Money is on my mind a lot this semester. First, there’s the grant writing marathon. And then there’s the personal budgetary shortfall. Without a second income, we run a several hundred dollar per month shortfall. I’ve trimmed the fat from the budget and we’re eating through the small amount of savings we had squirreled away. Soon it will be time to think about more drastic measures. And there’s one big item looming large in my nightmares of financial ruin – the almost $1200 per month that I am paying for Minnow’s truly excellent daycare where she is very happy and well cared for.
Why is daycare in the cross-hairs? Well, lowering our childcare costs seems easier than selling our house and no other single (or pair of) cuts will bring our budget back into the black. Like I said, I’ve already done the easy cuts. Plus, I’ll admit that there’s probably also a healthy dose of mother guilt in there – as I pay for someone else to take care of my child while I work to earn the money to pay for her childcare.
(In theory, the unemployed husband could be caring for her. In practice, not so much. There’s the faintly glowing hope that he will soon have a job and then we’d be scrambling to find a spot somewhere for her. Then there’s the real possibility that neither Minnow nor Spouse would be as happy or as well-cared for were they together all day rather than apart. Want to argue more about this? Start here. If you really can’t get past having Spouse at home, while I’m at work and our child is at daycare, just close your office door, scream a few times, and then pretend that I am a single parent. That’s what I do.) So daycare at some level is a necessity.
I could find a cheaper place for her, but as I said, she’s quite happy where she is and I picked our current provider because, simply put, it was the best place I could find. Maybe when Minnow is transitioning to a new classroom after the new year, I could look at other daycare centers again, but transitions to new classrooms (much less centers) are hard on child and mother, so for now I’m not going to move her to another daycare just to save a few $.
Despite the daycare center’s earlier statements to the contrary, our new daycare director seems perfectly willing to allow part-time care (MWF or TR) at a somewhat lower cost. So, given my teaching schedule, I could reduce Minnow to part-time at her current center and stay home with her the other days. I would love, love, love to spend more time with Minnow – but realistically, I can’t get any work done when I am home with her. If I am lucky I get a 1.5 hour nap, and at the end of the day, I am wiped out. Given my current grant-writing calendar and two new preps, if I pull Minnow out of daycare 1/2 time, I’ll get max 1 proposal and no papers submitted this fall. And that would seriously jeopardize my chances at reappointment next year.
It seems vaguely feasible (in that hazy distance sort of way) that I could go to part-time care during spring semester when I’ll have classes that I have already taught stacked on top of each other two days a week. But if I get all three pending grants, I’ll be really, really busy getting projects off the ground (and writing papers). On the other hand, if I don’t get any grants, I’ll be frantically trying to figure out how to do science on a shoestring, writing more proposals, and making papers appear out of thin air. So for part-time care to work during the spring, the magic formula of 1-2 proposals funded plus one set of analyses and ready to write up would have to appear this fall semester. I’m working hard, but there are no guarantees in the world of grants and experiments.
We’ve got no extended family in the area to provide child-care. An au pair is at least as expensive as daycare, plus I’d have to give up my home office space where I work evenings. Arranging a nanny share would require me to find at least one other family with which to share. What (good) options am I missing?
Some days I feel like I am slowly and inexorably being pushed towards compromising the happiness, education, and safety of my daughter or risking my career. It’s not a good feeling, let me tell you.
Will one or even two semesters of minimal productivity doom me to tenure denial? Maybe not. But will time “off” make it that much harder to get back into the game? Indubitably. Is there life after getting out of academia for a less-demanding or better-paying job? Yes. But I like my job, and I’m even starting to feel competent at it.
Will moving my daughter to less-than-top-rated daycare doom her to illiteracy and life on the streets? Not likely. Will it mean that she gets less individual attention, has less access to resources, and has teachers with lower levels of training? Probably. That is how a daycare gets its rating after all. Will feeling less good about my childcare situation make me more likely to work shorter hours and worry more about her while I am working? Certainly. Will that affect my productivity? Of course.
Obviously, I can’t just quit my job and stay home full-time with my child. Someone has to bring home the paycheck. Obviously, things will get better financially, if/when Spouse starts working again. If a single income ever becomes a quasi-permanent state of affairs, then I will have to consider selling the house or taking a higher paying industry job (if I can find one) or both. So on a personal level, the long-term state of affairs is fairly clear.
On a meta-level though, my situation is illustrative. The academic career is demanding enough, rigid enough, and underpaid enough to put single-income (or single parent) families in serious financial jeopardy and to force people out (regardless of their merits on the job). A decrease in expectations and work load, an increase in flexibility of the tenure clock, a big pay boost, or available and subsidized daycare would all go a long way to helping out in situations like mine…and keeping competent academics on the job. Opting out isn’t really an option, and people who are seen to be opting out or are being kicked out by tenure denial may be facing a whole range of personal or financial issues that have very, very little to do with their competencies as scientists, teachers, and academics.
I mean, really, if Jim Watson had his sons clinging to his knees and pleading for num-nums at all hours of the day when he was working at the University of Cambridge, would he have had the ability to make quite such a big name of himself? I’m guessing the answer is “no.”