The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Child Care Tradeoffs, from Compromises to Sacrifices

Mother holding sleeping child

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.

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Child Care in a Pandemic: The "New Normal"

Child care provider tends to children while wearing a mask

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led Massachusetts (along with many other states) to close all forms of child care, except emergency care. Many parents found themselves working from home and caring for their young children at the same time, muddling through as best they could until child care reopened in summer 2020.

When child care became available again, what did parents do—especially given their fears and lack of confidence in the child care system? New health and safety guidelines, including smaller group sizes and other limitations, raised costs and made fewer slots available. Many child care centers and family child care homes closed, and fewer educators were available to care for and educate young children.

Thanks to support from WCW’s Harold Benenson Memorial Research Fund, I explored this “new normal” of child care by interviewing 25 Massachusetts families with children under the age of five. I looked at how these families were accessing child care during the pandemic, their experiences and perceptions of the multiple dimensions of child care, and the implications for parents’ daily lives as well as their employment, economic mobility, work hours, and advancement.


One mother said it wasn’t feasible to be 100% parent and 100% worker at the same time, and that she felt she wasn’t doing anything well.

For all the parents I spoke to, being home with their children from March until July 2020 (or later) was tough. The majority tried to work while caring for their children, working during naps, before children woke, or long after bedtime. One mother said it wasn’t feasible to be 100% parent and 100% worker at the same time, and that she felt she wasn’t doing anything well. Another said she was in survival mode. Another said that she sacrificed her physical and emotional health.

Despite these challenges, it was surprising to me to learn that the families in this study sent their children back to care as soon as it reopened. I expected that fears about COVID and issues of affordability and accessibility might cause families to delay their return. But many felt their children had to go back to what they had known. One mother said her child needed to return because of his mental health. Another parent felt torn about returning and nervous about COVID, but believed the potential exposure was worth it because her child needed an outlet, socially and mentally. Another felt her daughter needed the normalcy and education that she couldn’t get with a baby brother at home.

The first few months of the pandemic brought into the spotlight how hard—near impossible—it was to both work from home and care for young children. The parents in this study told me about their struggles in trying to do both. Going forward, we need a new work culture that is more flexible. Businesses need to ease output expectations, incorporate more paid family leave programs, and implement innovative accommodations for their employees with young children.


When child care programs reopened, most of the families I spoke to went back to the child care they used before the pandemic, even though it was often more than they could afford and led them to use a patchwork of care arrangements to meet their needs.

When child care programs reopened, most of the families I spoke to went back to the child care they used before the pandemic, even though it was often more than they could afford and led them to use a patchwork of care arrangements to meet their needs. Child care needs to be affordable, accessible, and meet the needs of working families. We need to advocate for federal and state funding specifically for child care. We also need to tend to the mental toll the pandemic has taken on families’ lives. Exhausted parents and their children need to be provided with mental, emotional, and trauma-related support. Parents can only parent when they themselves are provided with the care they need.


Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist in the Work, Families, & Children Research Group at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work is focused on child development, early childhood care and education, child care policy, school readiness, literacy, and language.

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Developing Babies’ Literacy Skills

Friday, September 8, is International Literacy Day! In my opinion, every day should be called Literacy Day given its critical importance to all. This is especially true for very young children as developing language and pre-literacy skills are paramount to later academic success.

Parents, caregivers and other adults can do so much to help young children with these needed skills starting with their birth. Talking with babies before they even can use words helps them learn. Talking and discussing what you are doing while you are doing it, such as diapering, or preparing a bottle can become natural and spontaneous if done often enough. Conversations can happen throughout the day including times of bathing, playing, diapering, or feeding. Adults can talk with the infant and about what s/he sees or about what is happening. When you are outside, talk about what you see as well as what the baby is looking at. This joint referencing helps to teach the infant about the world by providing the words that go with an object or event. When very young, the adult follows the baby’s gaze, and at about six months, the baby is able to observe an adult’s gaze, look in the same direction and look at the same object. Experiences of joint referencing predict children’s understanding of words (receptive language) and well as their spoken vocabulary (expressive language).

Even singing helps babies with their language and literacy skills- no matter how well you sing. Silly songs can get babies’ attention, while repeating familiar songs can help calm and soothe them. You can even make up songs as it is the sound of your voice that is most important to the baby.

ReadingA dad reading to his young sonand sharing books begins at birth. Try to read aloud to your baby every day! With the very young infant you may look at only one page of a book- in time, you can look together at two or more. Turning the pages, labeling pictures and describing what is happening on the page all lead to vocabulary and grammar development. Reading to your baby also predicts their early reading and writing skills! Cuddling together to read and share books is a very pleasant experience for both the infant and you! These very early enjoyable experiences can lead to a life-long love of reading. When there are plenty of books available, an infant may even try to look at the pictures in books on her/his own. And, remember your local library is a good source of books for your infant.

When a baby’s life is filled with talk, conversations, and books, the infant has a good start on the road to academic success.

Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist and member of the Work, Families and Children Team at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Her research focuses on child development, early care and education, and school readiness, with a focus on policy implications.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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