects his business."
All of this also brings to mind the issue of quality of life. To what extent am I willing to sacrifice our quality of life in order to bring other kids into the world? Will I be able to retain my own autonomy as an individual, as a person? Or will I sacrifice my own desires, career, and dreams of travel in order to have multiple children? For me, I know the answer—and for others, that answer may be different.
Personally, I ask myself: What do I want for my child? What do I want for myself? And can we walk a tightrope to meet everyone's needs? Can we even afford to...have jobs?
The Drawhorns. Annalise Mabe.
Can we walk a tightrope to meet everyone's needs? Can we even afford to...have jobs?
In 2021, the rise of child care costs show no sign of slowing down. According to a new survey, 72% of families say child care is more expensive due to the pandemic, and 85% of families report spending 10% or more of their household income on child care.
Moreover, we are seeing a trend—the rise of the one-and-done family in America—hat is likely in no small part due to child care costs. With the average American family dropping "from 2.5 children to 1.9 since the 1970s," we have to consider child care costs as a possible part of this shift.
Financial strain and proximity of familial support definitely come into play for many who are debating on whether or not they can afford to have more children, as do other factors like student loan debt.
"Child care costs won't prevent us from having a second child, though it will make for a rough year or two," Eva Hale tells Parents. "But we just won't save for retirement, and will need to not have either of our cars die in that time period."
They go on to note that "it would all be much easier if we weren't paying $750+ a month in student loans. Daycare for two will be more than our mortgage, taxes, PMI, and home insurance combined."
Child care costs won't prevent us from having a second child...we just won't save for retirement.
Considering child care costs and aid options can start to feel futile or overwhelming. And, of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer—since having multiple children, or any children at all, involves so many personal and logistical points to consider. This would hold true even if we weren't living in a country with a broken access-to-care system when it comes to families' needs.
That said, doing your research on local or statewide resources may be able to help mitigate some of the obstacles we face as parents seeking help with child care access and cost. Here are a few starting points.
Consider all your options: Look into in-home day centers, hiring a babysitter or part-time nanny, using a nanny share service with another family, or explore non-profit programs offered by local churches, YMCAs, or county highschools with early childhood education programs.
See if your employer offers a Flexible Spending Account (FSA): this can often help alleviate some of the costs involved in taking care of dependents
Shift work schedules or stagger schedules with your partner, to cut down on daily hours of child care needed.
Discuss a remote or hybrid schedule with your employer so you can max your own child-caring hours and minimize those you have to pay for.
Advocate (and encourage those close to you to advocate as well) for policy change in support of more affordable or subsidized child care programs. Organizations such as Child Care Aware, Zero to Three, and NAEYC are all working towards engaging elected officials to make child care more affordable and accessible for all families.