Deborah Sprzeuzkouski and her husband both work well-paid, full-time jobs in New York City with days that stretch until 6 pm. But they’ve just signed up for a second shift: Deborah just gave birth to their first child, a baby girl. Her position at a nonprofit grants her three months of unpaid maternity leave; his job as a digital compositor offers him three weeks. Once they’ve used up all of their parental leave, they’ll face a dilemma more than 70 percent of American parents struggle with: the difficulty of finding affordable childcare. “We’re just going to have to watch our budget and live the same way we’ll live during my maternity leave, which is on one salary,” says Deborah. “Because the way I’m looking at it, my salary goes to daycare.”
Ideally, Deborah would work part-time with help from a mix of family and babysitters. But neither her nor her husband’s family is local: hers is in France (“My mom is pretty shocked at how bleak the [childcare] options are [in the United States],” she says) and her husband’s is in Washington, DC. She worries that leaving her job or reducing her schedule will hurt her career. Her neighborhood doesn’t have many daycare options, and the available ones cost as much as paying a domestic worker. So although she and her husband aren’t sure how they will afford it—or even whether their daughter needs one-on-one care—they are considering hiring a nanny.
Choosing between different kinds of care is tough for many families, not just Deborah’s. Only 16 percent of the population lives in multigenerational households in which grandparents might be around to help with childcare (nationwide, 48 percent of children are cared for by a relative). On top of that, more and more grandparents are working later into life. Nearly a third of children are in childcare centers or preschools, but while some help children learn and grow, one study found that most centers have poor to mediocre care. Twelve percent provided care that could harm children’s health, safety and development.
So many families turn to in-home care. A full-time nanny can cost over $30,000 a year—and yet about one in five children are in the care of nannies, babysitters or in-home daycare providers. Many wealthy families employ nannies, but there are plenty of others who find it is the only choice or the better of bad options.
The care these workers offer is crucial to parents, and not just because children are in an important developmental stage. Childcare allows working moms to get to their jobs. The number of stay-at-home mothers has dropped four years in a row and is now at 5 million, or about one in four women in a married-couple household. (Nearly half of such households consisted of a stay-at-home mom in 1969.) So it’s no wonder that each day an estimated 12 million children under five spend time being cared for by someone other than a parent—nearly two-thirds of all kids that age. “We are still using an archaic model that there’s a woman at home providing unpaid labor,” says Dr. Mary Gatta, senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women. “That’s not the reality now and for many groups throughout history it hasn’t been their reality.”