Pros and cons of back to work child care options

Two months ago I went through two rounds of interviews with a company in the city. While that opportunity didn’t work out, it was a reminder of how quickly the new job process can move. This means all of my ducks need to be in order before I get that offer letter.

The biggest duck is arranging full-time child care. This duck quacks very loudly keeping me up at night, wondering how I am going to find a child care arrangement that will keep the kids alive and my blood pressure low from 9 to whenever each workday.

Fortunately I have some experience to lean on since I have utilized a few of these arrangements in my former life before I opted out. While I still have a bit of homework to do, I think these pros and cons still apply and I hope this can help other parents also looking to go back to work. You may be familiar with most of these but read on to see my take on these child care options.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

1. Full-time babysitter. Also called live-out nanny. I chose this option when I went back full-time after my paltry 8 week maternity leave expired when my son was born.

Pros:

  • There can be a great deal of scheduling flexibility. You work out the schedule with the babysitter so you don’t have the constraint of set hours of a school or day care center.
  • They come to your home. This is huge. Who likes bundling up young children especially on mornings with a below zero wind chill and packing up everything they need all day every day?
  • They usually handle meals and light housework pertaining to the children. Like scheduling this has to be worked out ahead of time but most professional sitters expect these responsibilities. They also can assist with homework and after-school activities.
  • Often they will watch your children when they are sick. Again, this advantage is huge.

Cons:

  • Expensive! You will be paying a full-time salary and effectively will have an employee working for you. Speaking of which, you may need to think about nanny taxes. Purchasing a workers comp insurance policy may be a good idea in case the sitter has an accident with injuries on the job at your home. Also, in some circumstances, some employers purchase and insure cars for sitters use while driving the children around. Highly experienced sitters also charge more per hour and negotiate more vacation time. 
  • Put it in writing. An agreement or contract is common and protects both parties. It is time worth spent but it is an extra step. A sample contract is here.
  • You have to conduct and manage an interview process. There are essentially two avenues here. One, you can throw money at the problem and use a nanny agency. They find and present candidates for you to interview and they run background checks, saving precious time especially if you have a newborn like I did. In return for this service they expect a hefty fee, typically expressed as a percentage of the first year’s salary. Ouch! Two, you can do handle this yourself. In recent years sites such as Sittercity and Care.com have become good starting points but you are still pretty much on your own.
  • Lack of oversight. This makes the background check process very important. I don’t have time during the workday to constantly check a nanny cam and my opinion is, if you feel like you need one, you probably need to question the trustworthiness of your caregiver. Having said this, stuff happens. In fact, I have a few nanny horror stories I will share in a follow-up post.

2. Day care center. Been here and done that as well.

Pros:

  • Relative cost. Day care does take a bite out of the budget but most of the time it is less expensive than a nanny or full time baby sitter. 
  • Socialization. Children are grouped by age and learn to play together and navigate their way through disagreements. If your child is an only child as my son was during his time in day care, this is a huge benefit.
  • Regulation. Day care centers have stringent licensing requirements. Caregivers maintain infant and child CPR certification. You will get an incident report if your child gets so much as a paper cut while on the premises.
  • Structure and routine. Your child will come to know and love circle time, story time, and show-and-tell. Often there is a formal “curriculum”, even in the infant rooms. Some studies have correlated better school performance to day care attendance.

Cons:

  • The germ factor. Get ready to burn all of your sick days and vacation time. My son was in day care for only 3 days when he brought home his first cold…in July. It’s not just colds either. Notices came home on really nasty bugs like RSV, swine flu, and pneumonia in my son’s classroom during the first three months alone and he came down with two of the three. I contracted the third, pneumonia, and ended up in the hospital. There was a well-publicized measles outbreak at a day care center here in the Chicago area one year ago.
  • No flexibility. When day care closes, it closes. They do not care that you got stuck in traffic so you end up paying extra per minute until you arrive. Also, some centers are full-time only even if you just need a part-time contract. Also, depending on state regulations, some (like our old center) close for a week or two during the year.
  • Watch out for wait lists. Many good centers have extensive wait lists.
  • You have to bring them there. Every morning you have to pack everything they need for the day and bring them to the day care center so the time has to be built into the schedule. This can be a bit onerous if your day care center has no lunch and snack meal plan.
  • Snow days. Most day care centers are pretty good about closing only if absolutely necessary but if your center is affiliated with a school (especially in a hilly area similar to where we used to live), you may have to budget for more snow days and figure out a plan B.

3. Au Pair. Until now we never had the space to seriously consider an au pair but as a former foreign exchange student I definitely want to keep this option in mind. An overview of the program is here. Since this is the arrangement I know the least about, here is some input from a former au pair who uses one to take care of her own children.

Pros:

  • Cost. The out-of-pocket cost is similar to what day care centers charge even after factoring in agency fees. An added bonus is it covers an unlimited number of children, unlike the day care center where you pay per child. Keep in mind the au pair lives with your family so you are on the hook for the au pair’s food and housing but still the cost is extremely reasonable. 
  • Flexibility. You get 45 hours a week and you can change the schedule each week. You do have to allow 1 1/2 days off per week and one full weekend per month.
  • Teaching diversity begins at home. Instead of relying on International Week at school, your child can learn something about a different culture, including food, language and customs, each day.

Cons:

  • Limit on hours worked. I list this as a potential negative if you have a job that requires more than 45 hours each week including commuting time. 
  • Adjustment pains. It’s hard to know from your initial meetings via Face Time or Skype if your au pair is going to have a hard time adjusting to living with a new family far away from home. It isn’t an issue for most but it is a leap of faith.
  • Length of program. The au pairs make a one year commitment and there is an option to extend for one more year. There are two implications here. First, you have to find someone new every one to two years. Second, it may be difficult for children to say goodbye to someone who has become part of the family.

4. Relatives. This is a very popular option around here. I am surrounded by grandparents at my daughter’s preschool pickup each day.

Pros:

  • The cheapest option out there. Many are willing to watch the kids for free or in return for favors (think lawn care) you would probably help older family members out with anyway. 
  • Facilitates family bonding and memories. Relatives are full of stories and love sharing them. This is how we keep traditions alive.
  • You don’t have to worry about the background check. This takes so much anxiety out of the picture.

Cons:

  • Too close for comfort? There could be such a thing as too much family time. Having family around all the time could create family tensions later. 
  • Not all relatives are willing to babysit. Some grandparents refuse to babysit and others are afraid they will be taken advantage of.

There are also variants of these arrangements, such as live-in nanny, nanny sharing with another family, and in-home day cares that have essentially the same pros and cons but with twists.

Are there any pros and/or cons you would add to this list?

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