Solving the child-care conundrum
Like many moms, Christine Hanna has pieced together care for her son Axel carefully, like a patchwork quilt. Hanna runs a new business helping owners sell their own homes, so she needs flexible yet consistent care.
So on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she shares a nanny with a Phinney Ridge family. On Thursdays, Hanna’s mother-in-law takes care of her son. And on Mondays or Fridays, a 16-year-old girl, Ava, helps for two hours or so. “She’ll either watch Axel while I get some work done or she does errands,” such as organizing Hanna’s recipes or folding laundry, Hanna says.
Many Seattle families are stitching together their own patterns after they find that area day cares often have yearlong waits, realize that a full-time nanny is beyond their budgets, or discover that existing child-care solutions aren’t in sync with their schedules.
Quality, affordable child care is particularly difficult to come by north of the Ship Canal (North Seattle) and in East King County, says Marty Jacobs, family services director at Child Care Resources (CCR) of King County. In Pierce County, child-care pressures intensify in communities close to the military bases.
“Military child-care-center standards are the highest quality in nation,” and more stringent than Washington state standards, says Laura Giddings, member services director of the Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network. And there isn’t enough care available on base, so parents in places like Lakewood either face long waiting lists or have to seek out some creative alternatives.
In King County, CCR maintains a database of all licensed child care available, matching parents with child-care centers or family home care for a six-month subscription fee. It’ll even help families seek assistance for special-needs children or from care providers who have specific areas of expertise, such as dispensing medication, or dealing with behavioral or feeding issues.
But CCR doesn’t just stop with licensed child care, because the average wait for a child-care slot is about 18 months. CCR staff speak one on one with working families, helping them find the best child-care fit.
That may mean turning to a center, family member or baby sitter. Here are several child-care options families use daily in and around the Puget Sound area.
It’s nice to share: nanny shares
For parents who need part-time child care — but want the consistency and bonding that goes along with a nanny — nanny shares can be a welcome solution. But while this option grows in popularity, many parents don’t realize that the legal status of this arrangement can be questionable: Shared care may run afoul of state regulations concerning child-care licensing. To find out more about state licensing requirements, contact the state’s Department of Early Learning.
Seattle mom Cindy M., an environmental scientist, couldn’t afford to hire a full-time nanny. Luckily, she befriended another mom-to-be during pregnancy, who suggested that they share a nanny.
The duo started looking for a nanny when their girls were 3 months old, posting requests on Craigslist, community e-groups and a Seattle Pacific University e-list. “Craigslist gave us the most hits,” she says, and they both interviewed five nannies at local coffee shops. Cindy and her friend jointly chose a nanny after divvying up the background and reference checks.
As a result, Cindy’s daughter plays with another little girl for 25 hours a week, while a nanny watches both kids. Cindy and her husband rotate schedules to enable the nanny share and reduce the need for full-time care.
Because the girls have grown up alongside one another, the babies are tight friends and even learn from one another.
“One is starting to use signs, and the other is picking that up,” Cindy says.
Accommodating nannies can be shared between two or three families, which splits the cost of ongoing child care. Ann Douglas, author of The Unofficial Guide to Childcare and Choosing Childcare for Dummies, says it’s easiest if one parent takes the pay and paperwork reins, and perhaps receives a small discount in exchange for the work of figuring out and filing taxes.
And Douglas says it doesn’t hurt to draw up a contract spelling out rights and responsibilities. If your family has two children, what percentage do you pay? If your family takes a week’s vacation, do you still pay your full share?
“The nanny still has to be paid,” Douglas says, so it’s best to set up a letter of agreement or contract, so that the nanny gets paid regardless. “Otherwise, it’s not fair.”
And finally, Cindy says she feels that nanny-sharing families should also share a similar parenting philosophy. “We would’ve had a harder time setting up ground rules,” she says. For example, it was important to Cindy and her friend to find a care provider who was comfortable handling and preparing pumped breast milk.
Hey, Mom? family child care
Anna Williams, a Seattle-based environmental policy consultant, was shocked by the costs of day care. Her 3-year-old was in day care part-time, but she just couldn’t afford child care for both her son and her newborn.
So Williams’ mother, Susan O’Neill, came to the rescue, and the two struck a deal. Grandma would rent Williams’ mother-in-law space at a discounted price, for six months out of the year, and while she’s in town, take care of Williams’ 3-and-a-half-month-old son.
“She loves him and our other son just like they were her own,” Williams says. “She showers them with love and care, and is appropriately deferential to our parenting preferences."
And that last point is key, according to Jacobs, if you’d like to use family care. “Talk about discipline strategies,” Jacobs says, without condemnation. She suggests saying, “It’s not that I don’t think you did a great job, but I don’t want you to spank.”
Douglas suggests paying, if possible, even if a small amount. Otherwise, resentment can build. “She might have unspoken expectations that you’re saving that money for the kids’ college fund,” Douglas says. “God forbid you should go to Florida instead.”
Douglas says you’ll want to make sure you’re not guilting relatives into providing care. “And some older parents aren’t able to do it physically,” she says. When toddlers start crawling under the kitchen table or climbing into the cupboards, will older adults be able to keep up?
But don’t worry too much about safety. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University says that a grandparent’s care can reduce the risk of childhood injury. If you still have concerns, just offer to provide childproofing equipment or pay for a first-aid class.
Turning to grandma certainly worked well for Williams. “She’s been a family angel, and I’ll be forever grateful for myself and my boys that she has been able to do this for us.”
Filling the gaps: seek short-term, at-home care
Christine Hanna and her husband, Pete, knew they needed just a few more hours of household assistance.
“We had heard about the concept of a mother’s helper from another friend,” Hanna says, “part baby-sitter, part helper around the house.” Mother’s helpers are typically teens who provide in-home assistance while you work or accomplish homebound goals. It wasn’t long until Hanna found Ava, a local teen living nearby in Seattle.
“If I need to get paid work done, I’ll go into another room and shut the door, or ask her to take him for a walk if it’s decent out,” Hanna says. “But I often use the time to take care of personal business, like household paperwork, bills, make phone calls, or some household project.”
And because they don’t have the same responsibilities as a nanny, mother’s helpers cost less, around $7–$12 per hour. How do you find a helper? Hanna found hers right down the street. The local high school might allow want ads, or you can try asking friends for referrals.
But just because you’re around doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check a helper’s background and references, Douglas says.
Hiring on-call child care or a nanny on a part-time basis is another option for surprise shifts at work or a last-minute work phone call. A growing number of Web sites offer listings that allow parents to hire prescreened sitters for on-call child care, including Sitter City and Seeking Sitters; other sites, such as Care.com, have listings in Pierce County.
Community care: start a baby-sitting co-op
Kathleen Allen was working part-time as a consultant from her Seattle home and needed to find child care with extreme flexibility for midday meetings. She had one child in day care, three times per week, but didn’t know what to do when she had a two-hour meeting in the middle of a non-child-care day.
So Allen and four neighborhood moms decided to start a baby-sitting co-op, based upon the book The Smart Mom’s Baby-Sitting Co-op Handbook by Gary Myers.
The families traded child care based upon points. Baby-sit, pick up points; ask for sitter services, spend a few points. Allen says that the co-op worked so well that the group quickly began to expand.
Today, Allen’s baby-sitting co-op consists of 16 families with a diversity of work-life arrangements: working and stay-at-home parents, married and single parents all trade child care on a variety of shifts, ready to meet almost any situation, day or night.
Monthly play dates and annual picnics ensure that all families become well acquainted with one another. “It’s become a nice social network,” Allen says, “a whole group of friends and moms.”
Members don’t necessarily need to see eye to eye on parenting philosophy, because they all agree on group ground rules concerning safety and parenting choices. Issues or concerns are brought up at their monthly meetings. Communication is vital. “You need to make sure you’re spending enough time communicating who controls what the child eats, what your standard of cleanliness is, and how you are going to share the cost of food, excursions and diapers,” says Laura Giddings. “To make a co-op work, you need good communication to work things out.”
And parents say when co-ops work, they can be a godsend. “It’s been really helpful with providing me with a lot of flexibility,” Allen says. “And I can’t calculate how much money I’ve saved."
Smallest coworker: bring your baby to work
Would you bring your baby into the workplace? That’s what Amy Packard, a Seattle research manager for an executive search firm, did when her son was just 2 months old.
Her supervisor, concerned that she’d leave for a different business or leave the workforce altogether, offered Packard the option to bring her son Henry to work with her.
As an infant, Henry slept for most of the day. “I got really good at typing with one hand,” Packard says.
Later, Packard says, her son was entertained in his ExerSaucer or portable playpen with work-like toys such as an old office phone or a keyboard. And coworkers sometimes volunteered to take Henry out for walks in the stroller.
But that’s not to say there weren’t issues. Packard says it was hard to appear professional while dripping breast milk or halfway through a diaper change. She felt pressure to keep Henry quiet and content.
Jacobs says that one of her employees brought her baby to work, too. “It works well for an infant, but gets more challenging when the child is mobile.”
Packard agrees and says that things got trickier when Henry learned to walk. “Once he could walk well, it wasn’t really safe for him to be there anymore,” she says. By 10 months, Henry started staying with baby-sitters and made the transition into day care by 14 months.
Is this right for you? If so, speak with your supervisor. Obviously, only some workplaces can accommodate a baby; an infant in a cement factory wouldn’t be a good mix. Jacobs says you’ll need a very flexible employer. Packard says that enthusiastic, supportive coworkers made the difference.
“I could not have had him there without the great help of everyone I worked with.”
Lora Shinn blends her own solutions to child-care dilemmas. Lora’s son currently attends preschool three mornings a week, so she can write for magazines like ParentMap, KIWI and Pregnancy. She’s right back to work once the kids go to bed, completing edits or working on her upcoming book.
Friend, family and neighbor care (FFN)
In Washington state:
- 65 percent of infants and 45 percent of toddlers are in FFN care.
- 61 percent of school-age children are cared for by FFN.
- Approximately 480,000 children newborn to age 12 are cared for by family, friends and neighbors on a regular basis.
- For 203,000 of these children, FFN care is their primary source of child care.
Child Care Resources
Offers child-care resources and an advice-packed booklet on family, friend and neighbor care.
Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network
This statewide referral line connects parents with their local child-care resource organizations.
Smart Mom's Babysitting Co-op Startup Kit
A how-to guide to starting your own babysitting co-op.
On-call baby-sitters and nannies: