Best of Both Worlds podcast: Do you still need childcare?

In years of studying working mothers and their schedules, I’ve seen that there is often a perilous moment in career trajectories that people don’t really know to watch for.

When the kids are little, two career couples generally need full-time childcare. It takes different forms, but it has to be there.

Once kids start school, though, things get more nebulous. Many families celebrate the arrival of school because they hope to pay drastically less for childcare. But …children can still get sick. School tends to be 180 days a year, whereas most work schedules are closer to 240 days. School is often 6-7 hours per day, whereas a workday, with a commute, would be closer to 9 hours. And then there are snow days, half days, and so forth.

For families who have employed a nanny, there is another realization: there has been another adult available to do things. This adult might not have had much availability with little kids around, but as the youngest has gotten a little older, perhaps there has been time for starting dinner, or putting away the grocery order when it’s delivered, doing laundry, and driving kids to after school activities. Without a full-time person, this support is less available.

Many families who have just been getting by need the extra financial room that a lack of daycare bills creates, and for parents with flexible jobs, maybe school plus some before/after care and summer camps can work. People who have family close by might also be able to lean on them to fill in the gaps. Some people manage with part-time after-school sitters, though this can be a hard job to fill or keep people in long term, and these people might not have availability to scale up when needed (e.g. on half days).

And so, if you have big ambitions, and are really looking to lean into your career as your kids get a little older and less physically needy, this week’s episode of Best of Both Worlds looks at a different question. What could support look like if your primary goal is not to reduce what you’re paying for childcare, but to have the ability to truly lean in at work and enjoy your time at home?

Sarah’s family still employs a full time nanny because this gives them flexibility in the evening, and for travel, and means that if a kid is home sick one of them doesn’t have to cancel a full day of patients. As the kids have gotten older, this person has also taken on a lot of household management duties as well. One of the reasons we were able to record this episode together in Florida is that it was absolutely fine for her to be gone overnight Monday and all day Tuesday, without the worry that her husband would miss work if something went awry. Her household runs like a tight ship!

Again, not everyone can afford support, and I know that we always get emails and podcast reviews about privilege when we run episodes like this. So I’ll just note that many ambitious men assume they will have this level of support — to concentrate at work and enjoy their home lives — because they assume that their wives will provide it as a matter of course. If you, as an ambitious woman, do not have a partner who is covering all these bases, then it is something to think about.

So please give the episode a listen and let us know what you think!

18 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: Do you still need childcare?

  1. I loved this discussion, and it came on a day I really needed it! My oldest started kindergarten this year, and this two-working-parent family has felt very stretched due to school not covering enough hours. Aftercare in our area has not come back to pre-COVID levels and it feels like many other families around us have either family help, someone at home or part-time, or tons of flexibility. We been cobbling together coverage for the 2-ish hours between the end of the school day and the end of our work days, and my mental health has definitely suffered! I have been blaming myself (reflection point — why blame just me and not my husband?) for the frenetic nature of our weekdays and feeling like we just can’t figure out this season of life. This episode had lots of really good food for thought, and it was also affirming to hear a message that prioritizing more support could be a way to simplify and enhance our family life. Thank you so much!

    1. We are definitely outliers in our area, and would have been in deep trouble if we hadn’t gotten an aftercare spot. There is one option, with a long, long waitlist and we breathed a huge sigh of relief 9 days before the start of school when we got the email.

      Most people seem to have local family or don’t work/don’t work full time and my son is a bit jealous of kids who get to veg at home during the school holidays, but we try to do fun camps that he’ll enjoy.

  2. We are experiencing first hand what it would be like to rely on school alone for childcare this week–our au pair is on vacation! Our kids are 15, 12, 9, 7, so for the first time we didn’t employ back-up care. Cobbling things together for the 10 days she us away is fine, but we could never do this all the time. My 7 yo reported he was out of clothes today–before that my husband and I didn’t even think about who would do the laundry this week! I am a big proponent more childcare than you think you need!!!

  3. We don’t have the income to outsource much but we do pay for wraparound care most days for our 5 year old. Drop off at 8, pick up around 5. I travel 30% of the time but we manage thanks to:

    1. A singleton – it’s easier to call in favours when you’re just palming off one easy kid. And we can always build up good will by taking another kid when we are more flexible.
    2. My husband’s job, 1 day in office, the rest wfh, and a strict 37 hours per week, with comp time.
    3. Grandparents that will fly in if I’m away for a longer stint. My parents love doing drop off and pickup, they walk to school, go for coffee, poke through the charity shops.
    4. Activities take place at the weekend.
    5. When I’m home, I’m really flexible. I tend to work whilst travelling, longer days whilst away, so I can take the early release Fridays when I’m home (early release every Friday, killing me…)

    We make pretty liberal use of day camps during the holiday – T enjoys them, it’s a low stakes away of trying new things, and it means we aren’t stressed and can save our pretty generous annual leave for family fun.

    We do have pals who never seem to have enough childcare and I’m not sure why they make their lives harder for the sake of £50-100 a week? My sense is that their financial situation is similar to ours, but they are running themselves ragged working nights? I hate trying to work and then getting cross with my kid wanting my attention – it’s not his fault.

    1. Is the kind of help that the podcast discussed just 50 to 100 dollars a week? Here, it would be more like 600 a week.

  4. Hmm, I had a lot of thoughts on this discussion, perhaps because I was socialised more in a Scandinavian society.
    Maybe it is because it was you, two mothers, discussing the issue but in a way it sounded like a work-around so that fathers don’t have to go out of their way too much (if a nanny, cleaning service and house keeper do most stuff and mom handles the mental load, what does dad do? And who does it differ from 1950 what dad does?).
    Also, and this is certainly more a Scandinavian outlook, why can taking care of kids/sick kids not take precedence over work? Do people really have extremely important life or death appointments at work every time a kid needs them? And I explicitly mean men and women here. Why can society as a whole not provide childcare?
    And yes, it is an extremely privileged discussion. I mean, who takes care of the nanny’s kids when she is at work? Or do nannies generally not have (small) kids? Did they have a nanny themselves when their kids were small? How does this equation add up?

    1. This was such a timely episode – we’re likely to have to hire a nanny who ideally handles some housekeeping on the side starting in June. With our daughter’s medical issues and intellectual disabilities, it’s impossible to find care. We’ve been struggling though a suboptimal child care situation since the fall because it was literally the only preschool that would accept my child. It’s been particularly hard on my husband who is the primary parent. It was worth it because we’ve always thought that the group setting was best for our daughter given her very outgoing personality, but now that she’s in a part time preschool for kids with disabilities, and soon kindergarten, she’ll still be able to get her socialization in.

      1. @Alyce – I’m so glad that you’re finding a good solution. And I’m really sorry that you had to deal with a suboptimal school situation!

  5. I’m just coming to say that Laura’s comment about ‘full day’ being really full day (like 8-5) is so spot on. We have before and aftercare for my school aged child so that the true full day is covered, since school runs 9:25 – 3:55.

    Very few things get me as fired up as researching ‘full day’ summer camps, only to learn that their operating hours are 9am – 3:30pm. SOME have the choice of before and aftercare (for significant expense) but others don’t. My commute is close to an hour, so if I did both drop off and pickup, my work day would be 10 – 2:30 all summer. Untenable, since that’s barely over half-time.
    (my spouse is more like Josh – inflexible and unreachable during the day, so cannot participate in pick up or drop off at those hours)

    So I found a camp that provides transportation such that drop off (for the camp bus) is 8am and pick up (from the bus) is 5pm. But those camps – at least in my area – are few and far between!!! I am continually surprised at how many systems in my area are set up clearly assuming that one parent does not work and is perpetually available.

    And to the comment from Maggle about the more Scandinavian view – some of the issue with taking care of a sick kid is having a clinical job. I no longer have this so I or my spouse can stay home if a kid is sick with few work-related consequences. This is MUCH more challenging if you are a clinician with a full clinic schedule that has been booked for many months. Of course sometimes clinics have to be cancelled (particularly if the provider is sick!) but it’s really such a headache for everyone involved, so I understand wanting coverage for sick kids…especially when (as is most common) the sickness is just a cold or something that requires rest at home (rather than an acute life-threatening illness; that’s obviously a different story!).

  6. For us, having less childcare has given my kids more responsibility and independence. My husband and I have flexible jobs. We decided this year to forego after-school care for our 8 and 11 year olds. They are responsible for getting themselves off to school in the morning (set alarms, pack lunches and bags etc), walking to school on time, and then coming home (getting snacks and entertaining themselves without disturbing the parent working). At least once a week they get home before a parent does and have to be home alone for an hour or two. There has been little to no disruption to our workdays this year.

    I think we’re lucky that we live near the school and they don’t have any activities until the evenings. And that we can work from home when necessary (like kid illnesses). But this level of independence seems to be an unanticipated positive of our current situation.

    I will add that we still make use of summer camps and some teacher workday camps.

    1. This is a good point I also thought about. I understand driving is almost essential in the U.S., but a 10yo can do laundry, and I would not see why a housekeeper should be paid to do that.

      1. @Maggie – driving is a big thing. But as for cleaning, in our house this is not an either/or thing. We pay for help with cleaning and we all wind up doing a lot of cleaning too. There is plenty of work to go around!

        1. Maggie, I tend to agree with Laura – my kids certainly do laundry and tidy (more or less), but there is more than enough cleaning to go around!

  7. Great episode. I will be sharing around the office. We fell into the trap of thinking we needed less childcare 2 years ago when our kids entered elementary school, divying up drop off and pick up duty and utilizing both before and aftercare (7-5) so we could both be gone for 11 hrs (we both have long commutes). I wound up burnt out by May. The kids were exhausted every day when they got home.
    This school year we found a wonderful housekeeper/nanny who picks the kids up from school several days and is often available for school holidays, and what a difference it has made for everyone. It’s also been nice to have weekends free for fun and not filled with laundry and tidying.

    1. @Elizabeth – so glad you figured out a good solution! It really does make life feel more calm to have a little more support.

  8. We’ve found it incredibly difficult to find individual nannies who will reliably cover a FT working schedule. To make it work, we needed a portfolio of babysitters to cover for our FT caregiver if she was sick/needed to arrive late or leave early. When the kids were infants it felt better to have them at home, but once we left that stage, we decided to take other approaches.

    Now we have a “full-stack” childcare system with redundancies to help avoid too much stress. Managing our redundancies takes a bit of work but isn’t overwhelming. My husband does the coordination work, but I’m the “coverage of last resort” when he can’t find someone. Feels pretty fair to us.

    The kids have preschool/school and after care most of the time (day camps in the summer), we have a babysitter do pickup a couple of days each week so we can reliably work late if needed, and several babysitters who we can text to cover all those random days off of school or some of the unexpected snow days/sick days and of course, I WFH or take days off when everything else falls through.

  9. I think the most important thing is kind of treating everything like an experiment as you go. And when you reflect on it, not being so evaluative – this is good or this is bad – but what did we like about this and what were the pain points. More like a qualitative researcher than a quantitative researcher. No arrangement has to last forever. In the beginning, I tried babysitters, mothers helpers, and family, but babysitters flaked or they just weren’t providing good care – and my in-laws flaked, too. (Just did not show up. No call or anything.) I was breast feeding and writing my dissertation, so having in-home care worked, but the flaking did not work. I really believe in center based care because I think kids need friends. (I have an only child.) Also, I do not like managing people if I am not getting paid to manage them, but I do really like helping organizations get better at their work, so center based care fits me well – they don’t call out sick, and they come with a community of other kids and parents. Last year, our after school care was great. They staff played with the kids. It was so nice to have a full day, all the way until 6 pm (our pre school had only gone to 4 pm.) This year, it is the same organization, but different staff at a different site, and my son was watching other kids play screens all day. And I couldn’t convince them to change. I just didn’t think that was a good use of his time – I’d rather he play his own video games than watch another kid play video games. And he came home cranky from so much screen time. We are lucky where we live – there are 3 different after school center based options. I had him try another out for a day, and while he liked it, he didn’t want to always go because it was so structured. My husband and I are both able to work a little from home, so we decided to stop the after school care, but it does mean that we work a lot less than we would if he was in extra care. But I think I needed a little break from work anyway, and on days when I do pick up, I’m able to hang out with the other parents picking up their kids while they play for 20-30 minute outside the school. I’m newer to the community, so it is a way to make friends. Some days the logistics are tight, especially as my husband’s career picks up. This week, I had to take a meeting on the phone to make pick up, and he had to come to class with me and watch Netflix one day, and I wasn’t able to productively work from home all of those afternoons, but the boy seems happier. For this semester, it’s ok, and then in the summer we will figure something else out, and in the fall it might be something else, because he will change and our circumstances will change.

    I think the big question that many parents are wrestling with is, especially post pandemic, if I can work from home some days, and the kid can semi-entertain themselves, do I need child care for those hours? I’d love to see more about that. For us, we have been experimenting, and it is possible. We do end up working less. (I am salaried and have worked way over 40 hours in the past, so I feel like it’s ok to pull back a bit for a little while; my husband is self-employed and hourly.) But right now, I’m kind of ok with working a bit less, which will change in future semesters when I have different classes or leadership roles. I wonder what others are finding.

    So much of the decision has to do with geography, too, I think. Around here, for those of us with just 1 kid on the lower income brackets, nannies are really expensive. Around here, just a regular babysitter costs $20 an hour. But, in our town, we have 3 different options for center-based after school care. It’s very different from the town we lived in before, just 40 minutes away, which had wait lists for any kind of programming. Our town even provides very low cost or free summer options, with no income restrictions, in addition to the 3 other full-summer, full day (2 truly full day) non-profit high quality summer programs. I think this is something that people don’t think about when they look at where to live. They look at the house and tax rates, but not enough at the community. When we were initially looking, some people poo-pooed our town because the test scores aren’t high. But it’s a big enough school district that kids have lots of options – lots of music, sports, and lots of AP offerings at the high school. And the diverse, mixed income levels means that there is demand for center-based programs, whereas other towns that may be wealthier very close to us don’t have that kind of demand that results in real options. And at the end of the day, I can teach my kid calculus or how to read – I have enough education that I feel confident I can teach him anything in a high school textbook. But I can’t teach him how to make friends with folks who are different from him. I feel like that’s the real purpose of schools, helping kids learn how to work with and care about others, not coach them toward high SAT scores. I think when people are house shopping, thinking about the community in the school, and the quality of the different child care options, and how far away schools, playgrounds, libraries, and community centers are, and whether they are on route to workplaces, are all just as important, maybe more so, as whether a place has granite counter tops and walk in closets. And whether it is a community open newcomers and to play dates. We hung out at playgrounds in different towns for a bit before buying, which helped me see that folks from this town were friendly and willing to chat and welcome new folks. Our last town wasn’t, and I have friends who say similar things about other towns. I feel really lucky we landed here, in a diverse and welcoming place with so many people working to support families and make the town better.

    1. @LK – thanks for this comment. Very true that it is all about experimentation. We have gone through various iterations of everything to see what works. And yes, the community aspect of where you are buying a house is very important!

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