Working moms feel the summer strain. Why a lack of child care options hit women hard.

"It's never more obvious than in the summer months when we see moms just getting crushed trying to do it all.”

School's out — and moms are stressed. How juggling child care, work and other responsibilities is impacting families. (Image: Getty; illustration by Aida Amer for Yahoo)
School's out — and moms are stressed. How juggling child care, work and other responsibilities is impacting families. (Image: Getty; illustration by Aida Amer for Yahoo)
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Back in May, writer Meg St-Esprit changed her email signature. “Please note I may be slower to respond to email in the months of June, July and August due to the United States’s inability to provide affordable childcare for working mothers,” she wrote. Her message went viral.

“I jotted it off in a fit of pique, it hit a nerve,” says St-Esprit, a mom of four children between the ages of 4 and 11 whose freelance writing clients include Yahoo Life. “Anything more scripted wouldn’t have landed the same. It was pure emotion.”

St-Esprit’s summer child care calculus is relatable to American parents. As of 2022, 65% of married couples with children had both parents employed, and 67.9% of mothers of young children (and 94.4% of fathers) participate in the labor force. This leaves millions of parents left to figure out child care all year round. During the school year, six hours a day of school plus after-school options ease that struggle for many (over 90% of American children are enrolled in free public school), but free summer programming affiliated with those schools is competitive and not universally available. During the summer especially, families are left to fend for themselves and it’s often mothers who find themselves bridging that gap — to the tune of $300,000 in missed earnings.

“Despite the fact that the majority of moms work outside the home for pay and have breadwinning roles in their families, there is this default assumption that the average worker is a man with a wife at home,” says Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Moms First. The organization has partnered with TheSkimm on the #ShowUsYourChildCare campaign calling on companies to publicly share their child care benefits as a means of increasing transparency. “That's who work is built for and it's never more obvious than in the summer months when we see moms just getting crushed trying to do it all.”

The U.S. is an outlier among wealthy nations when it comes to child care and the government’s support of working families. The organization Child Care Aware of America (CCAoA) found that in 2022 the national annual average price of child care was $10,853. Where other wealthy countries contribute an annual average of $14,000 for a toddler’s care, a figure that would cover that cost, the U.S. contributes roughly $500. “In countries like Denmark, children are guaranteed spots in day care and parents only pay a fraction of the cost — and so of course you have women participating in the labor force at much higher rates,” shares Saujani. “In other countries, if one parent wants to stay home, or a family member can provide child care, the government will pay for that — there's a recognition that this labor has real tangible value and so families can decide what works best for them.”

In the U.S., the situation is decidedly different, as is the recognition that both caring for and educating children is hard work and should be remunerated in kind. “Early childhood educators earn an average $13.60 an hour, which adds up to just under $30,000 per year, often without benefits,” shares Susan Gale Perry, CEO of CCAoA. “Part-time summer caregivers often earn even less.”

What all of these factors lead to is a scramble for care; one that leaves parents stressed and scrapping things together, and child care professionals overworked and underpaid. “Coordinating child care in the summer is like solving a Rubik's cube. Maybe you have grandparents covering a week, then day camp another week and a neighbor who is taking the kids for a day here or there. That's if you're lucky,” Saujani says. “The schedule is constantly changing and that's totally incompatible with maintaining a normal work schedule.”

“We piece together a hodgepodge of camps (many of which are half-day), trips and sometimes swap afternoon playdates with other parents who work from home,” Joy Bullen, a mom of two in Portland, Ore., tells Yahoo Life of how she and her children’s father make child care work in the summers. “It's hard and expensive to piece together different private camps for the whole summer, and it means no one really gets into a routine.”

“I am lucky because I can take my daughter to work with me, so that’s what she does if she can’t go to her dad’s house, or her step-dad can’t stay home with her or I can’t stay home with her,” says Tori Landrum, a mom in Bakersfield, Calif. “It definitely makes it difficult to get a full work day in.”

“I see many clients having to shift more of their work to early mornings or later evenings when kids are sleeping,” shares Kelly Nolan, a time management strategist and mom of two. “That said, many of the women I work with can't easily modify their schedules or workloads during the summer, so they often have to hire a nanny or rely heavily on family to bridge the gaps.”

In a recent post on her blog The Bright Method, Nolan gave strategies for working moms whose kids are in school and find themselves with “no child care coverage for a fourth of the year (typically, June, July and at least part of August).” While her tips are geared toward moms with financial wiggle room, they are generated from the uniquely American reality that parents need to carve individualized paths in order for their jobs and child care to function in tandem. Nolan’s strategies highlight the fact that the system is not seamless even for those with means.

“The actual sign-up time for camps is stressful. Spots can sell out in minutes, sites can crash and enrollments can open late or even early, throwing off your signup plan,” Nolan notes. “This summer, my ideal child care plan disappeared when the camp's enrollment didn't open for 20 minutes after it was meant to and I'd had to leave before I could sign up to take my children to school. I ended up having to pull over on a side street and sign up on my phone with an upset kid in the car.”

On top of all the practical components of summer juggling, is the added pressure and American myth-making that summer is meant to be a time for magic. Child care specialist Janet Lansbury recently posted an Instagram that (amid many shouts of affirmation) ruffled other parents’ feathers. “Summer is the time kids need to be able to relax their minds … they need to lose all track of time. Often. Children do this best when we respect their choices, especially when we honor their choice to do nothing at all.”

“This works better when both parents don't need to work full-time,” one commenter posted. “I'd love to spend the summer playing in the sprinkler and blowing bubbles with my son, but unfortunately I can't. He'll be in day care camp for the summer.”

“This is a lovely, albeit very classist ideal,” another commenter wrote. “I agree with your overall principles, but like other comments have stated — not all families have an adult who can stay home with kids and not all communities have camps with this sort of unstructured structure.”

As for the future, many believe policy change to be the way forward. “The bottom line is that parents can’t afford to pay, teachers can’t afford to stay and businesses and our economy pay the price in lost productivity and fewer adults in the workforce,” says Gale Perry at CCAoA.

As for St-Esprit, she says that due to unaffordable child care she has to cut her workload which, naturally, means a decrease in her family’s income. “I would say [it’s] about a 30% reduction for summer,” she says of how much less she works while her children are not in school. “But it’s hard to quantify.”

“I don’t know what I would do if I was in a job that doesn’t have the flexibility that I have and I couldn’t take her to work with me or I couldn’t work from home,” adds Landrum, the mom in Bakersfield. “I don’t know how some of these parents do it.”

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