Laketa Kelley couldn’t afford to send her daughter to the daycare center where she worked as a teacher for six years.
Kelley loved her teaching job at Westminster Child Care Center, but when she found out she was pregnant in 2010, she knew her salary wouldn’t cover the center’s $800 per month infant care. She spent the next two years desperately applying for childcare scholarships, pulling her daughter out of subpar, unaccredited centers, and hunting for a job with higher pay—not how she pictured her first two years of motherhood.
“I knew it would be expensive,” she said. “But I didn’t expect to be doing it alone.”
As a single mother bringing home less than $25,000 a year, Kelley struggled to make ends meet, and the trouble she had finding quality care for her daughter is nearly ubiquitous in today’s world.
The cost of childcare is higher than ever, and still rising. According to a report released by Child Care Aware, a national organization that helps families and providers determine childcare quality, the annual cost of infant care ranges from $4,600 in Mississippi, to as high as $15,000 in Massachusetts. Childcare costs more than in-state college tuition in 35 states, and in many places the expense is higher than average rent.
The report says here in the Commonwealth, infant care can cost as much as $10,670 a year—roughly 17 percent of the median family income of $61,616. Daycare directors recommend mothers begin touring centers and get themselves on a waiting list as soon as the pregnancy test strip turns pink, but even then the wait for quality care can be as long as two years.
With costs getting higher and waiting lists longer, many parents are on their own to come up with affordable solutions—including making sacrifices and tough decisions about their careers. Here in Charlottesville, parents are coming up with new options, but nobody is immune to the effects of the childcare crunch.
Stuck in neutral
Kelley was one of hundreds of parents in 2010 who applied for the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area Child Care Scholarship. The program is based on household income, and with the scholarship, Kelley only has to spend 10 percent of her monthly paycheck on daycare for her daughter; the rest of the bill is covered.
“It’s been a blessing,” she said. “Without it there’s no way I’d be able to keep her there.”
It’s been two years since she applied for the scholarship, and Kelley’s toddler is happily thriving at Westminster. But even now that her daughter is where she wanted her all along, Kelley, like every other parent, still has to make sacrifices.
“It’s hard to seek advancement in my job,” she said. Despite having a college degree and years of experience in her field, Kelley is afraid to move up in her career because even a slightly higher income will negate her qualification for United Way’s scholarship.
“I can’t afford it,” she said.
Sharing the load
Erika Gennari moved to Charlottesville two years ago with her husband and 1-year-old son.
“When we got here, I just couldn’t believe there weren’t more day care providers,” she said.
The family came from St. Louis, Missouri, where Gennari worked full-time and forked out $1,200 a month for her son’s daycare. She said she’d always been a workaholic, but dropping her son off at 7am, picking him up at 5:30pm, and putting him to bed two hours later meant she hardly had any time with him. So when she and her husband relocated to central Virginia, Gennari decided to cut her hours back to part-time—until she discovered the waiting list for a quality part-time center was two years long.
She and her husband are fortunate enough to theoretically afford childcare in Charlottesville, but every option she looked into was either not up to her standards in quality, or the wait was so long that her son would be in preschool by the end of the wait period.
“Everybody deserves quality childcare,” she said. “But the reality is, you have to pay people a living wage.”
Sending her daughter to a stranger’s home, who may or may not be certified to take care of multiple children, didn’t appeal to Gennari, and she said the few nannies she found in Charlottesville were unwilling to work part-time. She spent a few months trying her hand at stay-at-home-momhood, but found herself micromanaging the house and in desperate need of an outlet.
After exhausting all of her other options, Gennari remembered a system she learned about in Missouri: momshare.
She teamed up with another young mother who also wanted to work part-time. Each mother takes all the kids one day a week, freeing up the other to make conference calls, attend meetings, and work from home.
“It’s been a godsend,” she said.
Working one day a week satisfies Gennari’s need to be a professional woman, but she doesn’t have to sacrifice spending time with her two kids. Plus, she and her friend each prepare dinner on their respective days, giving both of them an evening off from cooking.
Gennari said she looks at single working mothers and can’t fathom how they do it.
“There’s that old cliché saying that it takes a village,” she said. “And it really does. We live in a very individualistic society, but we’re not all on our own.”
Single income sacrifice
Robyn Mauney enjoyed her job in fundraising and event planning, but wanted to raise her children the same way she was brought up—at home, not in a daycare center. She always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and was disheartened when she and her husband decided they couldn’t comfortably live on a single income.
“I went to college, I married a great man. I felt like I made all the right choices, and yet I still wasn’t going to be able to stay home with my kids,” Mauney said.
But when her 10-week ultrasound in 2008 revealed she was going to have twins, everything changed.
Some daycare centers offer up to 10 percent discounts for multiples, Mauney said. But even so, she knew there was no way she could swing paying double childcare costs and still bring home a substantial portion of her paycheck.
“There are a lot of wonderful programs here, but even people like me can’t afford them,” she said. So rather than working full-time, pouring her whole salary into childcare, and spending minimal time with her kids, Mauney decided to quit her job and stay at home.
“For me, it was a really easy decision,” she said.
Mauney has not once regretted her choice to be a full-time mom, but with 3-year-old twin girls, an 8-month-old son, and one income, she and her husband are masters at scrimping.
“We’re big coupon clippers,” she said. The Mauneys don’t go out to eat, vacations are a thing of the past, and celebrating their anniversary last week consisted of exchanging cards.
Having twins was a blessing in disguise, Mauney said, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. But she said her heart goes out to so many working moms who don’t have the option of staying home.
“It seems unfair at times,” she said. “Especially if you’re a woman who loves her job. For women, a lot of the time, it seems you have to choose a career or choose a family.”
Mauney said she’d love to have more kids eventually, but feeding four mouths would require a dual income. Even once the twins are in kindergarten, Mauney said the same thing as hundreds of other parents: ”It’s just too expensive.”
This is the first installment of a three-part series on childcare in Charlottesville. Part two will appear October 30. Weigh in on this story and others at c-ville.com.