Finding the perfect child care for your family can feel like winning the lottery. But unlike walking into a store and buying a ticket, the road to the reward takes work (or, as the New York Times put it: It’s “a journey.”). In addition to researching options, weighing how they’ll work with your child, calculating costs, touring facilities and/or interviewing providers, there’s also registering for waitlists and/or conducting trial runs with babysitters or nannies. Journey? Sounds more like an expedition — an expedition that, not surprisingly, women typically embark on alone.
“Finding child care on a long-term basis and for date nights often lands in the women’s lap, as it’s a task that falls under the invisible load of motherhood,” explains Alyza Weinberg, an adolescent and perinatal psychotherapist at Arbit Counseling in Washington D.C. “This load describes the hidden physical, mental and emotional labor that goes into ensuring households run smoothly and that kids are happy and safe.” Finding child care, Weinberg notes, falls under the mental labor category, which “describes the planning and coordinating of day-to-day activities of the family.”
Need child care, but don’t want to devote a 40-hour (unpaid) workweek to the search? Here’s how couples can successfully divide this surprisingly arduous task.
Why the work of finding child care often falls on women
It isn’t a coincidence that the child care search usually winds up being “women’s work.” Here are a few reasons why:
- Gendered norms. “In couples where women are partnered with men, responsibilities in the home tend to follow gendered norms,” says Leslie Forde, a working mom advocate, researcher and founder of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs. Forde explains that, in part, this is due to society being conditioned to think about roles this way. “Many of us watched this play out with our parents and grandparents,” she says. “And most of our influences — what we watch, see, read — still portray women as ‘caregivers’ and men as ‘breadwinners.’”
- Structural causes. “In order to accommodate the invisible load of motherhood, women tend to find more flexible jobs,” says Weinberg. “This leads women to take on more child care responsibilities and also think more about who they will find to take care of their children when they are not around.”
- It’s set up by family leave (or lack thereof). When it comes to parental leave, the U.S. is woefully lacking, which in turn, sets a precedent of women taking on more responsibilities when it comes to the kids. “When women are partnered with men, they’re more likely to have, and need to take, maternity leave,” Forde explains. “Although paternity leave is becoming more widely available, it’s still a small percentage of employers that offer it or men who take it. So that early time where women are more likely to be ‘at home’ with the baby also sets them up to be more responsible for the child care, and later arranging it and planning for it.”
- Moms are usually the default parent. Pop quiz: If you’re sitting next to your partner and your kids walk into the room, who are they most likely to go to with a request? You? Then, you’re the default parent. Here’s another one: It’s nearing your child’s birthday. Which parent (in addition to planning the party) is most likely to realize it’s time for your child’s yearly physical? You? Again, default parent.
“Typically, there is an elected default parent in the home who oversees daily meals, appointments, doctor’s visits, activities, etc.,” explains Kristen Souza, a licensed mental health counselor in Palm Beach, Florida. Souza adds that the role is taken on for a number of reasons, which may include “choice, necessity, having a strong need to be in control, assumed traditional gender roles or having a lack of trust in the non-default.”
Regardless of the reason, if you’re the default parent, you’re also likely the parent finding child care — or caring for the children yourself (even if you have a job).
- Moms are the “worriers.” Generally speaking, women are the ones who anticipate potential issues that lie ahead and problem-solve for them on the front end, which again, can be traced back to a gender gap in domestic work.
“Research suggests that women worry more about child care even when they are not physically with their children,” Weinberg explains, adding that “women are constantly evaluating whether they are doing enough and how the choices they made will impact their child’s future.”
- The “good mom, bad mom” narrative. “Women are also made to feel like if they do not find the child care provider themselves, they are not good moms,” says Weinberg. “Asking for support in finding child care or even needing child care can make some women feel like they are not doing enough. It is common for women to internalize messages around being the ‘perfect mom,’ which can lead women to feel like they should be able to do everything — including finding quality child care.”
What goes into finding reliable child care?
Whether you’re looking at day care centers, homework helpers or nannies or babysitters, finding child care is work. To get an idea of the front-end tasks involved with each, check out the following:
The case for splitting the work of finding child care
No one parent should be saddled with finding the right child care, as the process can be both stressful and time-consuming. Here’s why experts say dividing and conquering is key:
- It reduces resentment. “It is important that couples share this job to maintain a healthy balance of responsibilities in the home,” says Jaclyn Gulotta, a licensed mental health counselor in Longwood, Florida. “This can help reduce any resentment or feeling as if one person is not doing as much. This also shows children a healthy division of tasks no matter their gender or orientation.”
- It improves relationships. According to Weinberg, research indicates that “collaborating in finding child care and in sharing that responsibility improves the quality of the relationship between parents.” Additionally, she notes, a collaborative approach can have a positive effect on children’s development.
Forde adds that being an “active, hands-on caregiver” helps strengthen the bond between parents and their children. “If both partners share in this critical work of taking on parental responsibilities, both partners have the opportunity and gift of a close relationship and connection with their children,” she says.
- It reduces maternal stress. “In collaborating and equitably sharing the overall parenting load, women experience less stress, anxiety and report greater happiness and mental health,” notes Weinberg.
- It can affect child development. “It’s incredibly important that couples work together to find adequate child care for their children — not just the default parent,” Souza says. “Whoever you decide on to take care of your children will directly impact your child’s development — their motor skills, education, values, etc. — and therefore, the burden of that decision should be equally shared.” Put another way: It’s a big deal.
6 steps to dividing the task of finding child care
Can it be done? Truly? Beyond a half-hearted internet search of “day cares near me” from your partner? Yes! Here’s how the experts recommend dividing the child care search so you each can do less and still yield quality results.
1. Discuss planning upfront
Clearly lay out the type of child care search you’re both about to embark on — and make sure it’s equal. “When having the initial discussion, talk about what and when child care is needed and be explicit about what this means,” Weinberg says. “Is research required? If so, that should be more involved than texting a babysitter that’s been used in the past. A text is not the same amount of work as finding a new child care provider, so be sure research is divided equitably.”
2. List your non-negotiables
“Both parents should first decide on their nonnegotiables that they’re looking for in a caregiver,” Souza says. “This should include specialties specific to your child’s needs, certifications and budget. Then, discuss these deal-breakers and write out the new list together.”
When both parents do this, Weinberg adds, it offers a guidepost for whomever is doing the searching. “This way, both parents know what to look for when researching.”
3. Divide the big steps
Once you have established guidelines for caregivers, Souza then recommends having one parent research potential candidates online and the other contact them to schedule a meet and greet.
Another option, according to Gulotta, is to split up the searches by day so each parent is getting a full day “off.” “One parent can search online one day and contact potential caregivers while the other parent searches the next day,” she says. “As long as the parents are communicating what they need and how they can maintain a healthy balance, they will each feel they are in this together.”
4. Make sure both parents are present for interviews/tours
No doubt, it’s important, but taking time out of one’s day to tour a day care facility or interview a potential sitter can wreak havoc on a person’s schedule — which is why one person shouldn’t be left to do it alone. Additionally, when one person is doing the interviewing or touring, they’re also likely making the decision, and in turn, child care becomes their “task” solely.
“Together, both parents should meet with each of the candidates and discuss their thoughts on each caretaker to make a joint decision,” Souza says. “If schedules do not permit for both parents to meet with the potential caretakers, the attending parent should either FaceTime the absent parent or take detailed notes.”
Souza continues: “Make sure this task is truly divided and resist the urge to fall into the old habits of the default parent making the final decision or the non-default parent playing a passive role.”
5. Check in
As the search continues, be sure to check in with each other and have an ongoing conversation. “Periodically, follow up with each other about how the experience is going,” Weinberg says. “And if things are at a standstill, be open to changing your approach.”
6. Release control
“Remember: It does not make you a bad mom to have someone else find child care for you!” Weinberg says. “Allow your partner to help find the provider and trust that they are going to make the right decision.” She adds, “This can be challenging because leaning on others for support means releasing control. Releasing control can be hard and uncomfortable but is also an opportunity to grow.”