Our sum­mer rit­ual: The child-care scram­ble

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

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.


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