I knew I had a short window to get some work done: My toddler was watching an episode of an unbelievably educational TV show while my baby napped. I opted for the most doable task in such a small amount of time: checking my work email. I opened up an email and started to respond just as my toddler noticed my laptop. He took a break from learning how to read via TV to run over and declare, “Show me a picture of a king cobra!”
As I tried to coax him back to the show so I could finish the email, I heard the baby wake up and start to cry. I quickly finished the email and then closed the laptop until I could get another opportunity to catch up — probably after the kids went to bed that night. Which led me back to the question I had been pondering at the time — should I add another day of child care to the week?
Parents who spend some amount of time working from home are probably familiar with some version of this scenario. Trying to get work done while caring for small children is often a house of cards that is bound to collapse at times. Still, many parents do it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost a quarter of employed people did some or all of their work from home in 2015.
So the question for working parents with some flexibility in their schedules becomes, how much child-care coverage to have? It’s a difficult question in the early childhood years because they are the most expensive for child care and the most demanding on parents in terms of sleep deprivation and the amount of hands-on supervision required.
As someone lucky to have some flexibility in my work schedule, it’s a question that has evolved over time. I am a college English instructor and teach some of my classes online and others on campus.
When I went back to work when my first son was 3-months-old, I initially chose less child-care coverage. He went to day care two days a week and my husband watched him for a half a day on Fridays while I taught a class in the morning — an arrangement that was possible because of my husband’s parental leave policies. I had reduced my teaching load by one class, and managing two and a half days of work at home was doable because an infant tends to sleep more, and I could work in small chunks while my son was awake since he would spend some part of his day just smiling at the ceiling fan.
By the time my son was 9-months-old, working from home had gotten more difficult, so we added a third day of child care for the next school year. At certain periods it meant stressfully working during every pocket of time available to me. But I liked my job and felt the benefits were worth it. I’m leaning in! I told myself. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud! Even if some nights I really just felt like leaning out and watching a marathon of “Tiny House Hunters” on HGTV.
By the time my second son was born, working at home became next to impossible. I had bumped back up to my normal teaching load and I needed to be feeding or entertaining one or both boys for the majority of the day. The only time that I could fit in work during the week was if their naps overlapped or once they were both in bed, and a couple sick days could throw the whole balance off. The natural solution seemed to be to add a fourth day of day care to the week, but I hesitated.
The first obstacle was cost. The average cost of child care varies by state and by the type of care you choose. In Colorado, where I live, the average annual cost of center-based child care is $14,950 for one child according to ChildCareAware. My kids were at a high-quality center, and I felt they were in good hands, but it also came with a steep price tag. Adding an extra day of care for both of them meant spending several thousand more per year. But we could afford it, even if was hard to swallow the extra expense. After all, this expense is temporary. In a couple years both kids will be in school full time, and while we will still need to pay for some care, the costs will go down significantly.
The other big obstacle was guilt. An extra day of child care meant one less day of time at home with my kids. As many people like to tell parents of young kids, you are supposed to be cherishing every moment. But the really cute stage also comes at a very demanding time for parents. Your kids can’t feed themselves, dress themselves, or bathe themselves, and you are often operating on minimal or fragmented sleep.
On days I was home with my kids, I was stressed out by the work I wasn’t getting done, and I didn’t love the monotony of the day-to-day schedule of caring for small children. I could get small work tasks done in the chunks of time I had, but there were plenty of things I needed more space and time to work through. My husband lobbied for adding the extra day of care — arguing that the reduced stress was worth the added cost.
So I finally let go of the guilt and added a fourth day of day care. Since doing so, I feel a lot less stressed. I still need to do some work at night or on the weekends, but I can enjoy the days I am home with my kids more.
In the ever-shifting chess game that is work-life balance, it felt like one move in the right direction.