Published September 13th, 2021 at 12:53 PM
2020 was supposed to be Sandy Thornhill’s year.
Thornhill, a mother of an almost 3-year-old son, planned to jump-start a new business. Thornhill and her husband are entrepreneurs, which is “a 24/7 job,” she said.
So is parenting.
“I had everything lined up,” she said. “Playdates for my son and other entrepreneurial mothers that I’ve met who were like, ‘Yeah, we can help relieve each other.’”
But the COVID-19 pandemic foiled plans to get her son into a child care center so she could go to work. So she went without child care for a full year, forced to put her own ventures on pause while her husband worked on his career.
Before deciding to start her own business, Thornhill was on the job market. But not one company offered the support she needed as a mother.
Thornhill is one of many working parents in Kansas City who have been affected by the worsening lack of child care during the public health crisis.
This issue in particular is what prompted Jessica Snead – a parent of four – to write to curiousKC. Snead, who studied childhood development at the University of Missouri, experienced some of the difficulties other families faced. Her husband lost his job and she found herself struggling to balance parenting and working.
So she asked: “What’s being done to help working parents get back to work, in the office if they can’t work remotely or find child care?”
From multiple parents’ perspectives, the answer is nothing or not enough. However, some local organizations are aware of the gaps in need and are working to find solutions.
“That’s a big question,” said Jovanna Rohs, who is the director of early learning at the Mid-America Regional Council.
“The answer is, a little right now. We’re really trying to ramp it up.”
MARC’s early learning department functions in a few ways. For one, it is a Head Start grantee for Clay, Platte and Jackson counties in Missouri. It partners with 17 school districts and community-based providers for 2,400 children and their families, Rohs said.
The second function is to support the workforce within early childhood education and increase quality and access to quality programming for families of young children.
“We were already fragile before,” Rohs said. “Now we’re really on the verge of needing to think differently on how we approach child care.”
For years, access to care has been a problem in the area. Child care deserts were already prevalent in certain Kansas City metro counties, she added.
‘We’re seeing some of that grow,” she said.
Parents who have found their preferred child care centers have been on waitlists for years, as the scarcity of quality centers has continued to increase. Waitlists just kept getting longer during the pandemic.
That happened to Thornhill, who had been on a waitlist for two years before the crisis hit. But she decided during the pandemic to enroll her son in a trusted friend’s child care center instead.
“Being on a waitlist for two years is ridiculous,” she said. “What are you supposed to do? Say, ‘I can’t work?’
“I would add, (child care) is not seen as much of a need I will say, for entrepreneur parents, because the thought is, ‘You’re working from home.’”
The uncertainty, she added, is not just a financial burden. It has also contributed to increased emotional and psychological stress.
Data, like this Pew Research Center report, corroborates stories like Thornhill’s. This can affect parents’ personal relationships.
“I also noticed (a) strain between my husband and I, and our relationship,” she said. “As entrepreneurs is one level, parents is another level, (and the) pandemic on top of it is a whole other level.”
These compounding stressors support Rohs’ point — there needs to be a shift to target and strengthen the breaking joints in the system.
For one, she said, it’s important to look back at what hasn’t worked and what has worked pre-pandemic. Second, businesses should look at child care as caring for the economy as a whole.
“Child care is truly a public good that supports more than just the family that’s utilizing it,” Rohs said. “In order for our businesses to have a workforce, our children need to have a space that will further their development as well.”
This has been illustrated in the past year-plus in several different ways.
Some parents, especially mothers, excelled professionally with more flexible schedules. Other parents who are essential workers in manufacturing plants or hospitals fell by the wayside because they needed better options, but didn’t have them. Other families noticed the benefits of their kids being taught in a smaller, more specialized group.
All of it pointed toward a need for change.
Katie Mabry van Dieren, a mother of two, said the pandemic showed her how bearing the brunt of parenting burdens can limit working moms’ potential.
“The weirdest thing happened to me with the pandemic, a good thing,” van Dieren said.
The minute her husband helped take over some child care duties, she thrived. Van Dieren’s husband is a chef and was sent home at the beginning of 2020.
“When he was home … I literally was able to start a whole new career,” van Dieren said.
For the first time during those few months, she had the time to formulate a new business plan, set up shop and get her business going.
Today, she operates her new store called Shop Local KC at 36th and Main streets while also running the Troost Market Collective, which she co-founded. On the flip side, had her husband been working during the pandemic she would’ve been the one to care for their two boys.
That points to a flaw in the workforce system that disproportionately affects moms, she said.
Over the past decade or more, mothers have been joining the workforce at higher rates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, some advocates say, the policies for working parents – particularly for mothers – aren’t keeping up.
A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper from April 2020 reported on the widening gender disparities in the workforce and in child care brought on by COVID-19. These disparities were further exacerbated because so many schools and day care centers shut down.
Why? Historically, women have been the primary caregivers for young children. Trend data also paints another picture – women’s participation in the labor market grew during recessions, causing greater tension between parenting and employment duties.
The NBER researchers drew a parallel between the COVID-19 crisis and World War II, which they dubbed the “World-War-II shock.” Social norms during that era placed moms as the homemakers, but as more women joined the workforce those gender norms began to shift.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the NBER’s data show that even though women were less likely to lose their jobs during recessions, the bulk of child care still fell on the mother’s lap.
“Among the full time employed, married men provide 7.2 hours of child care per week versus 10.3 hours for married women,” according to NBER. “Thus, married women provide close to 60 percent of child care even among couples who work full time, and an even higher share if they have young children, when child care needs are the highest.”
This tracks with the experiences of both Thornhill and van Dieren this year.
Ever since Thornhill enrolled her child in a program, she’s been able to pour her energy into her work. She sees child care as a holistic way to care for the community.
“It’s definitely allowed me to better manage – still working on it – being able to be in the workforce … as well as to be really present as a mom,” she said.
For van Dieren, having her kids in school, and not at home, has helped her keep up with work responsibilities. If they hadn’t been in school, she doesn’t know how she would have been able to focus on work.
She provided an example where toggling between worker and mother caused her to miss out on opportunities. In the early part of the pandemic, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, sought to partner with her for her work highlighting creators in the metro who were making masks.
Van Dieren lapsed in responding to the email and, because someone else was able to respond sooner, she lost the partnership.
“Like, uh, do you understand what happens when your child is with you? You can’t just leave them (or) lock them in a room,” she joked. “I work from home, but I’m not working the whole time. I’m literally being interrupted every three minutes.”
Jacob Schwartz, a father of two, agreed.
“(Parenting) is not easy in the best of times,” Schwartz said, laughing.
As a software engineer, he was able to make the transition from in-office to work-from-home but felt first-hand how difficult it was to juggle working and child care simultaneously.
“It’s a holistic situation, right? Working parents have a lot of concerns,” he added. “They’re not just cogs in a machine.”
Schwartz is the development director at the Emfluence marketing agency and is in constant contact with working parents. As a manager who has a say in how to support his staff, he decided to survey to see what parents really prioritize. From where he sits, empathy goes a long way.
“We’re surveying our staff over and over again, (with questions) like, ‘How are we all doing? What do we value about our workplace?’” he said. “And the number one thing that keeps coming up is flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.”
He knows because he personally benefited from that flexibility.
Midway through the pandemic, Schwartz paid his sister-in-law, who is a trained teacher, to help his first-grader get through homeschool. That ticked two boxes – child care, check, and education, check.
But he acknowledged that he’s fortunate enough to be connected to resources that perhaps other families might not have.
One of the main impediments to securing child care has been the cost. According to MARC, infant child care costs have hovered around 15% to 20% of a family’s income.
While the costs change based on the county in which parents reside, lower-income families are forced to make the choice between working and paying a hefty fee toward child care.
Rohs said this is an opportunity to reevaluate child care business models, which would benefit centers and families. Families need to make ends meet, and centers need to remain open to care for and educate children so they’re ready. That includes work-from-home families, which has become more common throughout the year.
But the gap in need has widened.
MARC’s most recent count, as of this month, shows that nearly 207 programs have closed in the Kansas City metro, which amounts to more than 4,000 spaces for children. For context, in April the number of children needing a spot was 2,000.
Some providers are unable to keep up with more stringent demands, such as offering good pay and solid health care. For instance, the average wage for workers in child care is roughly $23,760 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The benefits are minimal at best. Providers are aware. One provider even told Rohs that they’re able to give employees life insurance but not health insurance. Thus begins the vicious cycle.
If providers lose employees because of poor pay and poor benefits, then centers could lose funding, which means no seats for the kids.
These problems are interconnected.
Rohs uses the Family Conservancy’s Start Young project in Wyandotte County as a role model for other neighboring counties. Start Young provided wage supplements for providers, which adds money to the wage pot and in turn makes those centers more desirable places to work.
“How do we increase the workforce that is working with young children and how do we work toward wage parity?” Rohs said. “The key to access is to have staff that has the credentials and the skills to run a quality classroom. You can’t open the programs without the staff.”
So what’s the solution to our curiousKC asker’s question?
The first step, according to MARC, is to boost funding that will aid the parents and the providers.
Organizations in Kansas City such as the Family Conservancy, Community Services League and the Community Action Network offer resources to families in the metro area.
And in April, the Biden administration proposed the “American Families Plan,” a multi-million dollar program that would, among other things, help families with young children save money on child care. This same plan would also help providers pay a liveable wage, a minimum of $15 per hour plus offer professional development.
The goal is to bridge those gaps that have been hurting working parents both before and during the pandemic. For Kansas City parents, this could mean getting back in the office.
“When parents find quality child care, they’ll be able to go back to work,” Sneak said.
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Katie Mabry van Dieren's name. It has since been updated.