I’m just a country girl with big city dreams. At least that’s what I tell myself every time I’m confronted with something that seems out of the ordinary. City life isn’t for the faint of heart or for those of us who like to carefully watch our pennies. There is a price (usually a steep one) associated with everything. On a trip back to my native state, Alabama, I scrunched my face and squinted my eyes when I realized I could buy milk and eggs for what seems to be half of what they cost in the District of Columbia. As I’ve gotten married and more recently, had a child, I have soon found out the grocery store isn’t the only place with prices exceeding my expectation… and my pocketbook.
Fortunately, for the first year of my son’s life, we had willing family members who came for extended visits and helped fill our childcare gaps. For us, this worked out great because his initial medical issues would have made it hard to comfortably place him in a traditional daycare; however, that wasn’t a permanent solution. A few months ago, once all the family had gone home, we started the daycare search. Of course, my husband entirely entrusted me with the process, and so I trudged around the city going on site visit after site visit. We had already heard all the horror stories. You need to be on the list before you’re even pregnant. Your boss needs to write you a letter of recommendation. You need to cough up three goats, two cows and one chicken every month. It was all true!
Our initial search started near our home in southeast DC. Prices weren’t as cheap as Alabama but were reasonable compared to the area – about $700-$1200 a month. However, I hung up each call more frantic and anxious than the one before. There were literally no openings at ANY of the daycare centers within my geographic boundaries. Everything near my house was entirely full until basically 2027.
Time was starting to run out, and I entered into full on panic mode. By this point, I was working from home or trying to bring my kid into the office. We were still on several waitlists, but nobody was calling me back. We decided to try a home daycare in our neighborhood—one of the few that had space—at first it was a relief, but after a few short weeks, we realized it wasn’t a good fit. And so, we were back to the daycare hustle. I decided to expand my search closer to my office and voila! I lucked out and nabbed what had to be the only open toddler space in all of DC. It was more than double the cost of what we were paying the home daycare, but we realized that at this point, peace of mind was everything. But still. When my friends in Alabama discuss their $80/week daycare center, I cringe wondering how people—myself included—afford to live and raise a family in this city when daycare costs are comparable to mortgage and rent.
Finding suitable, reliable, affordable childcare in the District shouldn’t be this difficult. I’ve watched this panicked scene unfold several times in our office as babies make their debut. Families have to make really hard life choices because of child care, like deciding if it’s really worth it for both parents to work. When calculating the costs, some families decide it’s better for one parent to stay home. Let’s keep it real. The majority of the time this falls on the woman’s career taking a back seat. No matter who has to stay at home, the impact is negative because it takes valuable people away from the workforce. It sets them back in their career in terms of upward mobility and keeping their skills sharpened, and financially their future social security takes a hit. Emotionally this is draining because these are parents who want to work but have to choose not to. Unfortunately, our institutions are just not set up to accommodate two working parents, especially in major cities. Not only is the cost challenging but think about our institutions and how they are not designed to fit homes with working parents. (yes, this is a tangent but it’s my blog) The post office and schools close before most parents get off work. Schools open from 8-3 or 7-3 but “typical” work hours are 9-5 leaving parents scrambling to identify before and after school care, juggle schedules or rely on family for support. In a place like DC, where many people live far from family the latter is usually not an option.
Reform is necessary in the childcare space so that it is affordable and accommodates two working class parents. Beyond childcare, we have to rethink the way our institutions are designed and if they support the way we work or maybe the way we work needs to change. These issues aren’t mutually exclusive. There is much “talk” about it but working parents need action. It shouldn’t be a hustle to find quality, affordable, reliable daycare that allows both parents to work. We have put a man on the moon and even developed driverless cars. Certainly, our childcare can be better than this.
Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.