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The Daycare Decision Is Where The Walls Cave In

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You want to send your child to daycare (or have no choice), but where do you send them? Are you after a Spanish immersion program? A classroom that is sufficiently "diverse"? An in-home daycare or franchised daycare center; in an apartment or with a backyard? Do you want a high-achieving school that will push your child, or an unstructured situation that lets your child lead their teachers to, I don't know, experiential epiphanies nestled among the felt river rocks? The daycare decision is mercilessly tricky these days — and not just because budgets are tight and wage growth pitiful.

The birth rate is currently at a 30-year low, per NPR; meanwhile, a survey by Care.com found that 33 percent of U.S. families spend 20 percent of their annual income on daycare— anything above 7 percent of income is considered "unaffordable." " The reasons for the falling birthrate are no doubt complex, but the gap between desired and “completed” family size (as the lingo has it) suggests a grim and cleareyed sense of reality," wrote Emily Cooke in a New York Times review of the book Squeezed, on economic uncertainty for the middle class. Meanwhile, there is still no federally mandated family leave, which means many many families must seek daycare from infancy.

I felt the financial pinch when my daughter started at a daycare at just over 2 years old. I had previously been staying at home with her while sneaking in work as I built a business writing from home. Financially, we were still in a rough place, as we had three student loans and a $50,000 loan to pay off due to fertility treatments. But I needed to decide things from a cost-benefit perspective. Put forth the money for child care now to have more time to write and therefore bring in more income?

Plus, there was whole pesky postpartum anxiety thing I had battled and entrusting my daughter to someone else was a huge leap I was only now just considering. I toured several home daycares and centers, making a pros and cons list and languishing over my decisions. Should be put money into childcare while still living pay check to paycheck? Did I have the faith it took to believe the money would start coming in if I just had more time during the day to write? Coming to a daycare decision was difficult — but I knew it would be. I decided to talk to other moms about how they came to their own decisions for care for their children while they were away.

Cost and location were of concern to everyone. Any parent with a child in daycare will tell you it’s expensive, especially when you’re looking for one who will take an infant.

And by expensive, prohibitively so — high enough to obliterate whatever income many parents make.

Lately he's been coming home from daycare and saying, 'Mama, I missed you today. Why do you leave me everyday?' and it breaks my heart.

Aislinn,* a mother in Mississippi, grappled with the guilt of sending her son to daycare. Her son was a toddler in daycare part time when she made the decision to leave her job and start her own business. She was making less than $11,000 a year when her son started full time and fought internally with herself constantly for the choice she had made to spend more than half her income on child care.

"Daycare was about $550 a month and now that I am working for myself, I don't bring home any income yet, as my business is still in the beginning stages," she explains to Romper via email. Compounding that, Aislinn struggled with infertility and hearing comments from others such as, "I could never allow someone else to raise my child" hurt.

"Lately he's been coming home from daycare and saying, 'Mama, I missed you today. Why do you leave me everyday?' and it breaks my heart." Logically, she knows it makes sense to give her son the social and educational aspects of daycare, but continually wonders if the time away from him when he's young was the right thing to do.

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Katherine,* a mom from New York, said her decision was based mostly on pricing. “[Around me] there are at least six daycares/preschools that I can think of that were only blocks from us. We looked at two comparative places because some of these places are outrageously expensive! But we’ve been happy. There’s trained teachers, but it has an in-home vibe.”

Emily,* a mother also from New York, lives in a small town where the options are fewer. “There are basically two daycare centers and then a lot of in-home care,” she explains to Romper via email, “I didn’t feel qualified to make a good judgment about those, so I decided to go with a center.”

She says it wasn’t ideal — going with a center was the more expensive option. ”Unlike the other center in town, this one had bright airy rooms and the teachers interacted so well with the children. It was also affiliated with a nearby university, so the education students often worked at the center. Everyone I talked to had glowing things to say about the place.”

Over in Texas, Grace* did an aftercare program once her kids reached school age and she was working outside the home. It was a tumbling academy that included pre-gymnastics, a foam pit and trampoline. She ended up paying the $165 a week to send them there, versus choosing one of the two other centers in town priced at about $120.

One of the other places had a child severely scalded by boiling water when he got into the kitchen and pulled a pot off the stove. There were just too many kids and not enough workers.

According to Grace, the other centers had kids sitting in front of a TV all day and were understaffed. The trade off was she was spending 25 percent of her income on after-school care, but due to her pregnancy, she needed to stay at her current job. "Texas had significantly phased out recess time and the school day was very regimented" she tells Romper via email. "I didn't want the kids going from that to another setting where they would be forced to sit still."

"Plus," she adds, "one of the other places had a child severely scalded by boiling water when he got into the kitchen and pulled a pot off the stove. There were just too many kids and not enough workers."

The hodge-podge mix of in-home daycares and `daycare centers mean parents sometimes have to do more work to look up the code violations of a provider, and the price can vary widely. New York City, among other cities, has implemented universal "pre-K," a year of publicly funded school for 4-year-olds, soon to be expanded to "3-K" for 3-year-olds, as the New York Times reports. These programs are more ubiquitous in other countries. In France, for example, créche is free to all for children 2-and-a-half and older, and operates for 11 hours a day.

Cost was the leading factor in Brandy,* a mom from Illinois, deciding on child care for her son. “In Chicago, cost is a factor, but the Montessori nature of this one [that she chose], plus the bilingual opportunity as the majority of it was Spanish-speaking, made it a good place. It’s close to our home and is actually an in-home daycare which I was more attracted to.”

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Whether or not they can afford a daycare is an issue, but some moms tell me that they will stretch to make the extra cost of a really good place.

In Washington, Tamiko* explains via email the strong recommendations her family got for a certain in-home daycare.

“We went for a visit while the kids were having lunch. My 2-year-old wanted to join, the owner agreed, and the kids all scooted over to make room. That was a big sign for me of the culture of the place. There were no TVs, crafts and learning activities were done daily, and the owner was firm, but kind.”

Often, the child is a litmus. Erin* from Kansas was distraught after many appointments with daycares with her daughter were not working out. During the next home visit she had, everything was different. “The owner was friendly and gentle and asked to hold my son. He took to her immediately and it just felt right.”

Ultimately, Erin would have preferred to keep her son with family, but, “I’m glad it wasn’t an option, because I know my son is being exposed to different experiences and socializing with kids of all ages. I’m not sure he would have that same opportunity if his grandparents had him.”

Suzanne,* a mom from Texas, had a preemie, and, in the end, wasn't comfortable with any of the daycare options available, she tells Romper via email. “So we took all the daycare options off the table and went with a part-time nanny.”

*Asked to be referred to by first name only.