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The Parenting Math That Doesn't Add Up
My response to people who say “why did you have kids if you never want to be around them?”
One of the myths around motherhood that continues to baffle me is the idea that if you have kids, putting them in daycare is bad. Most people with kids have probably heard the judgmental question that’s asked if you dare to take a minute away from them: “Why did you have kids if you never want to be around them?”
This belief is deeply-rooted in internal systems, too. I hear mothers that say “As a working parent, I feel like I’m never around,” and “Oh, I don’t want to have someone else raise my kids,” or “My kid has the rest of her life to be in school, shouldn’t they they spend more time playing at home?”
There are so many mothers made to feel guilty for getting basic childcare support.
I’m going to skip past the problematic roots of these statements (I’ll rant more on that later), and instead start with something that I love, and that’s math.
Math? Yes. Stay with me. In this piece we’ll look at three components of a parent’s life that don’t add up:
The actual week itself
The length of a weekend, and
The reality of school schedules.
Let’s do some parenting math.
There are 168 hours in a week.
If I put my kid in daycare or any other form of childcare from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, they’re in childcare forty hours a week.
We’re going to use 40 hours as a baseline for most of the following scenarios, but swap in your scenario, whether it’s sixty hours or twenty hours.
However many hours you’ve signed up for childcare support—I’m going to use 40—the first thing to remember is that this number only happens on a mythical perfect week.
These forty hours happen only if (iff or ↔ for my math geeks) childcare is open every single day of every week of the year. PSA to anyone thinking of having kids: daycares are not open every weekday, for some centers it’s not even close—get the school calendar when you tour new spaces. You’ll get 40 hours of coverage only on weeks when they don’t close early, and only during weeks when the kid is not sick.
Given the fact that kids catch every cold known to humans (and then some), they’re probably in daycare an average of 30 hours a week, practically speaking. This accounts for the weeks when you get zero hours of coverage because your kid is home for five days straight for the flu, or hand-foot-mouth disease, or norovirus, or any other germ. (The frustrating part of this is that it’s not terribly avoidable—it’s either preschool or school, but living in society as it is today comes with a lot of germs.)
But let’s go with the perfect number—40 hours of childcare—to start. Even in the perfect world where they attend every single hard-earned day of beloved forty-plus hours of childcare support, there are still one hundred and twenty-three hours remaining in the week.
Even in the perfect world where my kids go to daycare 40 hours a week, there are still 123 hours remaining in the week.
If my kids go to childcare 40 hours a week, that means I’m still with my children 123 hours of the week.
This is the math that doesn’t add up. For all the shame and guilt parents (mostly mothers) are given about not spending time with their kids, there are plenty of hours in the week that they are caring for kids. A whopping hundred hours every week, to be specific. Adjust this number as you need if you’re pulling longer work hours or if you’re using less coverage to fit your life.
Even if you secure 40 hours of childcare support, you’re with your kids 123 hours of every week.
“But Sarah, they spend most of that time sleeping—that doesn’t count as quality time,” some parents might object.
Sure, a lot of that time is for sleeping. Let’s say the kid sleeps 11 hours a night (oh what a gift, kid, if you sleep 11 straight hours for me). That’s 77 hours of sleep time. If we somehow don’t “count” the sleep hours as time with our kids—then even subtracting sleep time, there are still 51 hours a week with your child while they are awake (168-40-77=51).
Even if your kid is in daycare 40 hours a week, and sleeps 10-12 hours a night, you still around 51 hours a week with your kid when they are not sleeping!
But why isn’t sleep quality time? You don’t leave your kid when they’re sleeping. It’s not like you put the kids to bed and suddenly you get to jet off to Las Vegas and frolic around unfettered for eleven hours and then pop back in at the moment they’re going to wake up. This is not “free time” by any stretch of the imagination.
This also assumes that any parenting dealing with night wakings, nighttime nursing, potty training, bad dreams, cuddles, or sickness in the night doesn’t count that as quality time being there for your kiddo. In my book, having the security of someone around at night is a big deal. Who else is responding when the monsters come?
In fact, you have multiple jobs to do during those night hours: your job is also to figure out how to get the grown-ups enough sleep while providing space for your kids to get sleep and comfort, too. That’s a lot of work.
If I was a lawyer and I told you I worked 123 hours a week, you’d be flat-out impressed. You might even tell me I work too much.
But PARENTS? We tell parents that no matter how much time they dedicate, they’re not spending enough time with their kids.
Despite the fact that we live in a country with zero support for having children, despite the fact that parents, majority mothers, are staying home 120+ hours a week holed up with their children, despite the fact that most social programs like community childcare and library services disappeared in the pandemic, despite the fact that motherhood is one of “the hardest jobs in the world,” (another cliche that’s used as a cultural excuse to turn a blind eye to the enormous amounts of work done by parents), we still tell parents they should want to stay home with their children 24/7.
If a mother dares to get any form of structural childcare support—especially if she makes it visible, or speaks of said childcare—we tell her it’s basically a personal failure of a lack of love and dedication to her children.
We still tell parents that getting any sort of help is basically a personal failure and means there’s a lack of love and dedication.
By “zero support,” all I mean is that this country offers no universal paid leave, that most women return to work still bleeding, and that there are no government-supported childcare options until kid turn five—think of old Uncle Sam tossing you a kid and cackling, “you’re on your own, kid, until you turn five and we finally recognize you, but not your parent, as an actual person!”
A brief rant on zero support, aka, the dollars and cents of motherhood.
Let’s look a little more closely at the lack of social support and what it costs parents, mothers specifically. Ann Crittenden’s book The Price Of Motherhood lays much of this out, but when women become mothers in a society that offers zero support, it also costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars in many different ways.
In addition to the immediate failures of what’s known as “caretaking infrastructure,” or basic social support for bringing new people into our society during the acute periods of birth, death, and sickness, there are also the massive economic losses that women suffer by becoming parents.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
Pregnant people who get discriminated against and fired for being pregnant, resulting in lost immediate wages and income from lost jobs,
The massive wage gap between working moms and working dads—the majority of the gender pay gap is actually in large part between women who have kids and women who don’t have kids, resulting in an average of $17,000 in lost wages for mothers every year. This is way worse for Black moms, non-white mothers, and single mothers. (Fatherhood can actually boost men’s earnings, by comparison.)
Mothers who then suffer long-term career losses for “taking time away from work,” to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost career earnings in a lifetime. When a woman has one child, her lifetime earnings are 28% less than childfree women; each additional child reduces lifetime earnings by another 3%.
Plus, none of the statements above consider the costs incurred for actually supporting the children.
Then, to rub salt in the wound, there are more older women are in poverty precisely because they don’t get to accrue social security points when they’re home parenting because “they’re not working,” and so those years are docked from our system of support for old age—only people who do “real work” will receive benefits from the government in the narrowest eyes of economists. Women who have one child receive 16 percent less in social security benefits (with the exception of those eligible for the social security spousal benefit, which women are much less likely to receive today).
We can go deeper into this, but when our culture says that you should “stay at home with your kids,” because it’s “what’s best for everyone,” because it’s what “superhero moms” do—but you live in a country with zero support for working mothers, it’s important to know all of the costs involved.
This country benefits from having mothers at home, unpaid, profiting off of your free parental labor—and then it’s actually going to deduct benefits from you in the future, too. You won’t get basic government support systems that are readily available in every other wealthy country in the world, you’ll lose jobs and money, and it’ll dock your social security benefits in old age.
This is why telling parents they should “just spend more time with their kids” and “not miss milestones,” and “savor it while it lasts,” is so deeply problematic.
When parents work 100+ hour weeks, people turn around and tell them that they’re not spending enough time with their kids.
The culture we’re swimming in likes to tell parents that they’re not dedicated enough. That you should be sure to stay home with your kids if you have them. That you shouldn’t have had kids if you were going to just “leave them with someone else.” That working—if you’re a mom—is selfish.
We tell parents that leaving them in daycare is BAD. (Great daycares can be wonderful, finding great daycares can be incredibly hard.) We load mothers up with guilt and shame by telling them they’re bad moms for wanting to do anything else within the 168 hours of the week. The bad mom trope is a tool used to keep mothers in line.
Now, if you’re a parent that stays home with your kids and you love it, and you chose it, and you have a set-up that works for you (there are so many amazing at-home parents that take their kiddos to music class and library sessions and out to the playgrounds and the parks), I want to make sure to say under no uncertain terms that you are a wonderful parent.
Whether you’re an at-home parent or a parent with recognized economic employment, I happen to think that you should be championed and paid for the work that you do.
This is not an essay to shame at-home parents. You’re doing an extraordinary job, you work your buns off, and I happen to think that you should be recognized, celebrated, and paid for the work that you do. The math applies to everyone who has kids and caretaking duties: the week has a LOT of hours in it, and you deserve support, rest, and time off just like anyone else. We are on the same team.
In fact, if you’re an at-home parent and you feel like no one sees how much work you do, and you feel like you need more help from a spouse or friends or babysitters, I hope this essay supports you in making the case for taking a break on the weekend and in the evenings if you’re able to.
Getting childcare support and taking breaks are reasonable requests in the face of an enormous job.
To all the moms out there patching together work in between naps and half-time childcare and partial babysitters because people are “should-ing” all over you about being home with your kids, if you are miserable and exhausted and in need of time for yourself, that is a reasonable ask.
It is not unreasonable to need a break if you’re doing 128 hours of parenting and 40 hours of working in any given week. Any other job, we’d call this a human rights violation.
But for mothers, we gloss over it by tossing words like “superhero” over to her as a consolation prize, reminding her that motherhood should only ever be a labor of love, warping our stories around motherhood to describe it as not labor at all, and then telling women that they don’t deserve recognition or support because “um, actually you chose this.”
[Nevermind the fact that 30% of pregnancies are unplanned, or that abortion rights are being stripped away from people so fast that the number of people who don’t want to be parents and have to be is about to skyrocket. Read Abortion, Every Day by Jessica Valenti for news on abortion rights and access.]
Superwoman is what you call someone when you don’t want to stop and help them.
I want to write this on t-shirts and post a sign outside my office that reads:
I WILL CLAW MY HANDS TO 40 HOURS OF SUPPORT EACH WEEK OF MY CHILDREN’S LIFE AND I WILL LOVE THEM EVEN MORE BECAUSE OF IT.
Okay. What’s the next math problem?
The next math puzzle: that thing we call the weekend
Do you know how many hours are in a weekend?
From five o’clock on Friday afternoon until 9 o’clock on Monday morning there are 64 hours in between. That is sixty-four intense hours of parental work and house work and minivan driving and nap coaxing for any parent with small children. Multiple small children increases the complexity level of the game.
There are 64 hours in a weekend.
Any job that’s 64 hours would also be seen as an achievement in our productivity-oriented culture. But not parenting.
When I put this together, it became abundantly clear to me personally that I would need three to six hours of babysitting and alone time on the weekend to not be a complete disaster come Monday morning. I need these hours to take a brief break in the form of a walk, to throw some heavy weights around at the gym, and to slowly re-assemble my brain so that I can hang on to my own sense of self.
These weekend support hours don’t spontaneously arise. This is also where parenting gets really personal and individual. As someone who interviews parents for a living and builds community for working parents, I know how different the lives of families can be.
Some folks have kids that nap for four hours on the weekends until they are seven years old (BLESS THOSE KIDS), some people have youthful grandparents with a spring in their step that happen to live around the corner and take the children for weekly overnights (These unicorn grandparents do exist, I’ve heard!), and some folks have set up systems where they share housing with other single parents to help lessen the demand load of individual parenting.
Other parents have kids that may require more hands-on support. They may have special needs, they may have a spicier personality, they may be going through a challenging growth phase, and so much more. I know parents who have immunocompromised kids who can’t use germ-filled daycares, I know single moms, military moms, and parents who have lost their own parents struggle deeply with the weight of the work in front of them.
The weekend is 64 hours long. For some parents, those 64 hours are filled with non-stop demands and challenges, and the weekend can be one of the most intense times of the week.
“I remember the first work meetings at our all-hands after we had kids,” one dad told me. “Everyone asked how the weekend went, and people talked about going on ski trips, reading books, working on building a house, and I tried my best to keep my face neutral. They had no idea what I’d been through the last 64 hours.”
When someone tells you that their day job is the easiest part of their lives, that’s saying something. Parents, you work a 64-hour job from the end of Friday to early morning Monday. That’s why it can feel like a relief to go back to work on Monday.
Alright, the last math puzzle: school math.
“When the kids go to school, I’ll finally be able to get some work done.” It sounds like a such a dreamy time, right?
There are 365 days in a year.
For any given school, there are approximately 180 school days in the calendar year. That means that there are 185 days when they are not in school.
Now, this isn’t quite the right math—we need to break it down by weekends and weekdays. In a calendar year with 365 days, approximately 260 of them are weekdays. Since school days land on weekdays, the difference is how many weekdays are not covered by school (260-180=80).
That leaves eighty (80!) weekdays when the kids just don’t go to school.
School is awesome. But it is not by any stretch of the imagine a full-time childcare solution.
Because not only is school only part of the year, the days are not structured anything like a typical workday. School ends between 2pm-3:30pm most days, and then it also comes with half days (where your kids are sent home early, around 12pm).
In addition, there are super-early dismissals, late starts, and parent-teacher conference days. Just the other week, our kids had school from 8:30am-10:45am. The school day was over at 10:45am. This doesn’t include days missed for snow or rain or illness, either.
180 days of school is wonderful, but it does not line up with the American expectations of work in any way.
Here’s the takeaway:
There are 168 hours in a week. Using 40-50 of them for childcare is a reasonable baseline, especially given the likelihood that you’re going to have 120+ hours of parenting work ahead of you each week.
There are 64 hours in a parenting weekend. From Friday night to Monday morning is more than most full-time jobs. If you need support on the weekend, congratulations, you’re just like us.
There are only 180 days of school in any calendar year. That includes half days.
Why do I bring all of this up?
The other day I was talking to a parent that was waxing nostalgic about how little time they’d have with their kid when they went to school. In my personal opinion (and everyone’s allowed to have a different opinion, you do you) there is actually plenty of time with the kiddos, it’s about how you spend the time. Moreover, it’s about not shaming parents for needing basic time off, and it’s about not buying into the massive guilt trip shoved on the shoulders of working mothers.
It’s not about reducing the number of days they’re in school or the number of hours in childcare. It’s about recognizing that the hours of school and daycare are actually severely limited, and the idea that sending them to after-care or childcare somehow makes you a bad parent is frankly ridiculous. In my experience, increasing my quality time is more important than increasing the quantity of time.
So when someone tells you that you’ll miss this time, or that you’re a “bad” parent for putting your kid in daycare, or they don’t understand why your kids keeping being out of school, send them this essay.
Getting full-time coverage (which is only 40 hours) for your children in a 168-hour week can be an immense challenge as it is. Explaining to people that you’ve started working 168 hours a week can feel impossible.
In spite of this, we gaslight parents and tell them that wanting work hours or personal time is “bad parenting” with the underlying assumption that if you wanted to have kids, you should devote all hours of all days exclusively to parenting. Telling people they should feel guilty for getting barebones support is just plain mean. We do this mostly to moms, if we’re being honest.
If you feel like you’re struggling and you need more childcare, you probably do.
— Sarah Peck
CEO & Founder
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