I Work the Pandemic Frontlines—But the Cost of Childcare May Force Me Out

Amidst all the challenges those of us at the frontlines have faced, the most stressful part of my life comes from the failure that is America’s childcare system.

child-care-cost-frontline-worker
In a world still fighting a pandemic, the burnout rate amongst healthcare is at a record high. Congress has the opportunity help millions of families by passing legislation to cap childcare costs at 7 percent of a family’s income and provide universal preschool to children aged 3 and 4. (501 Combat Support Wing / Wikimedia Commons)

My family spends more on childcare than we do on our mortgage. I am an overworked and exhausted healthcare worker who has spent my recent years forward facing the pandemic. Yet, amidst all the challenges those of us at the frontlines have faced, the most stressful part of my life comes from the failure that is America’s childcare system.

Working as a critical care nurse practitioner during this pandemic is like living through a nightmare. In the early days of the pandemic, our ICUs filled quickly and we scrambled to keep up with a novel virus while facing PPE shortages and unprecedented staffing shortages. If this was not challenging enough, schools and daycare facilities closures meant my children—who were 6, 2 and five months old at the time—would be home indefinitely. 

My husband was in his third month of an eight-month-long deployment with the Navy. We’ve always called our military heroes, and Americans began to call us on the pandemic frontlines heroes, too. But heroes with children need childcare.

Babysitters were fearful to step into my house due to the nature of my work. Desperate for help, I pleaded with my mother to move in with me, risk her health, and put her life on hold to take care of the kids while I worked ICU shifts. Had she not done that, I don’t know what I would have done. As women of the family know all too well, we must pick up the pieces when childcare falls through. 

The COVID-19 pandemic only widened the existing cracks in our nation’s childcare. Increases in childcare costs outpace inflation; parents are spending upwards of $10,000 a year on it. Even families who can afford to foot the bill face years-long waiting lists for daycares and preschools. During the pandemic, many parents—mainly women—were forced out of the workforce to be full time caregivers. But with women accounting for nearly 80 percent of the healthcare industry workforce, we were caught between the responsibilities of caring for our nation and caring for our children.

Currently, I am caught in a quagmire wherein I can only commit to part-time hours. As a healthcare worker, my atypical hours often extend past the traditional times childcare facilities operate. If I work more hours, I’ll be compelled to spend outrageous amounts on childcare to the extent that childcare costs begin to outweigh my income—a plight all too familiar to many working mothers today.

With women accounting for nearly 80 percent of the healthcare industry workforce, we were caught between the responsibilities of caring for our nation and caring for our children.

With the cost of my youngest son’s pre-K program at $10,000 a year, the cost of my daughter’s daycare at $1,200 a month, and before and after care to accommodate the irregular hours I work, childcare is by far our family’s largest expense. These calculations do not even consider the costs of summertime care. 

My husband and I waited to have children until we were financially stable, and yet, we find ourselves challenged to meet the financial burden of childcare. We are conscious of our spending. We have worked hard not to have debt. We are simply trying to give our children the best opportunities while simultaneously continuing in the workforce. The harsh reality is that it is almost impossible to provide a “normal” life when you have outrageous childcare expenses. 

Congress has the opportunity to change this and help millions of families by passing President Biden’s economic plan. It will cap childcare costs at 7 percent of a middle class family’s income and provide universal preschool to all children aged 3 and 4. This would directly help my family afford childcare, and indirectly help all of my patients. 

In a world still fighting a pandemic, the burnout rate amongst healthcare is at a record high. In an understaffed workplace, the added burden of call-outs due to childcare falling through only serves to worsen the load on already over-extended healthcare workers. If I cannot show up to work, there’s no one left to replace me. There are licensed people who don’t practice because it’s completely infeasible to work at this level with little support. The system is already bursting at the seams after three years of being ridiculously strained. 

Something has to give. For years, it’s been mothers like me bearing the brunt of our nation’s childcare crisis. I share my story because I need help, and I know I’m not the only one. My desire to advocate for reform to America’s childcare system has taken on new meaning since I had my daughter. For every struggle I face, I fear she’ll face the same when she grows up.

For myself, for my patients, for my daughter, I’m begging Congress to pass childcare reform.

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About

Cate Weiss lives in Norfolk, Va., with her husband and three children.