Our summer ritual: The child-care scramble
June is here, and with it, the end of school and the start of the summer child-care scramble. In the Greater Washington area, it is a challenge to find, organize and pay for child care, no matter how old your children are.
I’ve been at this dance for 20 years now, ever since the first summer after my eldest finished kindergarten. Recently divorced with three young children, I began what would become an annual anxious ritual.
For the first few years of my children’s lives, I improvised child care. I worked as a freelance writer and lived near my large extended family. After my divorce, I needed child care full time and right away.
When I remarried, I gained two stepsons and, later, one of our own, and the challenges literally doubled. For a few years, we counted ourselves lucky in having found a wonderful woman who came to the house, managed everything from children to dinner and charged a fee we could afford. When my husband lost his job, though, we lost her. One summer, he served as the manny, a time that I recall with some hilarity. But he and the children endured.
By the time he and I were back at full-time jobs, the patchwork of child care — and its related costs — continued to grow. Somehow, through a combination of credit cards, flexible spending accounts and a job that allowed telecommuting, we navigated entire summers.
Now we are down to just one minor at home, and I am still piecing it together.
For a few years, we sent him to an expensive but local YMCA camp, which he loved. Last summer, its prices went up, and we found a cheaper program run by our county recreation department. It featured daily field trips to amusement parks and the beach, and it worked.
One afternoon last June, the arrangement fell apart. Ironically, I was at the White House Summit for Working Families, where the administration and various business leaders spent the day talking about the challenges and decisions families face, particularly in a society that does not routinely offer parental leave, caregiver leave or paid sick leave.
I was rapt, listening to first lady Michelle Obama describe her own challenges, when my phone lit up with text messages from my son: He was stranded at a camp. A counselor waited for my husband to arrive and waived the dollar-a-minute fee charged for late pickup. I fretted and worried, but I could not hop out ofmy front-row seat and dart past the Secret Service and media scrum to dash home to Annapolis.
This year, for seven weeks of summer camp, I’ve already paid $1,500. At a little more than $200 a week, that’s a bargain. But camp ends at 4 p.m., and no aftercare is offered. There is also a two-week gap between the last session and the start of school. Still, this care is cheap: Paid infant care generally starts at $10 per hour, and high-quality care costs far more than that. A just-released study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research puts the region’s average yearly costs for child care at $22,000. For those making a so-called living wage of $15 an hour, or a bit more than $30,000 annually, the costs are impossible.
We pay so much lip service to the importance of parenting and yet do little to enact policies that help people shoulder the responsibility.
According to the Labor Department, just 12 percent of the private-sector workforce has access to paid family leave or time to care for newborn or adopted children or for sick or aging relatives.
Parents spend months planning summer activities, stressing themselves and their savings for the children who will create our future. We’d do better to plan a society where we don’t just celebrate families but also help them.