Working women and the child-care equation: No one has it figured out

Key Points
  • A survey from parent resource app Winnie and online talent marketplace The Mom Project finds that 81 percent of women say child-care issues are a significant factor in their decision to be in the workforce.
  • Top considerations include flexible scheduling, desire to stay at home with their children and cost of child care.
  • Leaving the workforce for five years to raise children could cost women 20% of their earning potential.
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The decision to participate in the workforce after having a child can be difficult for any mom, even those who are married, college educated and only have one child.

A survey conducted by parent resource app Winnie and online talent marketplace The Mom Project found 81% of women questioned say child-care factors such as cost, availability, flexibility and trust made a relatively strong or critical difference in their decision to be in the workforce.

Winnie is an online database that helps parents find local child-care providers, and The Mom Project is a digital talent marketplace that connects mothers with employers. The organizations surveyed 546 moms primarily between the ages of 25 and 44, 88% with a bachelor's degree or higher and 79% employed either full- or part-time. The majority of the participants were married, and half had only one child.

The top three factors the survey found affecting a mother's decision to participate in the workforce included how family-friendly their schedules would be, their desire to stay at home with their children and how cost effective working would be compared to pricey child-care bills.

"One of the most interesting takeaways from the research is that none of the mothers felt like they had it figured out when it came to the work and child-care equation," said Colleen Curtis, head of community at The Mom Project. "Everyone is weighing the high cost of child care with the financial and opportunity cost of leaving the workforce."

The top factor — a lack of family-friendly work schedules — was a "significantly strong" influence for mothers who work part-time (81%) and those who are not currently working but are looking (75%). Some survey participants additionally cited commute time, travel and the general work environment as major concerns.

Some participants stressed that not working isn't an option, because they're either single, need dual income or because their spouses do not contribute.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, a state with the least affordable center-based care for toddlers in the U.S. last year, has made affordable child care a pillar of her campaign. Her $70 billion child-care proposal would provide licensed early childhood care for every family in the country at a cost no more than 7% of a family's income and free child care for families making up to 200% of the federal poverty level ($51,000 for a family of four).

In 2017, child-care bills for two children outlaid more than a mortgage in 35 states and Washington, D.C. Findings from Child Care Aware indicate that center-based infant care exceeded 27 percent of median household income for single working parents, and the impacts were worse for parents and families of color.

Sara Mauskopf, co-founder and CEO of Winnie, said large child-care centers that have more than 50 children in their programs offer less flexibility for parents with differing schedules when compared to in-house, licensed child-care providers who can offer flexible scheduling at lower costs. In-home providers are harder to locate, however, which is an issue Winnie has tried to address state-by-state by bringing over 50,000 of them online, Mauskopf said.

Winnie is available nationwide, but to date its most comprehensive database of day cares and preschools include California, Texas and New York. Today the company added Illinois to its list.

Anne Halsall, the other co-founder of Winnie, experienced her own hardships returning to work after having her son. Every daycare had a long wait list, she couldn't afford a full-time nanny, and Halsall had concerns about the quality of care for every option, she said. Halsall decided not to return to work once her maternity leave ended.

Decisions like Halsall's could have a lifelong impact on a working mother's earnings potential. Leaving the workforce for five years to raise children could cost women 20 percent of their earnings potential although their leave only represents one-eighth of their working lifetime, according to researchers led by Amanda Hindlian, president of Goldman Sachs' Global Markets Institute.

"In the age of technology, parents don't expect it to be so hard to find this critical service," Halsall said in an email. "I certainly didn't. Winnie is building the missing marketplace that gives parents a complete picture of their options so they can make the right choice for themselves and their families."