With child care costs continuing to climb, many parents feel deeply frustrated about having to fork over a huge portion of their monthly budgets on it. (According to the Care.com 2023 Cost of Care survey, the majority of American families now spend, on average, 27% of their household income on child care).
“The cost of child care is exorbitant and overwhelming” says Kristi Yeh, a licensed marriage and family therapist and parent herself, but adds that it can help to view it as a “yes and” situation. “Yes, it’s costly … and it’s an investment in my career so I can focus on work and/or rest while trusting that my child is well taken care of.”
We talked to Yeh and other experts and parents about how to feel less guilty and stressed about child care costs and how to have a healthier outlook about the cost of raising a child.
Give yourself space to grieve your pre-child life
Emmalee Bierly, a licensed marriage and family therapist and parent, believes that people don’t talk enough about the loss and grief that inevitably comes with having children, even if you’re thrilled to have them.
“The same way that I lost parts of myself when I became a parent, I lose parts of my freedom when finances get distributed differently,” she explains.
She believes that rather than try to ignore our problems, it can be cathartic — necessary even — to give ourselves space to confront the reality and just let ourselves feel frustrated:
“You might say to yourself, ‘You know what? This sucks. It sucks that my mortgage is the same price as daycare. I wish it wasn’t this way. I feel sad for the part of me that lost the ability to have the financial freedom I had before. Maybe I need to have a little pity party for myself while I’m doing the dishes.’ That’s totally OK to do.”
In acknowledging your emotions, you might realize you’re being very hard on yourself or harboring resentments against your partner. Whatever feelings it brings up, letting yourself fully feel them will help you process and accept your reality.
“Intentionality and consciousness is what I’m working towards,” Bierly says.
Think long-term to gain perspective
Yeh encourages parents to try to pan out and think about the bigger picture.
“It might help to remember that the bulk of child care costs are incurred during the first five years of a child’s life,” suggests Yeh. “Take a look at your child care with a longer-term lens and see if that shifts what makes sense.”
As author Gretchen Rubin shares on her podcast — viewing a particularly difficult phase of life as a “season of sacrifice” can help you maintain perspective about the fact that it won’t go on forever. While there could be future costs such as extracurriculars, for many parents, the overall cost of parenting goes down when their children enter public school (families opting for private school must plan for tuition costs).
Having a longer view is especially relevant if your current job has the potential for growth. Investing time and energy into your job now could lead to:
- Promotions or raises.
- Better job opportunities elsewhere.
- Deepened relationships with coworkers and industry peers, who may support you and open doors down the road.
- The potential to keep investing in retirement funds such as 401(k)s, which tend to grow over time.
Consider the nonfinancial benefits
One New York City mom, Angela, bemoaned that after returning to work in theater, her “net” income would only be $500 per month after tax and nanny costs for just one child. Still, she loves her work and wants to keep doing it. She says that she had to shift her mindset to think of the nanny’s payments as coming from both her and her husband’s salaries, rather than just hers.
Yeh points out that even if you don’t particularly love your current job, there can be emotional benefits to working in any capacity and to having space from your family.
“Many parents find the structure and goal-setting outside of parenting, as well as the connection with colleagues, to be beneficial,” she says. “Consider the value of work to your mental health.”
She believes that there’s value in thinking of child care as paying not just for the ability to work but also something that allows them rest, pleasure and time to connect with adults.
“I encourage parents to leave their kids an extra hour at day care (or with a sitter) once a week for dinner together, or to take a personal day from work while their child is being cared for elsewhere,” she says.
The benefits of achieving greater mental health and avoiding burnout can be well worth it, and for those in relationships, having time to focus only on each other can strengthen your bond.
In addition, consider the cost of care as something positive you’re giving your children. Ashley Reckdenwald, mom of three in New Jersey, says that as a working mom, she’s constantly comparing what she makes to what it costs for child care. For her, it helps her to think about the quality of care her children are getting.
“Even though the cost is high, I know I am getting exceptional services, and that makes me feel at ease,” she says.
Communicate and budget with your family
If you’re in a relationship, financial stress can easily seep into it. Meghan Rabuse, mom of three and former financial analyst who now runs the blog Family Finance Mom, says that money is the No. 1 thing couples fight about and is the second leading cause of divorce. She says it’s imperative to talk openly about money, covering topics such as:
- Each of your debt situations.
- How much you understand about money and how finance works.
- Your personal financial goals and priorities.
- What you consider to be cheap or expensive, reasonable or unreasonable.
- The price point at which you want to be consulted before a purchase is made.
“I encourage parents to have regular, at least monthly, money meetings,” she says and suggests checking out her free guide, How to Keep Money Problems Out of Your Marriage.
When creating a budget together, you can also explore alternative child care options such as:
- Sharing a nanny with another family.
- Leveraging a flexible work schedule so that you and/or your partner can still watch your child some of the time, paying for only part-time care.
- Swapping care with other parents.
- Hiring a mother’s helper or teen babysitter for a lower rate.
In addition, Rabuse advises looking into benefits provided by your employer as well. “Many employers now offer a Dependent Care Flexible Savings Accounts (FSA) that allows you to put aside pre-tax income to pay for child care, which can help you save for and pay those costs with pre-tax income.” (Learn all about FSAs).
For more savings tips, check out: 20 ways to save money on child care
Seek financial support
Yeh stressed that it’s important that parents ask for support wherever they can to avoid stretching themselves too thin. If you’re really struggling to cover costs, you might be able to find financial support.
Check out this list of child care subsidies, which includes resource links by state. Though the benefits and eligibility requirements vary by state, they generally take household income into account. You may also learn more about government programs at ChildCare.gov.
Know you’re not alone
If nothing else, know that you are far from alone. Child care affordability is a national crisis entangled with other issues such as housing affordability, inflation and wage stagnation. It can be therapeutic to vent to fellow parents, either in online groups such as Facebook and Reddit, or in person.
When Rockwell became a parent, she felt so passionate about wanting to build community that she created Working Mom Notes, a supportive online platform empowering women through community and experience by curating and streamlining information for working mothers.
She says creating a community “takes time and effort, but it will pay back tenfold.”
Some places to start:
- Create or join a local Facebook group for families.
- Put flyers in your neighbors’ mailboxes to start a group chat.
- Utilize a community app such as Nextdoor.
“What it took me time to realize is that we must build our own villages, and that village may look different than what we had imagined,” says Rockwell. “Having people locally to lean on is imperative to the success of working parents.”
There’s power in numbers. If you feel passionate about advocating for more quality, affordable child care on a national level, Think Babies (part of the organization Zero to Three) provides tools and resources that make it easy to learn about the issues and contact your senators urging them to support the child care system for everyone.