Thursday - Knocked Off Balance: The Hard Truth
When I map out my family’s weekly schedule I literally give myself a headache. We’ve turned ourselves into scheduling contortionists to avoid putting our children in full-time day care. I am a strong believer in daycare being good for kids, but I decided that I didn’t want to put my babies in five days a week, nine hours a day. That’s the situation I had growing up with a single working mother, and though I came out of it relatively unscathed, it’s not something that I want for my own kids. Since it is within our power to avoid it, we have done whatever it takes.
So now we basically have split shifts with my mom as a weekly pinch hitter on Mondays. There are several days a week where I walk in the door and Charlie walks out. In order to make up for lost time during the work day, most nights after the kids are in bed we’re both working, me on my laptop in front of the television, him upstairs at the computer. Doesn’t sound like much of a life, does it?
My mom couldn’t afford the crème de la crème of day care centers, which is what we’ve practically bankrupted ourselves to afford for our kids. I actually think the day care situation got worse the older I was. In grade school I was too young to come home by myself after school so I went to a program at the YMCA. But of course, my mom couldn’t leave work to pick me up and bring me to the Y. So she arranged for a taxi to come and pick me up every afternoon and drop me off at the Y on the other side of town. It was like having a neon sign hanging over my head with an arrow and the words, “Poor Kid!” We lived in New Canaan, CT, at the time, an extremely affluent community just outside of New York City, where none—and I mean none—of my classmates’ mothers worked. None of their parents were even divorced. I suffered from extreme embarrassment and jealousy during those years, and would have given anything for a mom who wore chinos and loafers and drove one of those gigantic wood-paneled station wagons. I would have been begrudgingly OK with her picking me up in her bright yellow Subaru that she called Colonel Mustard. But a taxi driven by a fat guy with a deep Italian accent idling at the curb in front of the elementary school every afternoon promptly at 2:00 pm? Mortifying. My memories of the actual program are hazily negative, and mostly revolve around teary outbursts because I was so miserable and the snacks of government-subsidized American cheese and Ritz crackers, two items I will not eat to this day. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was coming home on the bus every day and watching sitcoms until my mom got home.
Beyond wanting something different than what I experienced for my kids, the other reason we’ve worked so hard to avoid full-time day care is financial. Three kids in full-time day care would be an astronomical expense, enough to make it hard to justify continuing to work. But neither one of us has any desire to be a full-time stay-at-home parent. So we’ve made sacrifices. Charlie gave up his full-time job and has been running his own business and doing some consulting on the side. I work most nights after the kids are in bed so I can leave on time to pick up the kids and early on Fridays.
The truth is, despite how crazy all of this is, we’re lucky that we can work it out. I know there are so many families out there that don’t have options, that have to put their kids in day care 40 hours a week or stay at home even when they don’t want to—or work when they’d rather be at home. I’ve discovered that most of the systems in our country do not favor working parents, from the fact that school gets out at 2:00 pm and doesn’t run year round, to the lack of quality affordable child care, to employers who don’t allow workers to go to doctor’s appointments or parent-teacher conferences or dock pay for time spent with a sick child.
I’ve also learned that as a working mother, you have to make some hard choices that no one really prepares you for. I have a friend who has put a lot of time, money, and effort into her legal career, and will be coming up for partner some time in the next five years. She’s also engaged to be married this fall and would like to start a family as soon as possible. She knows that she won’t be able to let up on work at all if she wants to make partner, and even if she keeps up the pace of work, people will automatically put her on the mommy track. Women, in particular, seem to be forced into these impossible choices when they decide to have children. I don’t feel that I’ve had to choose between a career and being a mother, probably because I’ve never been much of a career person in the first place. But I know that lurking underneath all of the decisions I have or haven’t made is the hard truth that at some point, or maybe even at many small points along the way, we do have to make tradeoffs and choices when it comes to having both a career and a family.
ODDS FACT: The odds a child younger than 7 who is not in kindergarten will be taken care of at a child-care center are 1 in 2.77.