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Under Pressure: The Hidden Costs of Building a Career While Having Children

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

I was looking at the deposition calendar and it was clear that I would be spending at least two nights a week out of town. We thankfully had a sitter who would do it for $120/night. Then the automatic calculation took place: $120 multiplied by two and then multiplied by four weeks in the month, and we were at $960. An additional $960 dollars in childcare that month. But, "Wait, no. That deposition is on a Monday, so I have to leave Sunday morning, so I need childcare all of Sunday. So that's another $150." And so on and so forth. These expenses were on top of the Au Pair, the after school programs, and school. For years, I paid to do my job. I had to pay money in order to do the work I was being paid to do. The math that governed my life, for a decade, was how to cover 24 hours of the day whenever I traveled. And saying "No” wasn't an option because career growth and professional development depended on my being able to access these opportunities. One day, years before this particular exercise, I remember looking around me at my mostly male colleagues and thinking, for a moment, that they all had stay-at-home wives and I, well, I was the wife. It was a brief moment but it likely said more than I realized. Having children while trying to build a big beautiful wonderful career has been costly. It certainly has deprived me of being able to fully reach my economic potential compared to my counterparts who live in one-income households. I simply have more costs. And it is infuriating.

But, and here is the important part, I was still facing this struggle from a position of privilege. My husband was in training for a high-paying profession that, we planned, would eventually increase his income and make our current expenses part of the sacrifice to reach our professional aspirations. Also, I was not a single parent. And finally, I had some reserves, which meant that if things got really, really tight, we could ask family for financial (not childcare) help. These criteria, in the U.S., are markers of my class, race, and other aspects of my identity that give me privilege. Demanding (and high-earning) jobs can be prohibitively expensive for non-white lawyers, even though they are capable of reaching the same positions as their white (and male and married) counterparts. Let's read that again: Having a high-earning and demanding job can be prohibitively expensive for non-white folks with children.  This is infuriating. So, setting aside my anecdotes and extrapolations, let's look at numbers.

How expensive is childcare? All of the following numbers come from the Economic Policy Institute The average annual cost of infant care in Colorado is $15,325, which translates to $1,277 per month. Childcare for a four year-old is $12,390, which is $1,032/month. And Colorado has the dubious attribute of being the the eighth most expensive state in the U.S. In our state, childcare is one of the biggest expenses for families, costing 60.6% more per year than in-state tuition four-year public college. As another marker, infant care costs 9.8% more than average rent in Colorado. This makes it unaffordable for typical families. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, childcare is affordable if it costs no more than 7% of a family's income, but in Colorado for one child infant care takes up to 21% of the median income for families. Childcare for two children—an infant and a four year-old—costs 37.9% of a typical Colorado family’s income.  And this is just childcare during the day - it does not take into consideration the extra care required to cover if both parents work out of the home and neither of them can watch the children on any given night. It's not just money.

The constant logistical juggling exercise of finding the right people with the right skills to care at the right time is a full time job. It takes tremendous emotional and intellectual bandwidth, which, again, is overwhelmingly shouldered by women. Further, whenever a primary caregiver for a family has to prepare for a work trip, or an extended period of absence, they also have to take on the job of finding, interviewing, hiring, and training someone to help them take on their home responsibilities. Just writing that, I feel it's unfair. But it's true and I don't think I'm alone. I've just been conditioned to believe it's "not okay" to talk about it. However, nothing is ever going to change if we don't! Why is this a woman's issue?

This is a woman's issue for two reasons. First, women are still overwhelmingly primary caregivers for their children, which is even more true for single-parent families. As of 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau, "The large majority of mothers are in the workforce, including 62 percent of mothers who gave birth within the last 12 months." Of the 33.4 million households with children under 18, 22.3 million are headed by married couples, 8.4 million by single mothers, and 2.7 million by single fathers. So if someone is looking for childcare in order to go to work, they are likely a woman. Second, if one parent is going to give up on their ambitions due to the cost of childcare, it will be the lower-earning parent. Due to the pay gap, this sacrifice will then fall on women and, moreso, women of color. The cost of childcare is therefore not only a gender issue but a racial justice issue as well. (I would add that I am not griping about the hourly cost of care. Asking for that type of care to cost less would only depress already low wages of women, and significantly non-white women, who provide such childcare services. Fixing this problem cannot come at the price of exploiting others).

So do you have any solutions?

This is not something that can be addressed on an individual basis. This is something that has to be addressed on a societal level. When Governor Polis championed and passed full-day paid kindergarten, it was a game changer, especially for women and for communities of color. More change in this direction must take place. If childcare were affordable, the occasional overnight sitter in order to do that "stretch" assignment would not be such a "stretch."  But the first step to any change is to talk about it openly, without shame. So, let's do so.


Giugi Carminati is a social justice litigator, handling cases ranging from family law and domestic abuse to police shootings and other civil rights violations, including violations resulting from unlawful immigration practices. She founded The Woman's Lawyer, a domestic abuse and sexual assault victim's advocacy law firm and is now Managing Attorney, W & SW United States, for NDH, LLC, a human and civil rights law firm. She serves on the CWBA Board as Publications Committee Co-Chair as well as on the Colorado Community College Systems Board and is Vice President of Denver Mamas. Giugi is also mother of four children and speaks four languages.

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I had no idea we lead the country for coat of childcare! Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

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