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It’s the childcare, stupid

I got a late start on the whole career ladder/working mom thing. Until I was 34 years old, I definitely worked, often a lot, but I worked almost entirely from home as a freelance writer and editor.  My three kids’ schedules always came first. If one of them were sick or had a midday field trip, I was easily able to backburner whatever project I happened to have on my plate that day  in order to focus on kid-stuff. I rarely truly needed to use childcare, except when my husband and I wanted to go out to a movie, or when I was on deadline for an assignment.

Then I ended up divorced.

At age 34, I was suddenly the unemployed, single mother of three kids between the ages of 4 and 10 years old. The kids – at that time-  lived with me 70% of the time (they now split their time 50/50 between their Dad’s house and mine).  Already well into adulthood, I was  only just starting out at the very beginning of my career path, and I desperately needed to find a full time job with benefits – fast.

Despite the fact that I had racked up some relatively impressive publishing and contract consulting credentials by that point, including having authored a book, I’d really never paid my dues in ANY kind of traditional corporate or office setting. So when I started applying for jobs, I was betwixt and between. I had really strong clips (published work in major magazines and newspapers), but in looking at my resume, there was no clear career trajectory. It wasn’t like I’d gone from Production Assistant at age 23 to Junior VP of Marketing or Assistant Newsroom Director by age 33.  What career success I’d had was title-less (the single exception being my two year stint as an Online Producer with the fledgling Oxygen Network. The company allowed me to mostly work remotely).  On paper, I was a freelancer, a work-from-home-mom. That made it hard for me to compete with childless 27 year old MBAs  in Ann Taylor suits and Papagallo pumps, whose resumes were already loaded with an upward ladder of impressive-sounding titles.

But I really, really needed a job.  So I applied and applied and applied, and after about 6 months, I landed a position with a terrific media company.  The pay wasn’t great, but it was adequate – if I was very careful. And the job offered great benefits, including a 401K  – the first one of my own that I’d ever had.  It was also a job that would allow me some really strong opportunities to progress, if I worked hard. I was realistic enough to understand  that I would never again be able to rely on anyone else to take care of me; I knew that this was the beginning of a new phase of my life – a new life as a full time, working mother. Suddenly, my job as a mom included not just tantrums, bedtimes, library story hours, baths, playdates  and pediatric appointments, but also a  responsibility to provide groceries, utilities, and  longterm financial security for the kids, and for me.  I knew what I needed to do; I saw this first “real” job as a critical chance to prove myself and launch a career that could eventually support us with no help from anyone else.

But at 34 years old, I was as much as 10 years older than my coworkers who were operating at the same level. I was waaaay behind, and I knew I had to catch up. But it wasn’t easy. I was starting with a logistical challenge  that left me at a clear competitive disadvantage in the workplace. I had three kids and extremely limited financial resources, meaning extremely limited access to quality, affordable childcare.  Once again, I was betwixt and between; my younger coworkers had no kids yet, while the women around my age who had already made it up to the exec level on the career totem pole were making enough money to pay for really good daycare or nannies and au pairs, as well as summer day camps and after school enrichment programs. They had also earned the job flexibility to leave the office for the occasional pediatrician appointment or meeting at school without jeapordizing their employment.

I had none of this, and in those first years after I began working full time outside the home, childcare was a huge and constant stressor for me. Working late on short notice was no problem for my childless colleagues, or for those  more senior co-workers with flexible, reliable (and expensive) childcare, but it required frantic scrambling on my part to figure out how to get the kids fed, bathed and in bed for the evening without me there, and without me worrying that the family members and friends I’d begged for help that day were secretly telling one another that I was a neglectful, absent mother.  If two of my children had midday school programs in the same week, I knew I wasn’t helping my next performance evaluation by missing what amounted to 4 hours of work over only 5 days. I felt constantly guilty for asking others for help with getting the kids to and from school, and to lessons and appointments, and every day was a logistical nightmare for me – a patchwork of family pitching in, along with paid childcare help that  I couldn’t actually afford, and that wasn’t always as reliable as I would have liked. But I knew that if I wanted my kids to eventually go to college – or even have a roof over their heads the next month – I HAD to stay focused on succeeding at my fledgling career.

Almost ten years later, I am happily (!!) remarried, and instead of having three children, I now have five. My two youngest kids are only 3 years and 4 months old, while my oldest are now in middle and high school.  My hard work on the job has kept me moving forward;  I am not yet where I hope to be, careerwise, but I am getting there. I still have a strong need – based on the terror I felt at having to start completely over at age 34 – to ensure a secure financial future for my kids, and for me.  I have to work. I must. And I have to keep progressing in my career. I remain focused on that goal. I consider it one of my most important responsibilities as a mother.

But even though I am even busier than I was when I first started out as a work-outside-the-home mother, it all seems so much easier now. My job is far more demanding than that first job, and I have more children who need my attention, including a toddler and a baby. I also still do quite a bit of freelancing to help make ends meet for us. But I only rarely feel the sense of being completely overwhelmed that I did in those first years on the job. I don’t feel guilty all the time, or like I am failing everyone at home, even as I fail to live up to my potential at work.

So what’s the difference? How is it that I now have a more challenging job and more children, yet I feel less stressed about my work-life balance? (Note that I didn’t say NOT stressed, but LESS stressed!)

It’s childcare. It’s all about the childcare.

These days, I am very, very, very, VERY lucky to have a partner with a relatively laid back job that allows him to take our two youngest kids to the (family business) office with him each day. His mother – my mother in law (whom I refer to as St. Janice) – goes to the same office each day to help with the little girls.  My bigger kids are at school each day, and are old enough to stay at home by themselves when one of them is sick, or on school holidays. When I have to work late or on a weekend, or travel for my job, my husband’s job is extremely flexible, allowing him to get the older kids to sports practice or lessons, while working with his mom to make sure that the two youngest are in great hands. I supplement all of this amazing family help with some paid preschool, after school and summer childcare. It all works, and as a result, when I am at work, I can truly focus on work. I can compete.

I am well aware that the mostly family-provided childcare situation I now have is unique and wonderful. I never, ever take it for granted. I know how lucky I am.  But really, the difference for me now isn’t that it’s family childcare , it’s that it’s high quality, reliable, flexible childcare that actually fits in our specific budget. I no longer lie awake nights wondering how I will cobble together care for my feverish youngest child for the next day so that I can make that big meeting,or whether the check I wrote the flighty college student who has been providing afterschool care will bounce.

I’ve come to believe that  as a working mother with ambitions for career growth, my ability to succeed is almost completely dependent on my ability to access childcare that I can afford and that I feel good about. Obviously, many other factors contribute to how things go for working moms’ career growth, including portable health care, reasonable maternity leave policies, family-friendly corporate culture, a supportive partner, and more – but childcare that works is key, absolutely key.

Given how limited, expensive and overwhelmingly mediocre the childcare options in this country are for most working moms, even those with white collar jobs,  it’s not too surprising that so many women “opt out” or take the “mommy track” instead of the future VP track. Obviously, many women who decide to scale back career plans do so out of a sincere desire to spend more time at home with their kids – at least in the first few years – but I also know that many women would very much like to stay in the workforce but decide the worry, guilt, stress and expense that comes with the only childcare they can access just isn’t worth it.  As a result, far too many American women will continue to enter old age without sufficient financial security to ensure a healthy, comfortable retirement.

It’s the childcare, stupid.

I’ve decided that’s going to be my mantra when evaluating candidates who claim to be “family friendly” in the upcoming presidential primaries.  Women who can access quality childcare are women who can support their families, send their kids to college, secure a comfortable retirement for themselves, and contribute to the country’s tax base. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

There was a time when candidates routinely addressed how important childcare is to the quality of life for American women and children, but somehow the issue seems to have fallen completely off the policy radar, and that’s not a good thing. Whether you are currently working outside the home or not, I hope y’all will join me in bringing childcare back into the national political dialogue in 2012, and beyond.

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