Why Are So Many Moms Solely Responsible for Child Care Costs?
There's a phrase that I repeatedly see in my parenting groups on social media or hear from frustrated friends who are trying to figure out their finances after having a baby. "My entire paycheck is going to child care costs!" they say. The thing is, it's never a male parent uttering this phrase. I've only heard it from fellow mothers.
And while I admit that I've sometimes felt this way, and have wondered why child care is just so costly in the U.S., what I want to know most of all is why mothers are taking on the sole responsibility of child care costs in their households. When we say that "my entire paycheck is going to child care," we are implying that our only purpose is to take care of our children—whether by physically staying at home with them or by working—often full-time—for the sole purpose of paying for their daycare or schooling.
But if you're a mom in a relationship with your baby's father—say married, partnered, living together, etc.—I want to ask: Why is it only up to you to take care of the kids?
The True Cost of Child Care
I'm well aware that child care is, to put it mildly, costly these days. For my family, child care is one of the significant expenses that is keeping us under financial strain as we manage to pay for my son's daycare along with over $130,000 in debt (80% of which is student loans—the rest includes a car, home improvements, and other life necessities) and a new mortgage. It's not easy to manage, but I know I'm not the only mom feeling crushed under financial strain.
In June 2021, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report on the true cost of child care for American families today. On a special interactive site, they urge Congress to fund affordable child care and help families understand what the average costs are in their state while also explaining that daycare teachers do not earn fair wages.
According to their data, the average U.S. family pays $1,324 per month for center-based infant care, $1,096 for center-based toddler care, $889 for center-based preschool child care, and $1,141 for family child care. This means that if a woman decides to go back to work after maternity leave (if her company even offers it), that family can expect to pay almost $16,000 for the first year of their child's care. And that's for "base quality" care, not even counting on the fact that some parents may want to find a "high quality" child care environment—but it'll cost them.
And if you live in a more populated state, as I do, your costs only go up. According to CAP's CostofChildcare.org, the average monthly cost in my state of Colorado for a toddler classroom is $1,191. For my family, likely because we live in the Denver metropolitan area, we currently pay $1,610 per month for my toddler's daycare—which means we will have contributed $19,320 to his care by the time he completes a year at his center this spring. And that's not even factoring in the fact that daycare fees rise yearly.
In my first job out of college, I barely made more than what I currently pay for daycare. I couldn't have afforded to have a child back then. And, to be honest, it feels like I can't afford it now.
Stay at home or go back to work?
When my husband and I talked about having a baby, we were relatively clueless. We knew that daycare would cost us but didn't know just how truly expensive it was going to be. Instead, we went into parenthood with what we thought was a reasonable plan: I would cut my work week back to 20 hours and spend my days taking care of our baby.
It wasn't because this plan was something that we truly wanted to do; it was a necessity. At the time, we didn't imagine just how much my career and future earning potential would suffer in the long run. All we thought about was that this plan would mean that I would still be able to earn some money (since we couldn't survive solely on my husband's paycheck) and that we wouldn't have to spend all of the money I earned on child care; I would be a stay-at-home, working mom—tasked with both earning income and providing child care. Is that really what it means to "have it all"?
For many new moms, the choice comes down to: Do I stay home, or do I go back to work? The answer, for many millennial women, is to stay home—for financial reasons. A Pew Research report released in 2014 showed that stay-at-home moms were on the rise after a decade of decline. Another report from Pew Research from 2018 revealed that 29% of stay-at-home mothers have a college degree (while 25% of stay-at-home fathers have a college degree). And while those reports likely represented women who chose to stay home because they wanted to for one reason or another, the COVID-19 pandemic is now forcing even more millennial moms out of the workforce.
When I was growing up, I learned that the second wave feminism of the 1960s is what gave women the ability to choose if they wanted to stay at home to take care of their children after becoming mothers or if they wanted to go back into the workforce to continue the career they had likely just begun to build up. But because this dynamic is always framed as "the woman's choice," it seems that the choice to work has somehow come to include said woman also agreeing to foot the hefty bill for the child care that enables her to...work.
But I don't think many of us realized when we applied for student loans and went to college and built our careers before marriage and baby that having a choice between home life and office life still meant it is entirely on us to care for our children—whether physically or financially.
The True Feminist Choice
When I met my husband at age 30, we had a lot of conversations about our expectations of a relationship and our lives together. We were both very clear that we wanted an equitable partnership, marriage, and journey into parenthood. And yet: I still fell into the trap of taking sole responsibility for my son's care when we came up with our initial "stay-at-home, part-time-working-mom" plan.
When I see friends and acquaintances and random fellow moms complain or worry or struggle with how the majority of their paychecks are going towards their kid's daycare costs, I see that they're stuck in the same mentality that I once was. These moms often ask for advice in navigating what to do. Should they just quit and stay home? Many of these moms assume that, because their paycheck is roughly the same as their child care costs, they would break even and survive on their husband's sole paycheck if they gave up their careers to stay home with their little ones.
And that's the feminist thing to do, right? Feminism gave women the ability to choose—and we can choose to stay home rather than working for Monopoly money that barely breaks even on daycare costs. But if a woman is choosing to stay home because of how much child care would cost if she didn't, then is that really a "choice" at all?
What I'd like to ask is this: Is it at all a feminist ideal to put the entirety of child care costs and decisions on the uterus-having member of the family? (No, it is not.)
Despite my and my husband's initial assumption that I would have to stay home so that we wouldn't have to pay for child care, we quickly changed our tune. If there's one thing we have always done right as a couple, it's sharing our finances equitably from day one. There was never "my money" or "his money" or "his paycheck is higher" or "I earn less." The money was all ours, together, because we were building a life together.
So when it came time to figure out the daycare costs when I went back to full-time work a year after my son's birth, we never wondered whether my paycheck would be enough to cover it. That was never even a question, in fact. I wanted to go back to work and continue my career, so we made the finances work—because that's the true feminist choice.
Child care should not be the sole responsibility of the mother—nope, not even in heterosexual marriages like mine. Although women may have traditionally been the ones to give birth, raise, and take care of the babies, we have fought long and hard to have more options today.
If a mom wants to stay home and be a caretaker for her child, that's her choice. If a dad wants to be the child's primary caretaker, that's his choice too. But if both parents decide to work, then it's not just up to the mom to pay for the child care. It's a shared responsibility and a shared cost between parents—just like you share the cost of groceries or the electric bill.
So next time you worry about how your "entire" paycheck is going towards child care costs, think about how it took two to create this child—and it should take two to fund that child, too.
If you're lucky enough to be partnered up during this parenting journey, don't forget that everything—from the massive diaper blowouts to the constant buying of new clothes because they outgrow everything so fast—is a team effort. It's not just on you, mom.