Jennifer Bourgoyne had recently remarried and was nine months pregnant with her third son when she was laid off from her longtime corporate job in 2005. Severance check in hand, she opted to launch her own business, Czela Bellies CesareanWear, an undergarment solution for moms post C-section. Finally, all the flexibility a working mom could want, right? Well, kinda. Logging 40 or more hours each week and needing to keep costs down, the Austin, TX, mom realized she needed less expensive, more flexible child care than the day care she once used.
The solution came from multiple sources. Jennifer took advantage of her health club’s babysitting service for several hours a day while putting the club’s café to work as her office. She also swapped sitting hours with trusted playgroup moms and did research at the public library while her son attended puppet hour a few feet away. She works at night, too.
Sound complicated? Well, even now, with a successful business and her sons at ages 19, 13 and 5, Jennifer wouldn’t go back to a traditional care solution. “It’s been really great for me as well as my kids,” she says. “I have so much control over my work hours and my children’s care.”
As a still-tough economy continues to inform family cost-cutting, and work lives become increasingly flexible, more and more working parents are on the hunt for new child-care options. The 2010 U.S. census report shows that 23 percent of working parents employ “multiple arrangements” for care—and signs indicate this is a growing trend. “Families are opting for informal childcare arrangements to get their needs met,” says Gina Adams, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC–based think tank. “The recession has changed the industry more than we realize.”
Tammy Gold, owner of Gold Parent Coaching and the Gold Nanny Group in Short Hills, NJ, agrees. “I’m seeing more families adopting nanny shares to reduce costs and finding creative arrangements to meet changes in employment,” she says. Both Adams and Gold caution, however, that parents should first and foremost seek solutions that are safe and reliable.
Can a creative childcare strategy work for you? Consider these trends:
“I’m all about flexibility and work life balance,” says Sara Fell, a Boulder, Co, mom of two and owner of the search site FlexJobs.com.
Sara, who works full-time in an office over her garage, splits her child-care needs between preschool three days a week and a network of carefully screened babysitters. On school days, Sara or her husband drops off Harrison, 4, and Palmer, 3, at preschool. Sara takes a 45-minute break to pick the boys up at 3:30 p.m.; a sitter arrives at 4 and stays until 6. On days when the boys are home all day with a sitter, Sara allows herself a break to have lunch with them, and she’ll spend more time with them by letting the sitters leave early Thursday and Friday if she’s gotten enough work done that week. “The work-from-home part really helps in a pinch, when a kid is sick or the sitter is late, or a zillion other reasons,” Sara says.
Work-from-home arrangements and compressed schedules are burgeoning in the corporate world as well. Anne Connolly,* a data administrator in Massachusetts, works full-time for a large technology company yet only pays for one day of child care a week. How does she do it? Her in-laws watch her 2-year-old son two days a week, while Anne works at home the other two, with her son in tow. “He’s very independent, and I’ve always been able to get my work done while he plays with toys next to me in my home office,” she says, knowing he’ll soon be off to preschool. Although her employer has an on-site child-care center, it’s “super expensive,” and the math didn’t make sense.
Can you actually get work done at home with kids underfoot? Gold doesn’t think so. “If you want to be organized, dedicated and devoted as a parent and as an employee,” she says, “Do a nanny share. Do a swap. Hire a neighborhood sitter or find a drop-in day-care center. There are many options these days.”
When it comes to child care, employer work-at-home policies vary. Obviously a care situation like this depends on the nature of your work,” says Lisa Mars, VP of global benefits for CA Technologies, based in Islandia, NY. “Employees need to be able to achieve their work goals if they work from home.” Her company has six on-site child-care centers around the globe as well as summer programs for school-age kids with options that cater to employees with compressed and part-time schedules. “Even work-at-home moms drive in and drop off kids at onsite care before returning home to work,” Mars adds.
Similarly, Washington, DC–based law firm Arnold & Porter offers on-site child care along with 15 days of backup care, contracted through Bright Horizons’ backup care Advantage program. With 900 centers nationwide, mostly employer sponsored, “We’re able to address issues for those who only need a few days of coverage as well as those that need much more,” says Bright Horizons VP of communications Ilene Serpa. “In some cases, our centers are open 24 hours.” Employers they work with subsidize the child-care facility to some extent, and some offer sliding fees. Still, adds Serpa, “high-quality care can be costly.”
Will it Work for you? Flexible child care is a great option if …
You have a flexible job. “Pitch telecommuting or a compressed schedule to your employer if you don’t already have it,” suggests Sara Fell. Studies show long-term benefits for employees and employers. And if the conversation doesn’t go well? “We saw a 400 percent increase in telecommuting jobs on our site this year,” she adds. Perhaps a change of employer is in order.
You have a separate workspace. Even with a sitter, if mom is at home trying to work, the kids always seem to act worse. “They don’t yet understand the concept, especially the younger ones,” says Gold. “Make sure there’s a door you can close.”
You have backup, whether it’s family nearby, a trusted sitter or drop-in day care. Check if your employer offers a backup-care benefit.
You like being the boss. “I treat my flexible child care providers as I treat my employees,” Sara says. “I recently put a sitter on a three-month probation, similar to what I’d do with a new hire. It didn’t work out, and I had to let her go. we’ve since found someone much better.”
“A share can be a great solution for families looking to reduce costs while maintaining individualized care,” says Lisa McLellan, owner of babysittingworld.com. And shared solutions can be made to order: “You might have the nanny to yourself half of the time, or you’re sharing a caregiver who is watching multiple kids, or you’re part of a coop and pooling resources with other families. It really runs the gamut.”
A nanny share is just the answer for three Seattle sisters: Mimi Sternberg, a consultant for Microsoft and mom of two, ages 5 and 4; Judy Sternberg Findley, a copy editor for Premedia Global and mom of three, ages 5, 3 and 10 months; and Becky Aronchick, an independent financial analyst and mom of three, ages 3, 2 and 1.
“We were able to spread out the expenses, ease back into work after having babies and keep extended family in the mix,” says Judy. “I don’t think I could have considered going back to work if not for this arrangement.” The sisters, who live near one another, created a spreadsheet to track hours, schedules and expenses. They paid their nanny $12 an hour if she was watching one child, $16 an hour for two and $7 per child when caring for three or more. “It worked out really well for everyone. we kept making more babies and our nanny kept making more money,” Judy quips.
Micaela Birmingham and Sharon Ng of New York City also figured out a way to share. The two working moms are among the founding members of a babysitting coop that trades sitting for points—parents earn points by babysitting and spend points by having someone babysit. All transactions are tracked through babysitterexchange.com. “You have to be recommended by at least two existing group members,” explains Sharon, who with Micaela worked tirelessly on creating bylaws outlining everything from safety issues to parental preferences. “It was well worth the effort,” she says. “Everyone knows what to expect, and we have very little conflict.” Coop members who work full-time mostly use the coop for supplemental or backup care. Micaela, who works part-time as an urban planner and entrepreneur, swaps child care with another family and uses the coop for date nights and meetings.
Will it Work for you? A shared solution is a great option if …
You like cooperating. This needs a lot of teamwork, communication and shared responsibility. “You have to be on the same page about things like TV, sleep routines and snacks,” advises McLellan. “A share won’t work if you can’t agree on common parenting principles.”
You’re willing to trade—and trade off. In the case of a nanny share, expect the caregiver and other kids to be at your home at least part of the time. If your child-care needs are more specific, or you’re not keen on other kids underfoot, a share may not be right. Be realistic. As for coops, “if you work 60 hours a week, don’t set yourself to be the mom who never volunteers,” advises Gold.
You’re organized. The Sternberg sisters were lucky that one of them knows her way around a spreadsheet. Bylaws can help, too. Whatever you do, put it in writing.
You like being in a community. Check out these endorsements: “I’ve really made some great friends,” says Micaela. “I have 15 moms I can totally depend on,” says Sharon. “It’s made our extended family a stronger unit,” says Judy.
À la Carte Care
What if your child-care needs are utterly unpredictable? For many entrepreneurs and part-time or flextime working moms, sticking to any one schedule or shared situation just isn’t possible—or even desired. And then there’s the money part.
With real estate debt, an under-employed husband and three children under the age of 5, Renee Charbonneau of Pleasant Grove, UT, devised unconventional cost-free solutions when she started her own business as a virtual assistant in 2009. Some days she’d hop around to various free child-care centers at grocery stores (where she could be found strolling the aisles, talking on the phone to clients), and she traded half-hour piano lessons in her home for three hours of babysitting from trusted friends at her church. “I learned that we all have resources available to us if we go a little outside our comfort zone,” she says.
Similarly, Oceanside, NY, mom of two Lori Bizzoco, who runs the celebrity-relationship blog Cupids Pulse.com from her home, utilizes her interns for child care. “At first I wanted my kids nearby,” she says. But when distractions got in the way and she felt caught in the middle, hiring her interns to mind her kids was a natural progression. “They’re all from area colleges and have been screened by me personally,” she says of her five interns, two or three of whom take on additional child-care responsibilities. “One of the things I like best about my staff is that they get to see it all—I think it’s a very modern way to work. It does take a lot of multitasking, but I feel like I get the best of all worlds.”
When Jennifer Bourgoyne was first getting her Czela Bellies business off the ground, she took her infant son with her on some initial sales calls and to quick meetings. “One great thing about working with other women-owned businesses,” she says, “is that having an infant with you isn’t a deal breaker, even though we’ve been conditioned to believe it’s unprofessional. I valued the clients that not only didn’t balk but also encouraged my son’s presence during meetings.”
But kids and business don’t always mix. So drop-in day cares are a great on-demand solution for working moms on the go like Jennifer. Wanna Play Playcare in Austin, for example, has two fully licensed drop-in care sites with affordable fees and long hours.
Will it Work for you? An à la carte solution is a great option if…
You—and your kids—are good at winging it. Both Adams and Gold caution against erratic child-care schedules or drop-off arrangements if they’re stressful for either you or your kids. Children thrive on routines, so if child care isn’t one of them, be sure you’re holding strong on all other areas in their lives.
You know it’s good, reliable care. Don’t assume anything. “Some gyms will assign a personal trainer to watch the kids who may not have experience or safety training,” says McLellan. Be sure to ask.
Your work doesn’t require a set time or place. Piecing together care may be right for a work-at-home mom who can step in if necessary, or for someone getting her business off the ground. But once you’re able to settle into a routine, it’ll benefit your children, your child-care provider—and your own peace of mind.
*Name changed for privacy
4 Steps to Reliable Care
Potential problems: The no-show sitter...the day care with inconvenient staff-training days. To avoid child-care drama, Tammy Gold offers a plan.
1. Assess your needs. Child care should never be based on what your friends have or what your mother-in-law thinks you should do. Take a hard look at your needs and start there. Try to add a buffer of an extra five to ten hours per week so you can take care of yourself, too.
2. Run care like a business. Especially if you’re creating a nontraditional arrangement or have multiple providers, there’s no such thing as being too organized—or too safe. One thing falling through the cracks, like a missed pickup or a sitter communication error, can create havoc for everyone.
3. Communicate with clarity. Create rules for all providers, and review policies and procedures of preschools and day care, including drop-in care. Child care is a personal job, but it’s also a professional one and should be treated as such. Don’t be afraid of tough conversations. You’re the boss.
4. Expect the unexpected. No child-care solution is 100 percent foolproof, so don’t operate as if it is. Be sure to have a backup plan, and then a backup to the backup plan. Your children—and your conscience—will thank you.
Published as The New Nanny Solution, October 2011.