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Amid ‘child care crisis,’ some parents telework while caring for children

Mother in a blue t-shirt holds her young daughter in her office in Durham.
Liz Schlemmer
Maya Jackson holds her 19-month-old daughter Zarah at her office in Durham. She's been bringing her daughter to work with her for about a year.

On a weekday afternoon at her office in Durham, Maya Jackson cradled her daughter Zarah over her shoulder. During a Zoom meeting, the 19-month-old interrupted with a loud squeal. But Jackson didn’t miss a beat. She patted her daughter to calm her, then jumped right back into the meeting.

At the nonprofit Jackson leads, where she works as a doula, several of her co-workers also bring their young children to the office or meetings when they can’t find other child care.

“We call them our little Velcro babies, because we are having a Zoom meeting, and they're attached to us,” Jackson told WUNC after the meeting. “I'm like, ‘Yeah, this would have never been OK at a traditional job.’”

This might sound like a scene from early in the pandemic, but no, it happened in 2024.

North Carolina, and much of the United States, is experiencing what experts call a child care crisis. The pandemic stressed an already fragile industry, causing some providers to call it quits.

Congress provided billions in federal relief to support the child care industry from collapsing, but those grants end this month in North Carolina. That’s left many child care centers struggling and many families facing greater competition for fewer slots.

Preschools can charge upwards of $1,500 per month per child for full-time care, and waitlists can be long. Faced with unaffordable or inaccessible child care options, thousands of parents like Jackson have turned to caring for their children while at work.

Even middle-class parents struggle to afford child care

Jackson used to have affordable child care that charged less than $700 per month, but when her work schedule changed, she lost her slot and has struggled to find another in her price range. She’s been bringing Zarah to work with her for about a year.

She said her friends are sometimes surprised she can’t afford child care despite being an executive director at a nonprofit.

Overhead shot of a woman sitting on a pink couch working at a computer while holding a sleeping toddler.
Liz Schlemmer
Maya Jackson works at her laptop in her office in Durham while her daughter naps on her shoulder.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, you must be doing great, Jackson said.’” And it's like, ‘I wish.’ I'm OK. It's not to the point where it's like the lights are cutting off, but it does stack up.” 

Jackson and her husband have five kids, student loans and a mortgage. She leads MAAME, Inc., a nonprofit that provides doula services and postpartum support for Black mothers. She’s grateful it’s a family-friendly environment, but she continues to look for affordable child care for her daughter.

Tens of thousands of NC parents work while supervising children

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey has asked parents every few months for the last few years whether they’ve supervised a child while working. In North Carolina, tens of thousands of parents are responding yes.

That number has fluctuated, but earlier this spring it applied to an estimated 58,000 parents, according to Neil Harrington, a research director at the advocacy nonprofit NC Child.

“That’s a little more than 10% of all parents of young kids who are in the labor force right now in North Carolina’s economy,” Harrington said.

That number dropped to 37,000 in the survey’s latest data release from May and has been falling since the early years of the pandemic. But Harrington said a few years ago, many of the parents who were working while caring for children did so because of health concerns or because child care centers often closed for weeks at a time due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“What's left now are really parents who are dealing with the child care crisis in North Carolina,” Harrington said.

About 5% of North Carolina’s child care providers have closed since the pandemic began, based on an analysis by EdNC. And as federal COVID-19 relief to the child care industry ends this month in North Carolina, an estimated third of providers could close in the coming years.

For some, working with a child is a short-term solution

For some, working while caring for a child may be a short-term solution to the broader child care crisis, said Angela Burch-Octetree, executive director of the NC Early Education Coalition.

“It's definitely more common now, and it's becoming more and more common,” Burch-Octetree said. “A lot of people are being forced into this situation.”

"A lot of people are being forced into this situation."
Angela Burch-Octetree, NC Early Education Coalition

Some parents choose to enroll in child care centers only part-time because they can’t afford full-time care, Burch-Octetree said. Families may cobble together enough child care to get through each work week with a combination of family help, paid care and working from home with a child.

For other parents, finding full-time child care simply comes down to getting off a long waitlist. Burch-Octetree knows from experience.

When her maternity leave ended last year, Burch-Octetree worked from home with her baby while waiting for a slot at her preferred child care center. She said trying to divide her attention between work and her three-month-old son often made her feel conflicted.

“Even if it's a short term situation, it's impactful. It's impactful for the baby. It's impactful for the mom. That stress is real,” said Burch-Octetree, who added her child care gap lasted about six weeks. She also had help from family members.

“Those six weeks were really challenging, and to think of doing it longer than that just really blows my mind.”

Child care providers and advocates look to the next state budget as a lifeline

Burch-Octetree worries the situation will only get worse for many families. The NC Early Education Coalition is asking state lawmakers to invest $300 million to replace federal subsidies to help keep child care centers open.

The House’s budget proposalreleased this week includes $135 million to help make up for the loss of federal grants to these providers. Lawmakers say that amount would replace about three-quarters of the funding providers received last year. But Senate leaders have criticized the House's budget bill, and have not released their own draft budget, so the House's bill is merely a proposal at this point in the budget process. Child care advocates worry what will happen if the state budget negotiations continue to stall while providers wait for funding.

“As we get further into the crisis, and teachers leave, and classrooms close and programs close, there might not be an end to those waitlists,” Burch-Octetree said.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org