At the start of my 10-minute break during a two-hour writing workshop, I looked down to check my phone. I had three missed calls and five text messages, all from the friend who was supposed to be watching my daughter. I stood to walk out of class, knocking into my desk and almost sent my notebook spilling its contents onto the floor. My friend answered by the time I got to the hallway.
“Everything’s okay,” he said. “But did you forget it’s Thursday? And she apparently gets out of school an hour early today?”
I sunk down to sit on a bench. He’d gotten to my house at 3:00 p.m., 20 minutes before my kindergartener was supposed to get dropped off by the bus, and found a note saying she was at a neighbor’s house. My daughter was allowed to get off the bus at 2:20 p.m., even though no one stood on the corner to meet her, and ran home to find the house empty. So she turned right back around, and ran across a busy road to the girl’s house who got off at the same stop. The girl’s mom didn’t have my number, so she walked four kids under six across the street and back to leave a note for my friend on the door. All this had gone on while I sleepily listened to my instructor talk about story arcs.
This was my second year of taking classes at the college full-time. Before that, I’d gone part-time to classes on campus, or had taken the majority of them online, all while working part-time as a house cleaner. For preschool, I found a way for my daughter to attend a private, gymnastics-based preschool by cleaning the facility in the mornings. I had a roommate who’d agreed to a cut in rent by being a live-in nanny on weekday mornings and sometimes when I cleaned offices at night or had the occasional evening class. I’d get up at 5:30 a.m. and clean until 8:30, go home, feed and dress Mia, then drive back to the preschool to drop her off. From there, I’d go to class or work.
Her preschool only went until 12:30 p.m. Every day, she went home to a different house with one of her classmates. At 5 years old, she knew that Mondays meant Stacy’s, Tuesdays meant Shane’s, and so on. By kindergarten, I could meet her at the bus stop, except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I had classes until 8 or 10 p.m. I’d drop her off in the morning at school and wouldn’t see her for nearly 24 hours.
Sometimes I could afford to pay people to babysit, but most of the time I couldn’t. On days she didn’t have school, I’d take her to work with me and she’d sit at the kitchen table while I cleaned. She went to class with me pretty often, usually plugged in to my old laptop, watching cartoons with her headphones on. Once I’d forgotten the cord to my laptop and it ran out of batteries, so she sat through a discussion on a particularly violent scene of Macbeth. But those are the moments I think back on when I remember the blur of those years, like when my writing instructor, the great Debra Magpie Earling, bent over to shake Mia’s hand, and said, “Your mom is a very good writer.”
I considered myself lucky. All of my professors were accepting of my daughter’s presence in class, much like the viral story of the professor holding a baby while he taught. Some of my clients even offered to watch her for the afternoon while I cleaned another house. We lived in an old house that had been split up into five apartments, and a bunch of kids 10 years younger than me in their early twenties asked if they could take Mia out to a park or for bike rides often. Once, she somehow convinced three different babysitters in one day to take her out for ice cream.
The Office of Child Care through the Administration for Children and Families reported that 1.45 million children’s families received child care assistance in 2013. The National Center for Education Statistics reported a total of 4.8 million children lived in poverty in that same year. The 2014 report from Child Care Aware of America showed that “the cost of child care in the United States can be as much as $14,508 annually for an infant, or $12,280 annually for a 4-year-old in a center, and does not always guarantee a quality environment.” I currently hold a bachelor’s degree and work full-time as a freelance writer, but daycare costs are still over half of my annual gross income. For me and other families struggling to make ends meet, paying for child care out of pocket is an impossible task.
Many parents need to get creative, arranging a network of people to watch their children in a constant string of text messages. “I will say, if it weren’t for texting, I would have lost my mind completely,” said my friend Holly Varah of the years spent raising her two daughters on her own. “If I’d had to actually make and take calls during work as often as I’d arranged things by text, I would have lost my jobs. No doubt.” She often worked at night, and sometimes up to three jobs at a time, and relied heavily on friends and family to watch the girls. “Sometimes I wouldn’t see them for 72 hours at a time,” she said.
Her story is like mine, and just one of many whose varying work schedules don’t qualify her for child care assistance. If you work a job outside of the hours a daycare that accepts government grants operates, if you are self-employed or you take classes not approved by federal daycare funding, you will have trouble finding ways around high child care costs.
But there are efforts out there to help the millions of children who need safe places to go while their parents work. Some efforts, like at the Center for Community Change, a national organization that helps low-income people, recognizes that the lack of good-paying jobs with benefits and regular hours keep children in unreliable or shoddy child care. The Center runs a campaign, Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All, that is focused on finding ways to create good-paying jobs so that families can sustain themselves.
Consistent care also helps children who would otherwise be forced to be independent too early, like my then-kindergartener who had to figure out what to do in a situation where she unexpectedly came home to an empty house. Parents of all income levels deserve options for child care while they work so they can be free of the worry that their children are cared for and safe.
Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured on Vox, Narritive.ly and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters and their shelter dog. Read more of her story at www.stepville.com or follow her @stepville.
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