Today I’ll share a few ideas and tips on how to make child care more manageable and less challenging for new parents.
This is an important topic in my country because the US is the only advanced country with no national paid family leave policy.
There’s a handful of state policies, but no national paid time off for new parents.
In fact, you get very little child care assistance as a new parent, unless you already have a lot of resources.
And from my own experience raising an infant/toddler, I know this causes hard tradeoffs and stress for parents.
Parents are faced with sudden decisions about whether to “go all in” on their careers or sacrifice it to give their kids better care.
The choice is especially wrenching because a child’s first five years are the most critical to their lifelong development.
New parents struggle with this choice every day.
So it is critical to have concrete strategies and tips for making work vs. child care more manageable.
If you’re a new or future parent, let’s dive in and understand the options.
First, some stats
The federal Family Medical Leave Act does require employers to give new parents 12 weeks off, but they don’t get paid unless employers voluntarily decide to be nice.
How many employers are nice?
According to a recent Mercer survey: around 40%. This is up from 25% in 2015.
So, some progress.
But still much room for growth.
Five states guarantee some paid family leave: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington, plus D.C.
Live elsewhere? You’re on your own.
Even in states with some assistance, it may not be as generous as you think.
In California, where I live, which tends to have pretty forward-thinking policies, paid family leave is only guaranteed for six weeks. And even then it’s capped.
Better than FMLA, for sure, but really just a bare minimum.
And child care subsidies?
Unless you’re literally at the poverty level. (If you’re merely struggling, like most, then no dice.)
Plus, even with a subsidy, you still can’t cover the average cost of care in 47 out of 50 states.
Meanwhile, child care is hella expensive:
Average Cost of Child Care
|State||Monthly average||Annual average||% of average family income|
It’s big business!
Imagine shelling out one-fourth of your income – poof, gone – on child care.
It’s like paying apartment rent twice: once for your apartment, again for child care.
It’s no surprise that in 35 states, families pay more for child care than for mortgages!
And in no state does the average cost of care meet the federal definition of affordable (7% household income).
One reason we have to spend so much on child care is that, per capita, government spends 6x less on early child education than on K-12.
Since we now know from neuroscience that the most crucial years of child brain development is pre-K, this hurts our kids when the payoff for investing in them is greatest.
Three levels of action are needed: by individuals, companies, and government.
You probably only have control over yourself as an individual, so let’s cover those options first.
But to solve this at scale, companies and governments have to lean in.
What you can do about it as an individual
There are two things that get real challenging when a kid enters the picture: money and time.
Before your kid arrives, the thing you have influence over is money.
After your kid arrives, you have less influence over money, but you can do things to save time.
However, you know money and time are linked.
As they say, “Time is money.”
They’re linked because with sufficient money you can buy time.
Rich people can buy time.
They can hire others to do tedious tasks.
Clean the house.
Cook the food.
Do the grocery shopping.
Do the laundry.
Run the errands.
And, yes…take care of the kids.
I’m not saying rich people will outsource 100% of their kids.
But they can outsource the time-consuming unpleasant parts so they can free up time to just play with their kids or read to them.
I’ll assume if you’re reading this blog you’re not already ultra-rich. (If you are, you’re blessed.)
I’ll assume you can’t afford to outsource all the tedious tasks in your life.
So if you plan on or have kids, my advice is this:
1. Before your child arrives, save up. If you have kids, your expenses will grow. No way around that.
So start saving early, way before your kid arrives.
Save as much as you can. (Good practice anyhow since early retirement is probably your goal if you are reading this blog.)
Find cheaper housing.
Drive an older car.
Take fewer fancy vacations.
Eat out less.
And work hard to grow your income.
I did all these things.
If you’re not rich but want to start a family with less financial stress, then get with it and sacrifice beforehand to prepare yourself.
That said, you’ll also never feel you have enough.
Don’t worry, that’s not just you, it’s super common.
Unless you win the lottery or sell your “Uber for dogs” startup for millions, you’ll always have a nagging feeling: “maybe I should just wait one more year and save a little more.”
But know this: there is no perfect time to have a kid.
You will never feel totally financially prepared.
If you wait another year, then next year you’ll feel the same thing all over again.
So just pull the trigger when the timing feels best given your circumstances.
It’s good to be at least 70-80% financially ready if possible (however you define that).
But don’t forever.
Pregnancy risks (miscarriage, defects, etc) increase drastically starting when the woman turns 34.
2. After your child arrives, focus time on the few things that matter. After your kid comes, you’re gonna be busy.
Your child has to be constantly tended to (every 3 hours). So you’ll get little sleep the first few years.
In my experience, there are two things that many first-time parents do that suck up a lot of unnecessary time and cause extra stress.
First, they spend tons of time researching products online to buy the “best one.”
Diapers, wipes, cribs, clothes, creams, toys, formula, foods, snacks, sterilizers, supplies – everything.
It takes a LOT of time to comparison shop, read reviews, ask around.
Plus all the extra money spent if you buy a bunch of premium products.
Second, new parents constantly stay up late at night to read mommy blogs and forums to “pace ahead” of their kid and learn what they should do at every step of the way raising their kid.
This feels important because, as a first-time parent, you don’t know what you don’t know.
And learning from the experiences (and mistakes) of others does save valuable time.
But it can also kill a lot of time.
That’s because every parent has a different opinion, recommendation, philosophy, parenting style.
And every parent will claim their way is the preferred way. (Why else would they be doing it?)
Many of those parents will have success story kids. Many others will also have success story kids.
There will be good examples and bad examples and exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions.
That is why it really doesn’t matter.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but ultimately there is no objectively right or wrong way to parent, because there are too many factors contributing to outcomes to definitively declare the nuances of one parent’s way better than the nuances of another parent’s way.
Instead, save your time and spend it actually teaching your kid the critical life skills they need: language/reading first and foremost, then trust, respect, independence, collaboration, kindness, and courage.
The moment they’re ready, add financial literacy and money skills to the list. You don’t want them to get ruined by student loans down the line.
Teaching a child just these things will be all-consuming.
It will take years of shaping and molding.
So if you can cut back on time (and expense) researching baby food brands, all natural diapers, Montessori vs. play-based, you’ll not only have more time for efforts that actually move the needle, you’ll also save money too.
Overall, money is much harder to control after your kid arrives because you will have to buy a lot more stuff, hire help, pay daycare providers, etc.
Yes, you’ll get some tax breaks under the new tax bill for being a new parent, but not enough to make your money worries go away.
So to me, the real goal once junior arrives is to save time wherever possible to focus on what really matters: reading aloud to your kid and teaching them life skills.
There is no one who will do this work better than yourself because no one will care as much about your kid as you.
That is why it’s so important to free up as much time as possible so you can maximize time spent teaching/interacting with your kid.
Even though no one can substitute for you, it also means you should find a daycare provider that actually reads and talks to the kids – a lot – not just feed-poop-naps them.
Many parents seek help from nearby family members if available (assuming they can provide higher quality care than strangers at daycare).
If family help isn’t available, and you’re not satisfied with the daycare options, then leaning on trusted friends or, more often, having one parent not work or both parents adjust their careers so someone can always be present (or at least available).
Because this is such a challenging problem for just about every new family, you should think hard about this situation before having a kid.
It’s not a coincidence that many people decide to move back to their hometown to be closer to family right around the time they are thinking of starting a family.
Not only can they get extra help from family and friends, but their kid also experiences many of the places and things they got to experience when they were kids.
Try to plug into different parent groups even before your kid arrives, so that you have some ready communities to ask questions (or favors) to when you need them.
Use every affiliation you have: professional e.g. lawyer moms, engineer moms, neighborhood, alumni, ethnic/language, even age e.g. older moms.
This will help you cross-cut different parent group demographics where you can get a range of tips/perspectives.
And very important: when your kid arrives, don’t just drop off the face of the earth.
It’ll be hard because time will be so scarce, but try to stay plugged into parent groups so you can keep swapping tips and e.g. trading childcare favors, arrange playdates, etc.
What companies can do about it
Beyond what individuals can do, companies can also do things to drastically better support new parents.
The biggest: de-normalize the culture of working crazy hours, and normalize/de-stigmatize both parents taking full family leave.
Now, unless you’re CEO, of course, you won’t control what your company does.
But perhaps you and other parents (especially if there are many of you and you’re well-coordinated) can find ways to influence company policies.
You should do this like your career depends on it, because it does.
It’s damn near impossible for two college-educated professionals in high-paying jobs like management, law, finance, tech, consulting, etc, to sustain that pace once a kid enters the picture.
There are simply so many hours in the day, and not much you can do about that.
The whole Sheryl Sandberg lean in thing?
Nice and all, but it’s sure a whole lot easier if you’re already a multi-millionaire, uh, wait, billionaire executive like she is. (It also helps if you are married to another millionaire exec like she was.)
With resources like that, frankly, you can outsource everything.
Being that rich makes it much easier to sustain work focus 8-12 hours per day (including work hours at home), plus go home at 5 pm and happily spend a few hours of quality reading/play time with the kids.
All without having to worry about changing diapers, cooking, feeding, cleaning, bathing, laundry, groceries, errands, home repair, sitting in traffic…
You get the picture.
So, yeah, if you’re that rich, please lean in.
For everyone else, you know, the 99%, it’s super hard to make two high-income (non-millionaire) careers work AND give sufficient time to your kid.
Often one person steps back and sacrifices their career.
Statistically, it’s usually the mother unfortunately.
There are two key reasons for this.
First, parenting, especially mothering, is MUCH more demanding now than it was 50 years ago.
Working moms spend as much time with their kid today as stay at home moms did in the 70s.
Your hours spent interacting and playing with and teaching your child has more than doubled.
That means one parent now pretty much has to always be on call at home to watch the kid.
Why do parents feel compelled to spend so much additional time with their kids?
Maybe it’s driven by an overall insecurity that the world is ever more competitive, job/financial stability is no longer guaranteed anywhere, and there’s always cheaper labor elsewhere to outsource your job.
Maybe that drives parents crazy in feeling like they have to start prepping and training their kid from the womb, every minute of the day, to have any chance of their kid succeeding in life.
The second reason is because a shift has occurred in the modern workplace.
For professionals with high-income career potential, the financial rewards for slugging out long hours have become ever more extreme over the years.
Want to make partner, MD, VP, president, spin out your own practice, etc?
You need to put in crazy hours.
No way around that.
But it’s not linear: you don’t get 20% more pay for 20% more hours.
It’s binary, all or nothing: you get 100-500% more pay for 50-100% more hours.
If your goal is to maximize the family finances so your kids can have every opportunity, then this kind of money is crucial.
It doesn’t make financial sense for both parents to work normal or reduced hours because one high-earner working exactly the same number of hours as both normal-schedule parents will earn multiples of them.
And to fast track early retirement – or just provide the best opportunities for your kids…whether that’s summer science camp, after-school programs, sports leagues, travel/vacations – those dollars must be earned by someone.
Because life is, well, expensive.
So the fact that many women step back to cover the household isn’t necessarily because they already have rich husbands.
Their husbands get rich because they step back so dad can focus on work all hours of the day and night (and reap the rewards).
It’s no coincidence that three-quarters of men in the top 1% have a stay at home spouse.
And in dual-income homes where hubby works 60+ hours, especially professional/managerial jobs, wives are 3x more likely to quit.
Some government policy changes like subsidized child care or longer school days or shorter school breaks could help ease the stress.
But what companies should really do is simply change the culture of crazy hours.
But let’s not kid ourselves, right?
That won’t happen voluntarily because American companies (CEOs and boards) are too worried about losing clients/revenue/opportunities to show such empathy.
And workers fear there’s always a cheaper replacement ready to take their jobs if they are unwilling or unable to put in the long hours.
That’s certainly one reason why American industry is so dominant (profitable) globally: we squeeze the life out of our workers far more than those European “socialists” do!
But even without changing work culture, companies could, at a minimum, take actions to reduce the stigma of dads taking full family leave to baby-bond.
If dads were 100% confident – backed by clear evidence – that taking full family leave would have zero negative impact on their careers (and earning potential), it would transform American families.
Not only would it extend the duration newborns have with a full-time parent at home (the transformative part).
It would also allow more moms to explore returning to work with the comfort of knowing their husband is holding down the fort.
And with moms having the option to jump back to their careers relatively quickly, I believe it would actually nudge real conversations between spouses about how to make it work long-term so that both parents can still have a career.
Not all moms would want that, for sure: “What happens when dad leave is over?”
But making dad parental leave super normal (read: de-stigmatized) would jolt new behaviors and conversations about making dual-parent careers viable.
And even if it still doesn’t become totally equal, i.e. wives still disproportionately step back, it’s still a win if overall percentages shift.
Progress, not perfection, is what is important.
Today, however, dads simply don’t take their full leave (if they even have any) because there is fear, rooted in reality, that taking leave will damage their career prospects.
You don’t get the plum assignment.
You don’t get included in important meetings because you might not be around when the poop hits the fan.
Companies can say all they want about encouraging parental leave in employee handbooks.
But it’s their culture that influences actions.
It’s who actually gets rewarded/promoted, and for what.
Unless company cultures can break the perception that parental leave = career damage, dads will keep grinding away at work while moms slug it out at home.
To truly change this, company founders and CEOs have to believe it is important, prioritize it, and force change down through their orgs.
What government can do about it
But you know what?
No matter what individuals and companies do, the most effective way to solve this at scale is still through government.
1. Min 3 months paid family leave (ideally 6) for new mothers. At a minimum, new birth moms should get at least 3 months federally guaranteed paid family leave.
To control costs, you could cap payments to not exceed the local median wage.
All mothers get up to the median wage while high earners don’t get extra.
You could also limit the benefit to e.g. the family’s first 2 kids, which covers the majority of families.
2. Increase daycare teacher pay. Specifically, pay early child education teachers similar to kindergarten teachers.
86% of child care educators earn <$15/hour.
Pay drives quality, but these modest wages create financial stress for daycare teachers, which in turn affects kids.
Not only does it make it unrealistic to attract good teachers, the turnover is severe: 4x higher vs. elementary school teachers.
3. Subsidize child care for the first year of life. Higher teacher pay, of course, will make daycare even more expensive than it already is.
So, after mom returns to work, government subsidies are needed to enable sliding-scale tuition rates that limit the percent of income a family pays for child care to, say, 10%.
Very rich people might not get a subsidy since they’re already well-off, while median wage families might get subsidized to cap their daycare spend to 10% of wages.
As with school funding, property taxes could be used (increased if needed) to fund this.
Together, paid family leave and subsidized daycare would drastically reduce the shortage of affordable child care and encourage critical family bonds to develop in the child’s first year.
4. Create/enforce quality standards for child care. Higher pay doesn’t come without strings attached.
To ensure there isn’t a large gap between worst/best daycares, the higher wages should be conditioned on teachers enrolling in and passing publicly financed training programs (plus ongoing continuing ed requirements).
Trainings could be delivered through pre-recorded video (with exams to pass) to control costs, and exemplary teachers (in return for recognition, bonuses, pay bumps, etc) could be enlisted to coach/teach new teachers with hands on practice once the newbies complete video trainings.
In this way, new teachers also get personalized feedback and coaching directly from experienced role models.
Now I’d like to hear from you
There are no easy solutions for solving child care.
But they are simple.
For individuals, save up. Focus your time like a laser beam on things that will actually move the needle for your child’s development.
For companies, change crazy work hour culture. At least de-stigmatize dads who take family leave.
Parents should band together to influence company policy. Companies will act if they risk losing large groups of talent who happen to be parents.
For governments, create paid family leave laws. Subsidize child care (sliding scale). Pay teachers more and create quality standards.
Now I’d like to hear from you.
What strategies have you as an individual found effective to make child care work?
What are things you think companies and politicians must do to make child care less challenging for everyone?
Let me know by leaving a comment below right now.