By Alaina Trivax, WCI Columnist
If you have kids, you know: sick season is something else. From August through December 2022, my two boys had to stay home sick from daycare for more than 25 days. Some days, they were both home; other days, it was just one of them. We’ve had colds, RSV, asthma exacerbations, ear infections, RSV again (lucky us!), and ear infections again, and again, and again. There was an eight-day stretch in November during which they had 10 doctor visits and an ER trip.
My husband, Brandon, and I both work full time; he’s an early career PM&R attending and I teach middle school. Our boys are 1 and 2.5 years old.
My job allows 10 “personal days” per year for personal or family illnesses, appointments, etc. Ha! These sick kids had eaten through those 10 days by early November. (In fact, my husband and I had to cancel our plans to attend WCICON23 because I was completely out of days to take off.) Of course, my kids haven’t gotten the memo about this, and they are continuing to get sick. I’ve written before about how we maximize my income by participating in all of the benefit programs offered by my employer. Even knowing how much my job contributes to our financial security (and to my own sense of personal satisfaction), it’s clear that raising two small kids would be much easier if I stayed home.
Although I’m out of sick days, it’s not clear what exactly that means. I asked my principal, and he wasn’t sure either. I expect that they’ll start reducing my pay if I take additional days, a loss of around $250 for each day off. After accounting for all of our benefits and pre-tax savings contributions, my take-home pay is very little. That’s where it could get tricky—I might be docked the pay AND lose out on a contribution to my retirement or Health Savings Account. On top of these financial considerations, my school is struggling with a significant sub shortage; when one teacher is absent, our coworkers are often pulled to cover. I know it’s not my fault, but I feel bad about the extra work I’m creating for my colleagues.
Brandon has had to take some sick days this year, too. He doesn’t have a set number of sick days like I do, though it’s still a major pain to have to arrange coverage or reschedule patients. The cost of him missing work is a lot harder to calculate. Depending on his schedule, we figure it comes out to an insurance collection loss of about $2,000 per day.
What can we do?
It’s just so hard. I’ve at least found some comfort in commiserating with other parents. Childcare challenges seem to be a universal struggle. My boys have been sick a lot this year, and their classmates and our friends’ kids are constantly fighting illness as well. Even our friends whose kids do not attend daycare are struggling to find reliable childcare—nannies are hard to come by in our area.
We love our daycare. The curriculum has been incredible for our kids. Our older son came home counting to 20 the other day, and we taught him exactly zero of those numbers. Still, it’s a constant gamble and negotiation. A school-night fever sends us spiraling through potential childcare options:
“OK, how about you do rounds at your sub-acute at 6am? Then, come home and switch with me so I can teach my 8:30 class. I’ll come back home for lunch at 11:30. Oh, and maybe grandma can tag me out so I can go back to school to finish out the afternoon.”
Is this patchwork of childcare coverage just how everyone is getting by? It’s stressful. It’s exhausting. It’s hard on us and, frankly, on our employers and colleagues. And it seems like such a waste of money. We spend between 10%-15% of our monthly income on daycare. What are we getting for that price? Some education and socialization along with a whole host of germs. Is there a better way? We’ve considered a few approaches to our childcare needs.
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#1 A Stay-At-Home Parent
The kids are getting sick because they are going to daycare. They go to daycare because we are going to work. So, the first question: Should one of us just stay home?
Logistically, it would have to be me. Even without having to pay for childcare, we could not meet our expenses and fulfill our financial goals on my income alone.
Should I stay home? We’ve talked about it a few times and keep returning to the fact that we get a lot out of my job and income. After considering the cost of our healthcare and the contributions to my 403(b), HSA, and FSA, my job nets us nearly $30,000 per year beyond my salary. If we chose to send our kids to my school when they are a bit older, we’ll enjoy a significant tuition discount at one of the premier independent schools in the area. And I like my job. I really enjoy teaching middle schoolers. I love my own kids, of course, and after spending summer vacation and winter break with them, I know that I’m not cut out to be a stay-at-home parent. Between the lost income and the impact on my personal happiness, it’s clear that having me stay home is not the answer. I’m grateful to feel this certain about it, at least.
#2 A Nanny
This is the logistical gold standard—someone who is tasked with caring just for our children, who does it at our house, and who can minimize their exposure to all of these germs. Of course, the gold standard comes with a high price tag.
Nannies in our area make around $20-$25 per hour. We would need an absolute minimum of nine hours of care per day. Having talked with other families, it seems that a nanny would run us somewhere between $55,000-$65,000 per year.
It’s not fair to evaluate the cost only against my salary, but knowing that I would be the parent to stay home if we went with Option #1, we did compare. Paying a nanny would cost more than my entire salary and benefits package. Plus, we’d lose two hours of childcare per day compared to our current daycare schedule. Right now, I use the extended daycare hours to get in a child-free workout or to run some errands on my own after school. We could probably have a nanny take on meal prep or do some housework to lighten our load a bit, but honestly, it’s more the doing-things-with-two-toddlers-in-tow aspect that’s challenging. The convenience of having a nanny come to our home and minimize our need for sick care is beyond appealing, but logistically and financially, it just doesn’t make sense for us.
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#3 The Status Quo: Daycare
Our daycare bill for an infant and toddler runs around $2,400 per month. This pays for 11 hours per day—7am to 6pm. We are on a school-year schedule, meaning we only pay for 10 months of care. The schedule runs from mid-August through mid-June with an additional 30 days off for various school holidays and teacher workdays. I teach in a different district but generally have the same vacation days as the boys.
Though the sticker price seems high, it’s shockingly cheap when broken down hourly:
$24,000 for 4,048 hours of childcare = less than $6 per hour per kid.
I had to run the numbers several times just to be sure I didn’t mess up the math. Even after accounting for a potential loss in our income due to taking sick days, there’s no way we can beat this price. Honestly, even if we add in an additional consideration for the stress of having to piece together sick care, the daycare option still comes out ahead.
So, here we are.
We’re happy with the boys’ daycare teachers and the skills they are learning. I love my job and don’t want to stay home. And daycare is easily the most affordable option—even after accounting for all the sickness. These lifestyle and financial factors have led us to stick it out with daycare, at least for now.
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A Bonus Option: My Dream—Daycare Plus Sick Care
Like me, most of the sick days that my colleagues take are due to their own kids needing care. This is a fairly prestigious private school; families pay a lot of money to send their kids to our school, and they have high expectations for the education that their children will receive.
And it’s just as disruptive and even more costly when my husband has to take a sick day to care for our kids. Patients have taken time off work for their appointments, and they are frustrated when the doctor cancels.
I would be perfectly comfortable with a trained professional taking care of my sick kids in our home. I imagine this would be someone who is trained in reducing disease transmission and in caring for sick children. I know of a few other employers in our region who offer something similar. This sounds delightful to me (or, as delightful as arranging childcare for a feverish, pukey toddler could be). Depending on a family's income, this option could cost somewhere between $10-$30 an hour.
Is this the norm for parents of small children? It’s impossibly hard, and none of the options are that great. Our older son will be eligible to attend preschool at my school in 2023-24. Faculty receive a significant tuition discount, and this will reduce our childcare expenses by quite a bit. Of course, a new school also means all new germs coming to join our party.
How have you handled taking care of sick children in a two-income family? Are there any other better options available? Does it get easier as they get older? Comment below!