Until I started having kids, I hadn't given a lot of thought to the complicated situation that is child care in America. In fact, for most of my first pregnancy I had no plan for what I would do once the baby came.
My lack of a plan stemmed partly from the fact that my then-partner and I were both working irregular schedules, and we just assumed that we’d be able to fit in taking care of our baby more easily than 9-to-5-ers could. And to be honest, I was utterly out of the parenting loop.
Midway through my third trimester, I got offered an amazing — though not incredibly high-paying — job, and after mulling it over I decided that taking it was the right move. The catch was that it meant I definitely needed regular child care.
I began researching my options, and I quickly discovered what any parent could have told me: Childcare is insanely expensive. The average annual cost of child care in the U.S. is $18,000, and in cities like New York (where I live) it can be up to $30,000. No surprise, then, that 2015 Care.com report shows that year over year, child care is the largest annual household expense.
And not only is it expensive, but child care can be a huge headache to sort out, and there’s a wide range when it comes to quality and safety.
Ten years and three kids later, I have a much better sense of what’s out there. Through a combination of trial and error, family and community support, and plain old luck, I’ve managed to get my children cared for without going broke. Here’s how I made it happen.
Bring Extended Family On Board
Though grandparents have historically been an integral part of child care across the globe, for a lot of Americans in recent generations it hasn’t been the most natural option. That may be changing. As Van C. Tran, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, told The New York Times, “The younger generation are working more hours than ever before, so they desperately need their parents to be around.” He calls this a “cultural norm-shifting moment,” given that the role of the grandparent as babysitter “was not expected or acceptable even a generation ago.”
Indeed, before I had kids, I never would have imagined involving my parents, let alone my in-laws, intimately in my adult life. But when presented with the option, I realized just how much sense it made.
My recently retired mother-in-law was living several hours north of us. A few weeks before my due date, we were still unsure what we were going to do for child care, so we asked her if she could come for the first month to help out. That month turned into a decade of babysitting that has alternated between being occasional and full time. For a time we even rented her an apartment in our Brooklyn neighborhood — it was more affordable than full-time day care or a nanny, she could keep her home upstate, and we could all maintain our privacy.
For us, the key to making this a workable situation was giving each other space, setting some boundaries early on, and looking at the sitting as more of a job than a favor. The grandparent option isn’t going to work for everyone, but if you have a family member who might be open to child care, don’t write it off.