My Secret Shame: I Can’t Find Childcare


I've got a shame sweat going. I was supposed to attend the announcement about military spouse employment at the White House yesterday. And I bailed. On the White House.  

Ugh. Would you believe I had a childcare issue?

That sounds so lame, I know. It makes me feel like a terrible mother, a horrible employee, a poor excuse for a MilSpouse. Which seems a little bit out of proportion doesn't it?

So I was wondering if we spouses talk about that for a minute? If we admit that childcare is tough for civilians too, can we talk about how childcare plays out against deployments and moves? Can we talk about childcare without being accused of complaining or entitlement issues or scaring off potential employers?

Childcare is a thing when it comes to spouse employment. At our annual Spouse Summit just outside Washington, D.C., we heard over and over how hard it is to find childcare. Finding regular 40 hour a week care was doable for many, but finding backup care or anything that suited a less regular schedule was next to impossible.

The research supports that. Among military spouses, childcare is one of the top five barriers to employment. When you look at the reasons why military spouses have been hired for less than five percent of the 900,000 jobs posted within the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, lack of reliable childcare is one of the issues.

I don't know about you, but I know I'm not allowed to have childcare issues. I am supposed to be a MilSpouse with a "portable" career.

Most of the time, I am good with that. Between my husband's deployment schedule and a son on the autism spectrum, I have known for years that a regular commitment at an office would never work for me. I mean, us.  So I've arranged my commitments so that 95 percent of my full time work-life happens at home (or in Starbucks).

It is the five percent that is killing me. That five percent is all the good stuff -- the presentations, the conferences, the trainings, the meetings, the interviews, the White House.

The anxiety over that five percent sparks every feeling of shame in me. Why can't I find childcare like everyone else? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with me?

It isn't for lack of trying. It is just that the web of childcare for military children is just so thin. Here are the reasons I could not manage childcare today.  Have you had similar issues?

Why military childcare is a problem for me:

1. My husband is deployed. My husband is a fabulous father.  I know the guy would drop everything to support my career and care for our son.  But the 6,000 mile commute from the Arabian Sea is a killer. And probably illegal.

2. My mom only comes for overnight trips. If I am going to be gone overnight, I fly my mom in to help with my son. She is the Mary Poppins of childcare providers--practically perfect in every way.  She insists on having a life of her own, however, and can't be at my beck and call.

3. My usual system failed. Once or twice a month I need childcare in the morning before school.  When I complained about this to my hairstylist, I found a cache of shampoo girls. They needed the money. They didn't start their jobs until 10 a.m. We knew some of the same people so I was pretty sure they wouldn't beat my son with a stick. For $100 they will show up at my house at 6 a.m. and drive my son to school at 9 a.m. This is incredibly expensive. Yet because of them I have never missed a presentation. I’ve never even been late.  This time I just got the call too late to put my system in order.

4. Childcare crises only happen on a big day.This might just be karma, but problems with childcare never seem to happen on a nothing day. They never happen on a day you can just blow off work.  At our Military.com spouse summit one presenter had to cancel at the last minute because all of her childcare options bailed. Why is that?

5. Can’t use base childcare center. I know the DoD has been building new childcare centers on military bases all over the country. According to a RAND study, at most only seven percent of military members use on base childcare. The researchers found that further you live from a base the less likely you are to use on base childcare. Like two thirds of the military population, I live too far from a base to make that option workable.

6. No drop-in childcare. The before school care available at my son’s elementary  school or the local childcare center is only for full time participants.  I guess I could pay hundreds of dollars per month for three hours of childcare.  Does that make sense to you? Me neither.

 7. Flinch at finding a home provider. Sittercity and Care.com have a great idea. They hook up people who want to do childcare with people who need childcare. They do background checks.  You can list exactly the kind of care you need. Yet when I registered the job I needed, I had few replies and no takers -- even when I offered much more than the going rate. At one site, the only person who volunteered was an old man eager to have my son to himself. No, no, and no.

 8. Other parents work, too. My own family lives hundreds of miles away. My grown daughter lives nearby but she has to be at her office downtown by 8 a.m. The parents of my son’s friends both work so their boys are in before care at school. My friends and neighbors all work. The one stay home mom in our neighborhood bristles even at paid requests. Who else can I ask?

 9. Other military spouses... Military families are not thick on the ground in my neighborhood. Yet when I had a childcare crisis last month (one of my shampoo girls called with a fake car accident), I ended up bringing my son to the conference with me. Another military spouse drove him to school. Usually, this chick is in Kentucky. So that was probably a one time save, huh?

I am the biggest believer in the value of employment for spouses. (Second only to my belief in the value of a Stay Home Parent!). I believe the the value of work not only to fix financial problems but to provide structure for your day. To give you a sense of accomplishment. To move your own goals forward. To give you a place in the world.

A job -- paid or unpaid -- is a great support to a happy military life.

In order to get that kind of work, we spouses have to figure out child care that we can rely on.  Maybe that is the kind of employment skill we don't have enough of.  Maybe that is the kind of thing we could learn.  Maybe that is the kind of very occasional flexibility we need from employers who say that they want to hire military spouses.

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