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Why I Can’t Climb Out of Full-Time Parenting

I am a mother trapped in BC’s child-care crisis. Here are three things holding me back. And how to fix them.

Brittany Hopkins 29 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Brittany Hopkins is a freelance journalist and newcomer in Vancouver.

I can’t seem to claw my way out of full-time motherhood. And I’m beginning to worry that B.C.’s current plans to launch a universal child-care system will do little to help.

I am an American citizen with two children under five. I moved to Vancouver from Argentina in December 2021 — the tail end of a record-breaking year for Canadian immigration. I came with three Canadian citizens (my husband, our preschooler and our then-infant), plus a few suitcases and cautious optimism.

After nearly three years of full-time parenting, the majority under pandemic restrictions and their associated anxiety, I had visions of breaking free. I dreamed that, as soon as our baby turned one, I’d balance out the demands of parenting and homemaking with a return to local journalism and applying for grad school.

I want to be optimistic. The federal government has allocated $30 billion to help offer high-quality child-care spaces to all Canadian children nationwide. Over the past five years, $3.9 billion in provincial and federal funds have been invested here in B.C. to lower child-care fees for families, subsidize child-care costs for operators and create more licensed child-care spaces. We now have 12,729 licensed $10-a-day child-care spaces across the province.

But Canada has known about this equity problem for generations. In 1970, more than 50 years ago, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women implored the federal government to take “immediate action” to make child care affordable and accessible to help more women achieve equal opportunities to their male counterparts.

According to the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, three major attempts to implement a national universal child-care system have failed since then.

Are we really guaranteed to succeed this time?

I want to do further research. But as usual, I’m already out of time. I slam my laptop shut as my one-year-old rolls in, shrieking with excitement from his tricycle, after a morning adventure with our babysitter. Shortly after, our three-year-old bounds through the door with her father, home again after just four hours of preschool. As my partner returns to his desk, she sheds her backpack and makes her first barrage of demands for our afternoon: potty, lunch, painting, puzzles. Books, snacks, playdough, more snacks.

I pace the living room on autopilot, struggling to keep up with two small children for the foreseeable future. I try not to ponder how much of this is my fault. If I had fallen in love with math or science instead of writing 30 years ago, maybe I could have been the primary breadwinner instead of the default parent?

I snatch our one-year-old off the table so he can’t ingest our painting supplies, while brushing away fears that my current reality may cap our daughter's future career trajectory as well.

I change the diapers. I break up the fights. I vacuum the floors. I cover my ears as they chase each other, screeching, from room to room with reckless abandon. I try to tune out the record playing on repeat in my mind: B.C.’s future child-care system may never set me free.

A daily struggle

Today, the largest share of my mindspace goes to child care and child-care planning. 

I scour Facebook forums for any news of $10-a-day daycare spaces in my area (highly unlikely).

Our limited alternative options constantly swirl through my mind. How long can we sustain our temporary fix: private preschool for one and a part-time babysitter, paid a living wage, for the other? After preschool drop-off, that leaves me with just three hours of child-free time most weekdays. A full year at this rate would cost a minimum of $34,000 — before factoring in any additional child-care costs to fill seasonal preschool breaks.

What if we drop preschool and hire a full-time nanny for both kids? That would cost at least $44,000 per year. Then I’d have a full-time, long-term solution, but we’d lose the community connection and the kindergarten preparation that preschool offers on top of a heftier chunk of income.

Do I just put my career on ice for a few more years, until both children are in elementary school? Public school runs for just six hours per day. We’d probably still need to fight for space in a before- or after-school program, and also stretch our vacation and sick days to cover days when they’re too sick to go to school.

What if I could just be happy caring for young children day and night, and nothing else for the foreseeable future? Why can’t I do that? What is wrong with me?

Landing a spot in a high-quality, provincially subsidized, $10-a-day daycare program in our neighborhood would simply change the equation entirely. Our children could play, learn and socialize in the care of early learning professionals without guilt that my personal choices are gouging our family income.

I could apply for a part-time job. I’d start my grad school application right away. I’d finally send that email to my local community centre asking how I could volunteer. I’d have the energy to organize weekend playdates with kids in the neighbourhood and get to know nearby families better.

When one kid stays home sick, I could focus more on soothing their sick body rather than calculating the small fortune going to waste that day. Finding the right balance would remain a struggle, but at least I would finally have options outside my family’s four walls.

It’s undeniable that families that have landed $10-a-day child-care spaces or child-care subsidies through the fee reduction program are feeling real relief. But five years into this multibillion-dollar effort, it seems as though many of the system’s foundational building blocks remain unclear.

As a middle-class family, I don’t believe we should be first in line for a new space. But I fear that if I blink, waiting quietly on the sidelines, I and other newcomer families will miss out. Little will have changed in a decade’s time, and we’ll still be in the exact same spot.

Here are just a few of the missing pieces that keep me up at night.

1. The barriers to accessing child care are still too high.

I am a native English speaker from the West Coast with a university education, and I’m still struggling to make sense of the current child-care system.

There are numerous forms of licensed and unlicensed child-care options, subsidies for parents and subsidies for child-care providers operating outside of the $10-a-day system.

Hiring a nanny requires not just wealth, but also registering as a private employer and adopting a payroll system. And don’t forget the tax credits.

And that’s just the bureaucracy. The common advice for finding a group child-care provider: Call around. Download lists, scour forums and call everyone.

Without extended family or long-time friends to lend a hand, I have to use the premium child-care hours we pay for to gain access to more affordable options. Do I make those calls or reserve those precious hours to chip away at career development opportunities? With two children and no vehicle, it isn’t feasible to accept a child-care space just anywhere in the metro region, either.

I can imagine how even more challenging this process is for newcomers who don’t speak the local official language fluently. It took me seven months to work up the courage and language proficiency to call child-care providers in Spanish while living in Argentina. I visited their websites and Instagram accounts obsessively, which helped me gain confidence in the quality of their programs and learn the words I’d need to use to communicate with the staff. Here, fewer child-care providers seem to maintain websites or social media accounts that give real insight into their programs.

Imagine if parents had access to a comprehensive, highly visual marketplace where they could find and compare all types of child-care centres and preschools across B.C. Wonderschool, backed by US$25 million in venture capital, is building exactly that for families across the U.S.

Given how difficult it is to search for child-care options here, I’m not surprised to see that there is a profound employment gap not just between Canadian-born settler and Indigenous mothers, but recently arrived immigrant mothers as well. Statistics Canada reports that our full-time employment rate in 2021 (45 per cent) was well below the average woman in Canada aged 20 to 54 (68 per cent), Canadian-born mothers (64 per cent) and Indigenous women (59 per cent). And a hair above Indigenous mothers (43 per cent).

I’m glad to see the current fixes are specifically targeting Indigenous and low-income mothers. But as the country continues to ramp up immigration, I hope immigrant mothers do not get left behind.

2. We need a major investment in early childhood educators.

Nationwide, 96 per cent of early childhood educators are women. Historically, they’ve earned poverty-level wages and few employment benefits. For years, our province’s universal child-care advocates have argued that establishing competitive minimum wages that increase with educators’ training and experience is crucial to recruiting and retaining qualified staff.

B.C. has committed to adopting a wage grid for the industry but hasn’t indicated when it will do so or what its minimum starting wages will be. Meanwhile, 45 per cent of child-care operators reported losing staff and struggling to fill open positions in 2021, despite the incremental wage enhancements the province has been funding on a temporary basis. Depleted and financially bruised, passionate educators are leaving the field in droves. 

The proportion of staff members at before- and after-school programs expected to leave the sector within a year has grown to 15 per cent — a frightening statistic for those of us thinking to pause our careers until our children reach school age.

At a time when workers seem to value flexibility over career progression and turning side hustles into small businesses seems more attainable than ever, can we trust that the government will commit the funds necessary to make early childhood education an enticing and sustainable career choice to staff a truly universal system?

3. We need to think more creatively.

I worry that the reigning idea of what high-quality child care should look like is limiting the system’s potential, as landscapes of paid work and parenting continue to shift.

We can and should look to Europe for viable new ideas. However, there are also budding innovations right here in B.C., and across North America that could help boost child-care capacity, lower barriers to entry and offer fresh relief for modern families.

For example, quality early learning and child-care programs do not require a roof. Forest preschool programs for children ages two to five have been growing in popularity here in B.C. The majority do not have access to indoor facilities, therefore they remain unlicensed. This bars these programs from joining the $10-a-day child-care program and accessing subsidies for startup costs or fee reductions.

In Scandinavia, and now Washington state, forest preschool is a legitimate child-care solution. According to its most recent child-care inventory, the City of Vancouver’s supply of part-time preschools exceeds the estimated need by 189 per cent. Many families using those programs — mine included — would prefer a full-day program. Could existing part-time preschools team with outdoor educators and extend their hours by adding a half-day of nature-based learning? I would sign my preschooler up right away.

Additionally, not all families need or want traditional full-time, long-term child-care contracts. Here in Vancouver, two co-working communities designed for parents, OneSpace and NestWorks, recently popped up.

OneSpace offers hourly childminding (following all of the guidelines set by provincial bylaws), staffed by early childhood educators, while parents work, socialize or rest onsite.

Could an influx of quality hourly child-minding services lower the barrier to accessing care and give parents with more flexibility another option? Could this free up traditional full-time spaces for frustrated working parents with more rigid schedules?

How about revolutionizing the child-care business model altogether? One common financial planning tip is to diversify your income. In Port Moody, Little Beans Play Cafe seems to have done just that. Under one roof, this mother-led business operates a cafe and playroom, offers a drop-in child-care centre during the week, and hosts birthday parties on the weekends. 

Could helping more public, not-for-profit and for-profit child-care operators boost their incomes by adding complementary revenue streams help us start preparing for the economy of the future?

So much potential, so little support

Back in our apartment, it’s 5:30 a.m. Screams sound from both children’s bedrooms almost in unison. My partner attends to the baby. I drop myself into our preschooler’s bed and wrap my arms around her. She instantly calms.

We lay there together for a while, lost in our own daydreams. Until she raises her hands overhead, holds up four fingers up on each and stares. 

“Mama, lots of fours makes eight,” she whispers. “Right?”

She’s three. She just did mental math. In bed, before dawn. Even in second grade, sitting directly in front of my teacher’s desk, I struggled so hard with math.

Whether I choose to work or not, whether she attends this preschool or that child-care centre, this girl is full of so much potential. I just hope the status quo doesn’t squash it 30 years from now.  [Tyee]

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