The title of this post isn’t a news flash to any American parent who needs childcare, but it is something that I think can catch non-parents and people expecting their first child off guard. The particular timing of this post was triggered by reading the following in The Bump’s pregnancy app entry for someone at 29 weeks gestation (bold is mine):
Week 29 is a good time to start finalizing stuff, like stocking the nursery with baby care essentials and checking out a few potential daycares.*
This made me laugh. 29 weeks is a good time to start checking out a few potential daycares? This does not match at all with my experiences or those of people I know. In the US, due to really poor parental leave policies, it is common for women to take only 6 weeks to a few months off from work after giving birth.** Dads often take less time off from work (sometimes just a few days). In my experience, these numbers apply to faculty, too, though the situation can be much worse for adjunct faculty. This means that many families where both parents work end up needing childcare for their children while they are still very young. Because the ratio of care providers to children scales with age, with babies needing the most intensive care, finding childcare for a baby anywhere from 6 weeks through 1 year is especially hard.
When I was pregnant with my first, I waited until late in my first trimester to put myself on lists. We knew it would be hard to get in, but I didn’t feel comfortable going on tours of the facilities (and some of them required tours to go on the wait list) while in my first trimester, especially since we generally knew several families at the daycares we were considering. We put ourselves on the wait lists at four daycares. One of them was the Georgia Tech daycare. Another was very close to campus, but not affiliated with Georgia Tech. That daycare told me that the more I called, the more likely I was to get in.*** In the end, we got into that daycare (see footnote for more explanation). We never got into the Georgia Tech one, even though my husband and I both were affiliated with the university. We moved when our daughter was about 1.5 year. A colleague had told me his son didn’t get in until he was 3, so that wasn’t totally surprising.
At the University of Michigan, there are three daycares. One is adjacent to Central Campus, one is on North Campus, and one is affiliated with the Med School. Our children go to the daycare near Central Campus. We love the daycare and the teachers, and are really happy that our children go there. But it’s very lucky that they do – if we hadn’t moved with a toddler (who got the last available spot in a toddler room at the facility), we wouldn’t have been able to get our son in when he was born.**** This daycare – which, again, is one of only three for a very, very large university – has only nine spots in the infant room. Nine. That means that, as far as I know, the spots in the infant room almost always (or maybe always) go to younger siblings of children who are already there. Even with the boost of having an older sibling there, it’s not guaranteed that a baby will be able to get in. So, for this pregnancy, the person who manages the daycare list was the third person to know I was pregnant. When people I know are expecting their first child and ask me about daycare, I tell them that I love the UMich daycare, but that they probably won’t be able to get a spot there in the infant room, and that they should put themselves on lists elsewhere, too. And that they should do that right away.
I realize that my family is incredibly fortunate to have access to high quality, conveniently located daycare, and to be able to afford that daycare.***** The issue of how limited infant daycare spots are relates to much larger systemic issues in the US: the very limited parental leave that most parents are afforded, and the lack of societal support for daycare (and, more generally, care for others, including eldercare). I feel both like I pay a jaw-dropping amount for daycare, and like the daycare teachers are paid nowhere near what they should be. Those economic factors play a key role in the lack of infant daycare spots: they are very, very expensive for a daycare to run. (As I said above, the caregiver:child ratio required for infants makes them the most expensive for a daycare.) All of which is to say: unfortunately, I don’t have any ideas for an easy fix to the problem. But, based on my experience, finding quality daycare in the US takes a lot of time. Would it be possible to find daycare for an infant on short notice? Yes, and I know people who’ve done this (e.g., because of a major problem with their previous daycare). But that’s a really stressful way to do it, and most people I know have needed much longer to work out a daycare spot for an infant. So, if I created a pregnancy app******, it would say to start looking some time during the first trimester.
* Other thoughts related to this quote and pregnancy apps in general: 1) I am nowhere near stocking a nursery with baby care essentials. Such is life for baby #3. 2) I love this McSweeney’s post that pokes fun at how these apps and websites always compare a baby’s size to produce.
** When I was pregnant with my first, a well-meaning colleague told me that I needed to get back to work within a few days (5, to be specific). She pointed out that it wouldn’t be good for my body, but it’s just what needs to happen. Fortunately, this advice seemed so wrong to me that it was easy for me to ignore. Even if I had wanted to follow it, it would not have been physically possible for me to do so – I was in the hospital for 5 days for that birth.
*** This seems to suggest that these lists are more fluid than I would have expected. And, even with calling regularly, I learned that a colleague who had gotten on the list after me (I knew she’d gotten on it after me because I was the one who told her about the daycare), with a due date within a week of mine, had heard her child had been given a spot but mine hadn’t. I called them and pointed that out, and suddenly it went from there not having been any space available to us having a spot. Based on this experience, I called quite frequently when we were on waitlists in Michigan.
**** I’ve had people tell me that they heard we got into the UMich daycare because I negotiated it as part of my hiring. That’s not true. It never even occurred to me to ask, even though finding daycare was a major concern of mine related to the move.
****** Now that I’ve typed this, I think maybe I should create a pregnancy app. Instead of produce, I could compare the developing baby to the size of different animals. “This week, your baby is the size of a Daphnia magna!” I’m sure it would be very popular.