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What I Learned From a Failed Workplace Child-Care Experiment

What I Learned From a Failed Workplace Child-Care Experiment

In September 2020, the mess that my life had become since returning to work one month prior was glaringly apparent. Even from a tiny Zoom window, I could no longer maintain the pretense of my functionality. The pandemic raged, I did not sleep, I did not have clean clothes, and I did not make sense.

One Wednesday, right as I started my third back-to-back virtual meeting for the day, my 4-month-old daughter pooped explosively all over my outfit, while breastfeeding. At the same time, my preschooler began screaming for help with her schoolwork. I stripped off my and my baby’s clothes and threw them into the growing mountain of laundry in the bathroom. I was already late to my meeting, both my children were crying, and now, I was too.

Without bothering to wipe my tears, I signed onto my meeting, knowing what I needed to say. But before I could verbalize, “I can’t do this anymore,” I realized that conversation was already happening. My two colleagues on the call were deep in dialogue about the working parent struggle, their own tears unwiped, their own kids’ foreheads and elbows darting past in the background.

That call was mobilizing. We saw our own struggles in each others’ stories and we decided to do something about it.

Within two weeks, we organized a workplace child-care center. We hired one of our part-time lactation counselors to serve as our child caregiver for our three kids. We turned a room in our office into a child care space with toys, books, and nap mats. Starting out, we could only afford to hire a caregiver for four days a week. We decided to volunteer in the child-care center on a rotating basis to cover Fridays too. Immediately, the relief was palpable. The Zoom crying subsided, and life started to make (a little) sense again.

Our great child-care experiment

In June 2020, I gave birth to my second child. Preparing to give birth early in the pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder had been beyond stressful, but, thankfully, my birthing experience was healthy and satisfying. Three months later, my body was healing and breastfeeding was going (mostly) smoothly. I had successfully tackled a return from postpartum leave four years prior, but this time, the circumstances were wildly different. My oldest would be attending virtual preschool from home, my partner was working full-time in home visitation, and we had not been able to identify a safe and affordable child-care option for our newborn. I decided to go back to work half-time and remotely, and I figured I could find a way to manage it all, as I had always done before.

Returning to work while parenting two young children during the pandemic was a nightmare. In September 2020, I returned to work as an owner and director of a birth justice cooperative. Based in southern Louisiana, we are owned and managed by a team of mostly Black, mostly parenting, mostly women, like myself. We are birthworkers (birth doulas, lactation consultants, and childbirth educators), serving pregnant and parenting families.

As I returned to work that fall, we were just beginning to figure out how to safely restore essential in-person services for our clients, while continuing to operate all non-essential activities remotely.

I did not know how I would manage work, child care, and breastfeeding each day, so I looked to my colleagues for guidance. Observing them, I saw that during my parental leave, work hours had become irrelevant. Faced with constant interruptions, my coworkers’ work days had extended from wake to sleep. They worked in any available five-minute window, between virtual preschool lessons and diaper changes, and often late at night while kids slept. I saw that our smart phones had replaced our computers. (There is just no good way to use a laptop with sticky, destructive child fingers in reach.) And I saw that mothers were now expected to be miracle workers.

Somehow the same amount of work was demanded, despite the improbable odds. (Truthfully, my colleagues and I were facing more work than we ever had—the families we serve needed more support than ever, in new and more challenging ways.)

Under these untenable circumstances (cue the crying Zoom call), our workplace child care was born. We quickly grew from the three founding families and our Friday parent volunteer rotation to a full-time center. We convinced our colleagues to let us create a sliding-scale, pre-tax subsidy to cover part of the cost of child care, so that all our employees could access our child-care center affordably, and to bolster teacher wages.

Low pay, high costs, and poor quality abound in the U.S. child-care landscape.

Soon, more families joined the center, and we were able to hire three additional caregivers. From 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, the laughter and cries of kids up to 6 years old could be heard throughout our three-story office building, escaping in bursts from the modest two-room center, tucked behind the first-floor lobby.

We were more than a little proud of our center’s accessibility and humane employment practices, and that we built it ourselves. Outside of our little child-care community, finding an affordable quality care setting with equitable compensation for its workers is next to impossible. Low pay, high costs, and poor quality abound in the U.S. child-care landscape, and still there are not enough options to go around—only an estimated 10 percent of existing child-care options are considered to be high-quality care.

Nationally, child-care worker pay is unjustly low. In 2021, the median wage for U.S. child-care workers was $13.22 an hour, or about $27,500 a year. Our employer subsidy allowed us to pay our child-care workers $19 to $21 per hour. Additionally, our teachers had employee status, including sick time, vacation time, and paid family medical leave.

Despite dismal pay for most child-care workers, child-care costs continue to soar. A 2019 study found that child care is unaffordable for 63 percent of full-time working parents in the country, and that Black and brown parents are most likely to be unable to afford care. Costs have only risen during the pandemic—despite the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation that families pay no more than 7 percent of their household income toward child-care costs, families with children under 5 years old routinely pay an average of 13 percent or more.

Connecting child care and family well-being

This national context of failed parenting support infrastructure cannot be ignored when we talk about public health goals such as increasing breastfeeding rates. Many advocates have already pointed out their difficulty integrating the new American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to breastfeed to at least 2 years old with the current lack of systemic support for parents.

I cannot help but see these system failures as tied to lactation because I routinely witness how families are impacted by these gaps in my job. During lactation visits, parents describe refusing job opportunities that could improve their economic prospects because they can’t find child care. Many Black parents tell me that they’ve given up on their breastfeeding goals because the child care that they can find will not take a breastfed baby. Or they have no time to pump because their daycare center is so far from home that they spend an extra hour or two in transit each day.

By contrast, our child-care experiment had many benefits. For me, having convenient, affordable child care gave me back my sanity, made working more sustainable, improved my household’s financial sustainability, and supported both my parenting and breastfeeding goals. For two years, my daughter and I drove to work together each day, and I would drop her off into waiting, loving arms before walking up one flight of stairs to my office. I would breastfeed her when I dropped her off in the morning, on my lunch break, and when I picked her up in the afternoon, or sometimes when I heard her crying particularly loudly from upstairs. This routine saved me time and energy that would have gone to the work of additional transit time, milk pumping, cleaning bottles, etc.

Most parents find themselves with no sick days and no flexibility for missed work after returning from parental leave. I am grateful that my workplace has a generous leave policy that is more reflective of parents’ real lives. But still, in order to actually get my work done, I was dependent on reliable child care, and I had it. I was able to work consistently to pay off debts accrued during parental leaves and recuperate financial sustainability.

And one more thing—I have experienced firsthand how child-care workers become a key educator and support to families. With daily communication, child-care workers may guide parenting decisions more than family members or even pediatricians. Having lactation-trained caregivers was amazing—they provided quality information when my baby was going through developmental changes and helped me think about adjusting feeding plans, starting solids, attachment issues, and gradual weaning. I can’t help but contrast this abundant support with the stories my Black clients share of overburdened child-care centers turning away their breastfed babies, or untrained child-care workers dumping out their breast milk.

Our child-care experiment had great benefits for its workers too. The child-care workers had reliable employment, in a family-friendly workplace, during the pandemic. One worker became pregnant in the first year of the program and received paid parental leave after her birth. When she returned to work, she was able to bring her breastfed baby with her, supporting her financial, child care, and breastfeeding needs.

These small success stories are not just heartening anecdotes. These benefits to parents, workers, and public health more broadly are also supported by research on a larger scale. Safe, quality child care is widely known to improve family and community economic and health attainment. It is fair to say that child care is a public health promotion. I recently read that child care is a violence prevention strategy, illustrating the long-term social impact of child-care justice. And, I have felt firsthand that child care is liberation.

Lessons learned

Despite our many successes, this story ends with our failure.

Throughout two years of running the child-care program, the money never quite added up. We continuously tried new ways to both pay teachers justly and keep tuition costs affordable. We floated our employer subsidy with growing income streams from virtual services during the pandemic. When those declined, we adjusted hours and limited staffing to the safest minimum. When that was not enough, we asked parents to pay just a little bit more, please. Two years into our child-care experiment, we finally accepted the fact that we could no longer sustain the program, and decided to close doors. I tried my best not to cry as I made the first layoff call. (I did not succeed.)

Still, I believe in collective organizing, in cooperative economics, and in community-driven solutions. I believe in the “new foundation” that Black Breastfeeding Week advocates call upon us to build. And yet, I have had to accept that a tiny, Black women-led co-op cannot continuously and consistently make up for the complete and utter failure of this country’s parenting support infrastructure.

Without sufficient and strategic government subsidy and support for child-care worker wages, quality training, parent tuition, and employer support, working parents in this country are left in an impossible bind. Poor families, and Black and brown families (who return to work earlier and work more after birth) suffer. Public health suffers. Our parenting suffers. And breastfeeding, too, suffers.

For the kids, workers, and parents involved, our closure has meant a big disruption in our lives. The kids feel a change in their routine. The workers feel a threat to their livelihoods. I feel, once again, overburdened. I had to notify one of our child-care workers of our closure while she was on parental leave with her first child. Another worker had a 5-month-old baby, and had only recently returned to work. Both of these Black working mothers deserve to have the type of supportive infrastructure that I received over the last two years, thanks to our child-care program. Child-care support that provided a stable foundation for my family’s financial resilience, physical health, and emotional well-being. All parents deserve this type of support. But will we ensure that they receive it?

As employers, workers, and parents, we learned the value of quality child care by creating it—and then, ultimately, losing it. Our successes and failures in crafting our own solution to the country’s child-care crisis demonstrate how interwoven child care and family well-being are, and how we cannot separate public health goals—such as increasing breastfeeding rates—from the basic parenting infrastructure needed to support them.

I kept reflecting back on this experiment while planning for Black Breastfeeding Week 2022. The stability and support we built and lost over the last two years exemplify the week’s theme of “a new foundation…powered by collective resilience.” This Black Breastfeeding Week and onward, I want us to look beyond breastfeeding, and fight for an accessible, quality, and just child-care infrastructure for all families.

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