This post was co-authored by WCW Senior Research Scientist Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., and Sarah Savage, a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Their issue brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers, was published by the Boston Fed in July 2022.
Just before the pandemic, we interviewed 67 mothers of young children about their experiences accessing child care. Though they were a diverse group, their problems were similar: They could not find child care. When they could find it, most struggled to afford it. As a result, they were all forced to make tradeoffs in selecting the best care arrangements for their families.
These interviews formed the basis of our recent brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers. Through lengthy, one-on-one conversations, we tried to dig deeper to better understand the tradeoffs parents make to juggle employment with child care.
More than half of the participants in our study had an oldest child under age 3. Fifteen mothers were single or divorced, and the rest were married or partnered. Sixteen mothers were women of color. About half the group had household incomes that exceeded the state’s median in 2019 of $81,215. (Fathers were welcome to participate, but only mothers responded to our recruitment materials.) What we found was that every family had to make tradeoffs among some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care, but that the tradeoffs varied in level of severity.
Tradeoffs occurred along a spectrum. We characterized some as compromises: For example, some mothers tried to adjust their work schedules to better match the hours of their child care providers, even though it could negatively impact their careers. Others accepted providers with home environments they were uncomfortable with or who allowed too much screen time, trading off quality for affordability or availability.
Every family had to make tradeoffs among some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care
We categorized more severe tradeoffs as sacrifices. In these instances, conflicts with families’ needs or preferences led to care or work disruptions. For example, some parents reported switching child care providers due to safety or maltreatment concerns, despite their limited options. Some mothers reduced their work hours to balance their jobs and child care needs, even though that decreased their income. Married mothers with incomes above the state median were more likely to leave the workforce altogether if they found child care unaffordable—an option not available to single parents or lower-income families.
The fact that every family was forced to either compromise or sacrifice is a reminder that working parents who access child care are often struggling. Having both child care and a job doesn’t mean they’re living a ‘success story.’ And when we think about equitable solutions, we can't just think about it from the affordability perspective—availability and quality are other critical dimensions that must be considered.
Read more in our brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers.
Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist and director of the Work, Families, & Children Research Group at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work at the Centers is focused on child development (birth to age 8), child care policy, early childhood care and education, and school readiness.
Sarah Savage, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Boston Fed. As part of the Bank’s work to increase employment opportunities, she is conducting research on barriers to positive labor force engagement of low- and moderate-income parents in the region, with an intensive examination of the role of childcare needs.
The views expressed are our own and not those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Federal Reserve System, or its Board of Governors.