When finding day care is a nightmare

I still remember the moment when I realized with absolute clarity that I would have to make new child-care arrangements. I mean, how could I forget it? It happened when I was lying on my bathroom floor, waiting to be overcome yet again by a nasty stomach flu.

Guess who gave it me? My then-11-month-old son. Guess where he picked it up? Day care.

I really do understand that these things happen. Kids get sick, and their immune systems get built up. Kids get their parents sick, and life goes on. But this was getting ridiculous.

We had scored a coveted two-day-a-week spot for our son Tyler at a place known locally as one of the best day care centers and preschools around. This was in November 2008, when the economy had just cratered, so spots actually were opening up at places like this — but that wasn’t immediately apparent at the time. Many day care centers we tried told us they had waiting lists with wait times of a year or longer, and most wouldn’t consider accepting kids on a part-time basis. So even during what would prove to be the country’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it certainly didn’t feel like a buyer’s market for child care.

And then we landed a spot at this place. This really, really good place. Granted, it was expensive — shockingly so. For just two days a week we spent close to what many parents fork over for full-time care. But we were beginning to feel so desperate in our search, and this place had an almost miraculously great reputation, so we sucked in our breath and wrote a big, fat check.

Then began the Time of Pestilence. Our son Tyler got sick — mega-mondo-uber-sick — every single time he went to day care. The weekly routine began to go like this:

  • Tuesday and Wednesday: Day care.
  • Thursday afternoon: Pediatrician’s office.
  • Later Thursday afternoon or early evening: Pharmacy for pickup of antibiotics, ointments and other medicines, plus Pedialyte in liquid and popsicle form to help stave off dehydration.
  • Thursday night through approximately Sunday night: Sleepless nights with miserably sick kid; baking soda baths for rashes; chronic low-grade illnesses and general ooginess for mom and dad.

In the span of three months, Tyler had multiple ear infections, sky-high fevers, roseola — and, of course, that unforgettable stomach flu. Which we all got. Which led to me lying there on the bathroom floor, thinking about what the pediatrician had mentioned during our last visit. He gave me a long, penetrating look and said, “You know, it’s good for children to build up their immune systems, but they should get at least some kind of a break between illnesses.”

“That’s it,” I thought as I cooled my face on the tiles. “This has to end.”

I withdrew Tyler from day care that week. I had no backup plan. (Other than to abandon all hope of writing and editing on a part-time basis after having Tyler.) This, of course, made me feel like hurling all over again. But fortunately, by that point — February 2009 — I gradually had started to hear about nannies looking for work in the down economy. I interviewed several, and finally hired one to work at our home two days a week. She was great, and — surprise! She charged considerably less money than the renowned day care place, and Tyler’s bouts of sickness came to a complete and sudden end. Hooray! Problem solved!

You have to go to Nigeria?Well, solved for another three or so months, anyway. Our nanny wound up developing serious health issues and had to stop working altogether. I completely supported her decision, of course, but felt terrified about being set adrift yet again. Thankfully, though, we had a network to tap by this point, and through word of mouth we heard about another nanny who was looking for work in our area. She was able to start right away. Hooray! Right?

Well, yes, hooray indeed, because this nanny was unbelievably wonderful — but, about three and a half months later, she and her husband were given a wildly cool opportunity to go do volunteer work in Nigeria. That sure doesn’t happen every day. How could they not go?

This time the sense of loss was profound. Even though the time together had been short, I felt like all of us — especially Tyler — were losing a bona-fide family member. Good gravy, could just one, single part of this process be a tiny bit easy? And I was only trying to work part time. (Three days a week by this point.) The whole experience left me awestruck: How do any parents of young children ever manage to work full time, ever-ever-ever?

By September 2009, we were on the prowl for our fourth child-care arrangement in less than a year. This time around, some good friends came to the rescue and told us about an in-home day care where they had been taking their daughter since she was an infant. I initially felt leery about in-home day cares. (This may not be entirely fair, but I wondered how carefully regulated they were.) But our friends’ recommendation couldn’t have been more glowing. The woman running the day care had been doing so out of her home for more than 30 years. I meticulously checked her license status and complaint history with the state — not one complaint filed in that entire time. She put us completely at ease during the interview, and her entire home was set up as a clean, safe, fun place to be.

And so, Tyler goes there now. He LOVES it. He has friends there. He plays with special toys there. And — HALLELUJAH — he hasn’t gotten sick there once. (Seriously. He’s only caught colds from me!) The monthly bill still makes us wince a bit, but it’s more reasonable than any other option we’ve found to date.

Our whole “four day care arrangements in less than a year” saga rocked our worlds, of course — but parents go through this all the time. I don’t think I’ve met a single working parent who’s had an entirely easy time lining up care for pre-school-aged kids. Sometimes moms and dads enjoy more stability and peace of mind when relatives are there to help — but even that can raise thorny issues that need to be navigated carefully.

All of that said, we learned a lot from this baptism by fire, and there are steps I wish I would have taken to make life at least a little bit easier from the get-go. Some take-aways:

1. Start your day care search early — really, really early. Even if you feel ridiculous about doing this, put your name on waiting lists for popular places while you’re still pregnant. If you know you absolutely need to go back to work full time, do this in your first trimester. The wait lists can be astonishing, and you’ve got no time to lose.

2. Form a network. Begin forming a network of “sources” by asking trusted friends, relatives and colleagues for as many references as you can get for all kinds of day care options — day care centers, in-home day cares, nannies — whatever you can find. If you simply don’t have friends and relatives to tap in this way, join a moms’ group in your area. By making friends with moms who have kids about the same age as yours, you are bound to hear about all sorts of helpful information because you’ll all be on the prowl for the same kinds of resources at the same time.

3. Keep an open mind. If you definitely must work, try not to turn your nose up at any particular form of day care (the way I did with in-home day cares). Just gather as much information and as many recommendations as you can. You never know which “lead” might direct you to the best alternative for your child.

4. Talk to your family. Are you in a position to ask grandparents or other extended family members to watch your child while you work? The calmest parents I’ve ever met get some form of child-care help from their parents, in-laws, siblings or other relatives. If family members agree to provide such labor-intensive support, be sure to compensate them in some way — either financially or by providing help and services that could be useful for them, or both.

5. Team up with someone you trust. Another possibility might be to alternate your work schedule with a dependable person you know well. In essence you could coordinate a “job share” of sorts, even if you don’t work at the same place. Then the two of you could tag team and share child-care duties on your off days, potentially saving thousands of dollars each year.

6. Or try a different form of teamwork. Maybe both you and your dependable friend or relative must work full time. If so, could you team up and split the cost of a full-time nanny who could care for your children and the other person’s children during the day? To make this even more cost-effective, you could split your “nanny share” three ways with another parent who lives nearby.

7. Think about churches and schools in your area. Does your church or a church in your area offer day care? If so, be aware that scholarships may be available for parents who are struggling financially. Another possibility might be a low-cost preschool program offered by the public school district where you live. Call the school district to find out what’s available. It also could be worthwhile to call your county government, the nonprofit initiative Child Care Aware (1-800-424-2246), and area civic organizations to find out about different day care possibilities for your child. In all cases, ask about scholarship help if you think you might qualify.

8. Part-time workers can sometimes get away with using baby sitters. Maybe you’re in a situation where you don’t HAVE to work full time in a traditional job but you just need some coverage when your little one isn’t napping. Particularly if you’ll be home and working in a different room — but still within earshot — you might be able to get all the help you need by having a baby sitter come in for a few hours a few days a week. The American Red Cross trains and certifies baby sitters, so check with your local chapter for leads. Or you could form an impromptu baby-sitting co-op with other mothers in your neighborhood or in your moms’ group. Or you could visit this site and consider swapping baby-sitting duties with someone after interviewing them carefully:

9. Do a background check. No matter where you end up or what route you choose to take, do some sleuth work. Request the names of at least three parents who have worked with the child-care provider and ask them about their children’s experiences. Also visit your state’s consumer protection, family services or attorney general’s Web site to start the process of checking complaint histories and making sure licenses are up to date.

10. Ask lots of questions. Good questions to ask any child-care provider include: How is the staff selected? What are their credentials? What are the child-adult ratios? What kinds of safety equipment and emergency procedures exist? How much space do children have inside and outside to play? How long has your business been licensed? And — and! — don’t feel at all funny asking this one: What is your hand- and toy-washing policy?