Childcare Options for Working Parents

For working parents, the school calendar is an uncooperative, flaky partner. Amid the flurry of snow days, half-days, and unexpected holidays, a stark realization surfaces – school is not childcare. With roughly 260 official working days each year and only 180 required days of schooling, the gap is undeniable. How do we balance it all?
Written by
Kim Le
Published on
April 13, 2024

School's Out (Kids Are Off) 50% of the Time We Work

kids out of school

To illustrate the extent of the school-work dichotomy, we need only to map out the standard school year. The academic day often begins well before the typical workday does, sometimes as early as 7 a.m. However, it is not unusual for children to be released from school as early as 2 p.m. On the average workday, traditional office hours run until 4 p.m. or later, leaving a gaping hole between the end of the school day and the end of work. Compounding this issue are the numerous half-days and holidays that dot the school calendar throughout the year. Depending on where you live, there could be at least one half day or holiday each week, and those seem to multiply by the month. Not to mention the occasional extended school vacation that could range from a long weekend to a week or more.

The summer months, perhaps the longest child-care-free zone, become a battlefield for many working parents. While they signify the break from education, for working parents, it can mean an annual scramble to piece together care solutions, from camps to community centers, to friends and family stepping in.

For every $1.00 in gross income, parents might only have $0.60 to $0.75 on the dollar left

Paying for Work

With children out of school, parents have to figure out how to cover those hours, and very often, it means paying for childcare help. Working with after-tax dollars, this is a particularly painful line item in family budgets.

For every $1.00 in gross income, parents might only have $0.60 to $0.75 on the dollar left, after taxes, to pay for childcare. This means that while the child is out of school, the money earned during that time has a diminished value.

weighing income and cost for women and men

Closer examination reveals the gravity of the situation. There are approximately 1,000 hours to cover for the school year. There are a couple of common solutions to procuring childcare:

  • Babysitters can cost upwards of $15 per hour, whereby the annual cost of child care can easily exceed $10,000.
  • In shared care settings, like before and after-school programs and summer camps, the expense can be less but still be significant. Assuming childcare costs of $200 per week for approximately 15 weeks of school vacation weeks and summer camp, that sums up to a whopping $3,000 for one child.

Financially, either solution places considerable strain on the household income, and decision-making often skews in favor of the job that can cover the costs of the childcare solution, rather than the one that might be the best for career growth or personal fulfillment.

Affordable Options & Getting Creative

For parents with school aged children, shopping ahead and mapping out contingency plans (instead of being surprised by lack of childcare coverage) will help alleviate countless stressful days of juggling a school day off and an important work deadline.

Here we outline the solutions we, and other parents we know, have used to handle this conundrum. We start first from the most cost efficient and easy to implement; then progress to more expensive and/or challenging to execute.

1. Public School’s Before, After and Summer School Programs

Public schools in some places do offer before, after, and summer school programs for kids. In some areas, there’s a lot of competition to get in because of the limited spots. Or there may be convoluted lottery processes to ensure a fair approach to assigning spots, which then requires figuring out the "system".

2. Your Local YMCA or Similar Community Gym

ymca building

The YMCA is a nonprofit that has 2,700 locations throughout the US. The YMCA serves a larger purpose than a local gym. As a nonprofit and resource for families, the YMCA also has before and after school programs along with summer camp. There is also drop-in care (with appointments) for parents who need an hour here or there.

3. Private Programs for Before and After School & Summer Camp Programs

These are by far the most time efficient and relatively cost efficient options, but also the most challenging for new parents in certain communities to tap into. The main appeal is that they are usually of better quality than the ones offered by the school, cost less than a babysitter or a nanny, and generally have less competition. These programs rely on marketing or word of mouth in order to tap into new parent groups, so they will be harder to find. To find these may require that you actually walk or drive around your community and lookout for signs. Or, search for them online with Google Maps and then vet them by going through their reviews, websites, and any other sources of data verification you can find.

4. Set Up a Mom Group

This might be the best solution in terms of cost, ie $0, but highly costly in terms of time commitment. The main requirements here are:

  1. Find a neighbor close to you (ideally 1-3 houses away at most);
  2. Similar aged children (at most 1-2 years apart); and
  3. Reliable parents

These criteria are hard to meet unless you know a lot of people and, honestly, love meeting new people. It’s fourth on our list, because of our lack of social skills.

5. Keep Your Nanny

And of course for the more well-off, please just keep your nanny. This provides great continuity for your child as they adjust to school and helps your nanny adjust to fewer hours while looking for new clients. If costs are too high, creating a nanny-share would be a good option.

6. Flexible or Remote Work

Lastly, our least favorite but absolutely most practical, is to find ways to arrange a flexible or work from home job. With the number of hiccups that pop up in a day for kids in school, a remote job is invaluable. Being able to take a call from the car when you have to do an emergency pick-up because the kid has a fever is a lifesaver, speaking from experience. Life has many curveballs and more so when kids are involved. Flexible, remote work is a lifeline. Even for parents who opt for one of the five solutions above (like we’ve done), having the ability to work remotely, from time-to-time and on your schedule, can give you a backup plan when your Plan A falls apart, because it will.

collage of moms working from home with their children off from school

Preparing for a Harsh Reality

At the heart of this issue lies a larger societal conversation: the childcare crisis extends beyond birth and preschool ages. For the majority of American families, school schedules and the work schedules are not in sync. The status quo is increasingly at odds with the reality of modern family life. It’s a discrepancy that deserves our attention and advocacy, not just for the sake of convenience, but in recognition of the profound impact it holds on the economic, social, and emotional fabric of our society. If global governments want to earnestly reverse the lower fertility rate, then addressing the childcare crisis from birth to accepted independent age is critical.

Until then, parents should know they’re not alone in this challenge. All parents share this challenge together; and there’s an unwritten understanding of the struggle. There are solutions. School may never be the equivalent of childcare, but with careful planning and dedicated effort, families can certainly make the two more compatible.

Can you afford to stay at home instead of paying for childcare?

Get Our Work or Stay At Home Calculator on Etsy.

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