When my partners and I began our firm in 2000, we were three women who were just starting our families. We jokingly thought we would time our pregnancies so only one of us was on maternity leave each year. Ironically, it actually worked out that way. Once we got past the notion that we could use a spare office as a nursery, we each needed to consider our real alternatives. How could we best take care of our own children while continuing to develop our new firm? The following is how we each dealt with the issue and what factors led us to our different decisions.
The nanny. Only 5 percent of preschool age children in the U.S. are cared for by a non-relative in the child’s home.1 These include babysitters, nannies and au pairs. This option is chosen more frequently as the educational level of the mother increases. My partner, Mary, and her husband (also an attorney) have always had a nanny for their two children. Mary chose to do this rather than day care because she wanted her kids to be in their own home with one person with whom they would develop a one-on-one relationship. Her son has asthma and allergies, and exposure to many other children in a day care facility could have been problematic when he was younger. She also wanted the flexibility of not being bound by a day-care schedule. Also, if the kids were sick, the nanny would still be there, unlike a day-care facility which would not allow them to attend for the day. The biggest drawback to Mary was the cost. Generally, in the Chicago area live-out nannies can cost $9-$12 an hour, but the price varies with the number of children and the experience of the nanny. The average annual cost of a live-in nanny in 2004 was $27,664, according to the International Nanny Association.2
Many people begin researching prospective nannies by contacting a local agency which will pre-screen candidates. Mary also did so and quickly found the right nanny for her family. Her nanny does not live-in but rather works four days a week. Mary then stays at home with the kids one day a week. However, she also pays the price for having that precious day at home—her e-mails and documents are often time-stamped as being created at 3:30 a.m., proof positive that having a day out of the office forces you to squeeze the same amount of work into your week, no matter when you do it.
The au pair. My other partner, Pepi, and her husband (also an attorney) decided to get a live-in au pair through a state department program that places foreign students with American families. She thought it would be a great way to expose her son to a different culture. She also felt it would be a very flexible arrangement since the au pair was a live-in. The program limits the au pair to working 45 hours a week and no more than 10 hours a day. However, the hours are flexible, so if there is a special event on an evening or weekend, Pepi just saves up her hours. The au pair can generally only spend one year with a family. The cost is $140 per week regardless of the number of children in the family, in addition to providing room and board to the au pair.
Like Mary, Pepi took comfort in knowing that her son was being cared for in his own home. She also did not have the stress of getting him up and out the door to get to day care at 7 a.m. There are, of course, privacy issues that come up when you have another person living with you, but Pepi felt the benefit of the flexibility far outweighed that concern. The biggest drawback was Pepi’s concern that her son was not having as much social interaction with other children as he would in day care. Because of this, Pepi recently decided to enroll her son in formal day care one day a week.
Day Care. Almost 25 percent of all preschoolers are cared for in organized day-care facilities. In 2001, the last year for which there is information, the cost of formal day care averaged 6.1 percent of household income for those with a household income greater than $4,500 per month. Pepi thought that day care would give her son the chance to get to know other children and to learn to adapt to a different environment. In selecting a day-care facility, Safer Child, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, advises that you should find out the ratio of caregivers to children, the staff turnover rate, the licensing requirements for the facility, the extent of background checks done on staff, and the training provided for first aid and CPR.3 After checking these criteria and visiting several centers, Pepi decided on a downtown day-care center which, for one flat daily or weekly fee, will care for your children from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m each day. Many centers tax a hefty penalty for failing to pick up your child at 5:00 p.m., which can prove to be difficult in our profession. In downtown Chicago, one can expect to pay $185-$225 a week for full-time care from a reputable day-care center. Although the first few weeks were difficult—tears were shed more by mom than child—her son now gets excited as they enter the room full of children he has come to know. He doesn’t get the one-on-one contact with his caregiver, but, as Pepi says, sometimes it’s important for a child to know that he is not the center of the universe, and day care gives him that perspective.
There are also day-care providers who provide care in their homes for a group of children. These are sometimes referred to as “family day care.” These are usually less expensive than day-care centers. In 2001, the cost of family day care averaged 4.4 percent of household income for those with a household income greater than $4,500 per month, rather than the 6.1 percent for day-care centers.
The Stay-at-Home Dad. In two-parent homes where the mother is employed, more than 105,000 fathers have chosen to leave the labor force in order to be the primary caregiver for their children—in other words, “Stay-at-Home Dads.” This is a 54 percent increase since 1986. My husband left his dream job at a Chicago blues and jazz store so he could join these numbers. Our decision gives me the flexibility and peace of mind to enable me to focus on work. Sure, it took some time for my husband to feel comfortable in his new role. For instance, there was the time that he was responding to questions to fill out paperwork at a doctor’s office. The nurse routinely asked him for the name of his employer. He said “I’m a stay-at-home dad,” to which the nurse sarcastically replied “you mean unemployed.” Like Pepi, I also want to ensure that our son has opportunities to socialize with other children, so there are a lot of playgroups and classes. However, at these events my husband is often the only dad. Our choice requires the loss of a spouse’s income, but considering the cost of child care, the net effect was something we decided we could manage.
There are also relative caregiver options. Grandparents, siblings, or other non-spouse relatives care for approximately 25 percent of children of college-educated working mothers.4 One has the confidence that you know the person caring for your child, and the cost is much lower (if not free). The cost of a relative caregiver, if he or she is paid, averaged 4.5 percent of household income for those with a household income greater than $4,500 per month.
One must honestly evaluate the needs of one’s family when considering child care options. Explore your alternatives and choose a situation that enables you to focus on work while you are at work. That, hopefully, will let you enjoy something that every parent wants—more time to personally spend with your children.
1. Overturf Johnson, Julia. “Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Winter, 2002.” U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., October, 2005. [Unless otherwise noted, statistics provided are from this source.]
2. Shellenbarger, Sue. “You Think College Costs A lot? Try Day Care.” Chicago Sun Times. Oct. 24, 2004.
3. For a great child care checklist see the Iowa State University’s “Child Care Checklist for Parents” at <www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1805.pdf>.
4. Boushey, Heather and Wright, Joseph. “Working Moms and Child Care.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 5, 2004 (analyzing U.S. Census Bureau “Survey of Income and Program Participation,” 2002).