Family, Kids & Relationships

Childcare Without a Choice—How Families Are Handling Sitters and More When Staying Home Isn’t an Option

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Businesses are starting to reopen, and while that’s good news for some who’ve been missing a paycheck during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also making some already stressed parents even more anxious. Many have no choice but to go back to work, and in many cases that work can’t be done at home. Other parents are called on to care for sick relatives, or are forced to stop socially distancing for other reasons out of their control. This leaves them with a major dilemma: What do we do with the kids?

With most childcare centers, schools, and camps closed for the foreseeable future (with a few exceptions), the answers are far from simple. Even where centers are re-opening, many families aren’t comfortable sending their kids to daycare until more local signs show it’s medically safe to do so. The situation is especially hard on single parents who can’t even trade-off with a partner. And while some government programs provide unemployment benefits for those who no longer have access to childcare, not everyone qualifies—and getting two-thirds of their usual pay may not be enough to keep their families afloat. 

In short, the pandemic has exposed America’s unstructured childcare system, and parents are having no choice but to get creative about childcare.

Creating a co-op

If your family is close friends with another family or even a small group of families, you might consider a co-op. One mom told us on Facebook that she’s part of a “quarantine cohort” that involves three families, each one taking turns watching the kids and overseeing homeschooling while the others work—while continuing to physically distance from those outside the group. “It’s a bigger pool than single family quarantine,” she explained, “but it helps when there is a bit of job distribution and maybe only one person being exposed to the general public for shopping etc.”

The good news is that if anyone gets sick with COVID-19, it can easily be tracked and locked down. You may want to have everyone sign an agreement that says how much exposure is allowed outside the pod, and what to do if someone starts having symptoms or comes in contact with someone who’s infected (more on that below).

Exploring new options

When their finances allow it, some parents are hiring someone to babysit and oversee distance learning while they go back to work, even if they’ve never had a “nanny” before. This can be either an hourly arrangement or a live-in situation—which requires a greater commitment (and having extra space in your home), but potentially reduces exposure to the virus since the caregiver basically becomes part of your family unit. 

If the cost is too high, some families are creating a “nanny share,” where two families split both the cost and the care. In those cases, “their bubble consists of 3 families (including the nanny’s),” one mom explained. “It takes a lot of trust and communication and good will. But it can be done.” Ok, sounds great—but who can you hire?

With so many teachers and childcare workers out of work, some families are reaching out to them for help. Teachers make ideal caregivers because they’re so good at coming up with games and activities that keep kids engaged on the fly, not to mention how well trained they are when it comes to education. 

College students who are also stuck at home are another popular option. If you can find one who’s majoring in early childhood education or a related field, even better. In some cases, college students may even be available to move in temporarily, since universities are closed and some college students may not necessarily want to go back to living with their parents. For those who are good with kids, the idea of earning money while wrapping up their own distance learning and waiting things out is a better choice.

Of course your community might present some options, too. One mom told us she hired a neighbor to watch her kids for 20 hours per week while she went to work part-time, saying it wasn’t ideal but was better than not working at all.

Turning to family

Grandparents are the go-to for many families when it comes to picking up the childcare slack, but since older generations are at higher risk for contracting Covid-19, many families have tried to avoid relying on them during the pandemic. However, when left with few other options, some are now moving in together after a period of quarantine. If a grandparent or relative can’t move in, some families are doing the reverse and moving in with them temporarily, so they can have help in a pinch when they need it. Still worried about living with Grandma? Similar arrangements can be made with siblings, cousins, or other family members. This is especially helpful if you work odd hours or a night shift, which makes it even more difficult to find childcare.

How to make it as safe as possible

Whomever you hire or create a “pod” with, make sure you’re clear about expectations related to social distancing and safety precautions in general. Decide in advance how much (if at all) you’re comfortable with the caregiver interacting with others outside your family, and make sure they’re ok with any restrictions. You may even want to discuss the possibility of regular testing for COVID-19 to be safe. They’re becoming more accessible with each passing week and in the vast majority of cases, there’s no fee attached. 

Inceptive, a service offering expert-led, on-demand classes for parents, has these tips to offer for making your childcare situation as safe and smooth as possible:

  • Get a written agreement. This is especially true for paid arrangements, but can be useful even if you’re just creating a “pod” with family or a close friend. Outline expectations, hours (including any flexibility either side might need), and other details of your arrangement so there are no misunderstandings later.
  • Establish your routine. Again, this helps ensure everyone’s on the same page ahead of time. For example, are you requiring that everyone leaves their shoes and jacket at the door and follows a hand-washing protocol when entering the home? Establish that now to avoid confrontations as time goes on.
  • Communicate about life outside the home. Does everyone agree about wearing masks in the same situations? If your caregiver has a roommate or significant other, are they following social distancing guidelines in a way you’re comfortable with? Will they be using public transportation? Bear in mind that you can’t—nor should you—control every move a caregiver takes in their private lives. But knowing the answers to questions like these will help build trust, and keep everyone aligned on the level of exposure you’re comfortable with.
  • Set clear boundaries. Determine in advance things like who prepares meals, what to do if you’re working from home but your child asks for you, and what outdoor activities you are and aren’t okay with during the day.

Whatever you decide to do, it’s never been more apparent that it really does take a village to raise a child. Know you’re not alone and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’d be surprised how many people are in the same boat and happy to do their part to help someone else right now. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.