A national struggle: child care’s impact on working women

Teacher and water polo coach Justine Hedlund drops her child off at Carlmont High Schools onsite daycare center on a Thursday morning. The daycare has made my schedule as a working parent a lot easier to manage, Hedlund said.
Teacher and water polo coach Justine Hedlund drops her child off at Carlmont High School’s onsite daycare center on a Thursday morning. “The daycare has made my schedule as a working parent a lot easier to manage,” Hedlund said.
Isabella Zarzar
Child care’s challenges

When one envisions a parent caring for their children, the image of a mother likely comes to mind.

Even with an increasing number of women in the workforce, it’s still predominantly women who bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities, leading to a delicate balancing act between work and family life. 

Countless American families face the struggle of finding suitable child care, compelling many parents to make significant alterations to their work lives. In 2016, approximately 2 million parents had to make career sacrifices due to childcare issues, highlighting the pressing need for accessible and reliable childcare solutions in the U.S.

According to a 2021 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 34% of families with young children face serious problems finding child care when adults need to work. Families’ primary reasons for this difficulty included cost, lack of open slots, and quality. Cite location can also be a reason for difficulty, especially for low-income families, due to a lack of care centers and unaffordable or unreliable transportation.

While child care costs vary under different circumstances, the national average cost of care for a single child in a center is about $10,000 per year, which is unaffordable to many families with young kids, according to a report released by Child Care Aware of America.

This is an issue for many mothers, including Michelle Tovar-Mora, a first-generation Latina engineer and mother of three.

“I live in Los Angeles, so the child care cost for one child can be around $3,000 a month here, which is ridiculous. This could be essentially one whole paycheck to many parents and even more than that to others,” Tovar-Mora said.

In 34 states and Washington, D.C., the average cost of child care at a daycare center is more than in-state public college tuition.

Christy Charny, a research project manager of Engineering Business Operations at Colorado State University, has been deeply impacted by the unaffordability of child care as well.

“I would say my family is in the middle to lower-middle class, and we have a really affordable mortgage. But the cost of child care is even more than our mortgage, so paying for it is like buying a second mortgage and then some. It’s not like your income increases just because you have a baby,” Charny said.

Over the past two decades, child care costs have more than doubled, while wages haven’t changed much. During this same period, women’s labor force participation in the U.S. has slowed while other major developed nations have seen continued growth.

Another issue is the lack of slots in child care centers, which causes many parents to find themselves on lengthy waitlists. Over half of Americans live in a child care desert, where there are three or more children under 5 for every child care spot available.

“The need for childcare, especially for kids under 2 years old, is very high. But the waitlist is very long,” Tovar-Mora said. “I joined the waitlist as soon as I found out that I was pregnant with my third child. My first kid did not enter a childcare center until he was 9 months old. Right now, my 5-month-old third child is in the same situation since I am on the child care waitlist but I haven’t been able to get care for him yet.”

This experience aligns with that of many other parents, such as Justine Hedlund, a special education teacher and a water polo coach at Carlmont. However, as a teacher and coach, it can be especially difficult to find a daycare with suitable program hours.

“When looking for daycare before I came to Carlmont, drop-off times were usually too late for me, and pickup times were too early. And I can’t do that because it interferes with my job. Finding one that worked with my hours and had space was shockingly challenging,” Hedlund said.

I wanted to get a better job, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to write my cover letters and resumes and apply because I had to throw everything at trying to find daycares.

— Christy Charny

Naturally, another important factor in child care is that it meets the expectations of parents.

“Last year, I bounced my kids around to four different child care centers. First, because of accessibility, and second, because of the standards that the caretakers have to meet. They need to work on quality through more regulations to ensure that they meet these standards. Because if we don’t feel comfortable with the center, we’re going to be hesitant to take our child there,” Tovar-Mora said.

Given the numerous factors involved in parents’ daycare center choices, this process can be exceptionally time-consuming for many.

“The time it takes to research, make calls, do interviews, do site visits, and find a daycare that is close and affordable is crazy,” Charny said. “I wanted to get a better job, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to write my cover letters and resumes and apply because I had to throw everything at trying to find daycares. I filled a whole notebook with information on places I had looked into.”

Inequality persists: mothers are primarily impacted

Child care issues end up disproportionately affecting mothers, who most often act as a caregiver when their families cannot find the right child care.

In a 2018 survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, mothers were 40% more likely than fathers to report that they had personally felt the negative impact of child care issues on their careers. 

“I think in most cases, child care needs mainly impact the woman because we tend to be the default caregivers,” Tovar-Mora said.

Furthermore, a 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that, in families with a child under 6, mothers took on the majority of child care responsibilities, spending an average of about 2.6 hours a day caring for their children compared to about 1.5 hours for fathers.

“Overwhelmingly, child care responsibilities fall on mothers. And because this is historically the case, sometimes fathers – and even I’ve made this mistake at times – assume that since that’s the way it’s been, that’s the way it should be now, right?” said Andrew Ramroth, a Carlmont teacher.

According to Ramroth, he and his wife are allowed to take a certain number of days off from work within the first 12 months of the birth of their child. 

“I didn’t take off the full amount allowed when my first child was born as my wife did. Looking back, I could’ve been more helpful to my partner,” Ramroth said. “I had a subconscious stereotype in my head that a mom just spends more time at home than a dad does. I was thinking about how I needed to be back at work with my students. But female teachers also have that same pull to be with their students.”

These stereotypes can have more subtle, although still notable, effects.

For instance, even in couples where both parents work full time, 54 percent of parents say the mother does more managing of children’s schedules and activities, according to a 2015 Pew Research survey.

“When it comes to things like doctor’s offices and daycares, they tend to call the mom first. But my husband was lucky enough to work from home for a lot longer than I did. And since he’s the one at home, he’s always the one I put in charge of making doctor’s appointments and things like that. But they still call me even though I tell them I’m usually teaching and can’t answer my phone,” Hedlund said. “Once, when my husband told his boss that he had to take the day off because one of his kids was sick, I heard his boss’s response: ‘Well, can’t your wife take the day off?’” 

Entwined struggles: balancing child care and a career

Child care demands for millions of parents often translate to working fewer hours, accepting reduced pay, or even leaving their jobs entirely. At a national level, the financial impact of lost earnings, productivity, and revenue due to the child care crisis amounts to an estimated $122 billion annually. In 2018, however, the crisis had exacted a cost of $57 billion annually.

The National Child Care Survey Report by Small Business for America’s Future (SBAF) showed that 55% of small business owners believe that the lack of affordable, high-quality child care for employees has had a negative impact on their business. 

Overall, American families suffer about a total of $8.3 billion in lost wages annually due to a lack of child care, according to CAP.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women who took a single year off work saw their earnings drop by 40% over a period of 15 years compared to those who didn’t take time off. Leaving the workforce not only affects immediate wages but also results in lost retirement savings and benefits, indicating the lasting financial impact on mothers.

About 52% of working moms say the cost of childcare has made them consider leaving the workforce, while 64% say they need flexible work schedules in order to return to work, according to a 2023 Motherly survey report.

“I had to take time off of work to make sure I dropped my kids off and picked them up on time. And that could put a woman, or any parent, in an awkward position because now we’re being seen as unreliable employees. In the STEM field, almost half of women and a quarter of men end up quitting after the birth of their own child. I strongly believe that this has a lot to do with finding accessible, affordable, and good childcare,” Tovar-Mora said.

Mothers, in a CAP survey, stated that with affordable and reliable child care, they could increase earnings and career prospects by pursuing higher-paying jobs, promotions, more work hours, or new employment opportunities.

The reality is that child care difficulties continue to bog many mothers down.

Tovar-Mora, for example, was scheduled to take the professional engineering license exam in Oct. 2023 before child care issues got in the way. Passing this exam could have moved her up to a supervisory or manager-level position.

“Unreliable child care and managing work while being my kids’ primary caretaker leaves no room for me to study. I truly believe that if I had steady childcare, I could make time to study and pass my exam, which would open up a room full of opportunities for me to climb the corporate ladder,” Tovar-Mora said.

Additionally, many mothers in positions with unpredictable schedules find it hard to secure affordable child care that fits their irregular work hours, especially during evenings and weekends. These challenges, combined with low pay, make it tough for many mothers to sustain employment, whether they work full-time or part-time.

At Carlmont, there is an onsite daycare that allows staff to drop off and pick up their children in a way that aligns with their schedules. The two-room daycare accommodates children from 3 months to 5 years old. 

Although other schools in the Sequoia Union High School District have partnered with daycares, Carlmont is currently the only school that has one on campus.

“Very few people get to have their kids’ daycares on site,” Ramroth said. “My wife and I are extremely lucky. Daycare is very expensive and, oftentimes, parents have to drive out of their way to take their child to daycare, which is very exhausting to do every day.”

Hedlund agrees that daycare is highly beneficial to teachers with children.

“One of the main reasons I came to teach at Carlmont is because there is a daycare on site. I was a behaviorist, and I worked at all the school sites in the district. But when I knew I was having kids, I wanted to be where I could be close to them,” Hedlund said.

Next year, however, one of Hedlund’s children will be too old to continue going to the daycare. Because of this, she will have to quit her role as a water polo coach.

“I’ve coached water polo for nine years now, and I’ve enjoyed it. But I have a 4 and a 2-year-old right now. Next year, my 4-year-old will move to kindergarten. That will be at a different school site, meaning having to do two different drop-offs and two different pickups, which my husband and I both have to be involved in,” Hedlund said. “That won’t work with water polo when we’re practicing until 6 at night or early in the morning.” 

Parents can have an even more difficult time finding suitable child care and maintaining their jobs when their child has health problems.

“When she was born, my daughter had some health issues that we could not figure out, and my deadline for going back to work was quickly approaching. I did not get paid maternity leave,” Charny said. “I was so stressed because she was still very small, and I just didn’t know what we were going to do because we were on waitlists from the moment I found out that I was pregnant. I had called over 30 daycares, and there were very few near me.”

The people I’ve worked for are extremely supportive, but I know from speaking to other women that not everybody feels the same way because their managers are not as flexible or understanding.

— Michelle Tovar-Mora

Infant care is especially harder to find because there are fewer slots available for a variety of reasons, such as the appropriate ratio of caregivers to infants mandated by the state.

On top of this, the number of days that mothers are allowed to take off to look after their kids and recover from the physical toll of childbirth is too limited for many.

“I got three weeks of guaranteed maternal leave, which was a complete joke. If I wanted to claim short-term disability leave to get more days off, I was required to completely use up all of my vacation and sick leave first. That meant I had to go back to work with no sick leave for follow-up doctor’s appointments for my three-month-old child or for myself,” Charny said.

Using up sick leave days for maternity reasons impacts women in a variety of careers.

“Oftentimes, female teachers have fewer sick days than male teachers because they exhaust so much of their sick leave to stay home with children before or after birth. I have so many sick days while some of my colleagues have very, very few because they have to use it for maternity and for when their kids are sick,” Ramroth said.

When it comes down to it, parents who have a more supportive workplace regarding children are likelier to carry out their roles better and experience less stress.

In a recent study released by the Manufacturing Institute, women cited the lack of flexibility and the lack of child care support as their primary obstacles. 

“The people I’ve worked for are extremely supportive, but I know from speaking to other women that not everybody feels the same way because their managers are not as flexible or understanding,” Tovar-Mora said.

Many of these mothers struggle to find affordable child care that aligns with their work schedules. For Tovar-Mora, the hybrid schedule that arose after the COVID-19 pandemic has been a critical component of her ability to work as a mother.

“I’m able to work from home three days out of the week, so I’m able to watch my kid while at work, which is unsustainable once he starts becoming a crawler,” Tovar-Mora said. “But I have family around me that helps me watch him when I go into the office or when I just know that I’m going to be in front of a camera for work.”

Tovar-Mora, planning on having a fourth child, decided to move further away from her workplace in order to be closer to family members who could assist with child care. With traffic, it can now take up to an hour to get to her work when she used to live only about 10 minutes away.

Working mothers all have different experiences depending on their circumstances. 

Sometimes, mothers are able to effectively balance their chosen careers with children. Sometimes, they are forced out of the workforce entirely. And sometimes, mothers have no choice but to take up mundane jobs for the sake of stability.

“It may not be a job that lines up with your interests or professional background or passion, but you get stuck in it,” Charny said. “There are lots of people kind of in my generation who really aren’t doing what they went to college for because they just had to do what they had to do. They had to take what they could take to support themselves and their family.”

Looking forward

A CAP study found when Washington, D.C., began offering two years of free universal public preschool in 2009, the percentage of mothers with young children participating in the labor force increased by 12 percentage points. Of these points, 10 were directly attributable to universal preschool.

On the contrary, when childcare disruptions occur, parents’, particularly mothers’, participation in the workforce decreases

“Many parents, especially working professionals, talk about our generation not having as many children. I would say this is a direct impact of how problematic child care is today. Many parents just can’t afford to grow the family they want,” Tovar-Mora said.

Recently, another disruption in childcare has taken place.

For the past two years, the United States has provided funding for childcare providers, investing a historic $24 billion in pandemic relief. 

This funding has enabled providers to increase teachers’ salaries, purchase supplies, and cover expenses like mortgages. However, these funds expired in Sept. 2023, posing a significant threat to the industry by potentially resulting in tuition hikes, staff layoffs, and closures. A report by the Century Foundation suggests that approximately three million children, nearly a third of those in child care, could face disruptions due to this situation.

With this policy gone, parents call for additional funding and significant, sustained investment measures to make child care more accessible.

“A lot of progress is possible as far as childcare subsidies, facilities, offering childcare services, and companies investing in childcare services. As a whole, I would like to see not only more funding but more affordability and more uniform transparency with child care costs,” Tovar-Mora said.

Addressing these concerns is not just a matter of convenience; it’s an essential step toward empowering families, ensuring equal opportunities, and fostering a stronger, more supportive community for everyone.

According to research by Columbia University, reliable access to child care could generate an additional $94,000 in lifetime earnings for mothers. 

“I would already be trying for another child right now if I didn’t have to struggle with child care or worry about losing my job if I take appropriate time off for my baby. It’s these things that keep us completely desperate for benefits, time off, and balance,” Charny said. “But throughout all of this stress and difficulty, I still absolutely love being a mom. It’s fun and definitely worth it.”

About the Contributor
Isabella Zarzar
Isabella Zarzar, Highlander Editor
Isabella Zarzar is a junior at Carlmont High School and in her second year of journalism. She enjoys reporting on a variety of topics and is thrilled to be editing for the Highlander magazine this year. In her free time, Isabella enjoys reading, photography, soccer, and spending time with her friends and family.

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