The afternoon had been running pretty smoothly. I had just wrapped up an interview, and had planned to spend the last few hours of my day catching up on emails and researching potential podcast candidates.
I looked at the clock. It was 2:54 p.m., which meant I had about 10 minutes before my kids would arrive home from school. It was enough time to jot down a few instructions for Kaitlyn (their babysitter) and pour a cup of tea.
With my decaf lemon zinger in hand, I went back into my upstairs office and closed the door. As soon as I sat down, however, I noticed a missed call (my phone had been on vibrate during the interview). I figured it was Kaitlyn asking if she could take the kids to the park.
But when I saw the number, I realized it wasn’t the babysitter. It was the school. I immediately returned the call, as various scenarios played out in my head. (Did my daring daughter fall from the top of the playset? Was my son in detention? Do they even have detention these days?)
Despite my imagination, however, I knew it wasn’t any of the above. In fact, I knew exactly what she was going to say.
“Hi Mrs. Gamble, I have Austin and Scarlett here.”
“I know Kaitlyn sometimes picks them up, but I saw that she signed out early today for Confirmation rehearsal.” (One of the benefits — and drawbacks — of a small school is that everyone knows everything, and so the receptionist was able to quickly piece together what had happened.)
“They’re fine for now, but can you have someone come get them soon?” she asked.
“Of course. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
The first thing I did was take a deep breath. Then nine more. When I felt at least somewhat composed, I went to the school and sheepishly retrieved my kids. The receptionist laughed it off, but I couldn’t.
When I asked Kaitlyn later what happened, she issued a half-heartedly apology, chalking it up to a miscommunication. But as much as I wanted to chide her for being irresponsible, I realized that the person to blame was me. You see, this wasn’t her first offense. On the last school day before Christmas break, when I was scrambling to finish up some last-minute tasks, she announced she could only stay an hour (and not the three I had counted on). Neglect your job once, shame on you. Neglect it twice? Shame on me.
I pride myself on being the type of parent who stays on top of important tasks. Permission slips are signed right away, vaccine records are up to date, and all parties/sports events are immediately marked on the calendar.
And yet, having a dependable childcare system had eluded me. It all started last fall when, instead of enrolling my kids in the school’s aftercare program, I opted for a patchwork strategy. Depending on the day (and sports season), one of five different people — including two different eighth graders, my in-laws, and a neighbor — would be charged with shepherding my offspring home and entertaining them.
Why, you ask, would I depend on a plan that was fraught with variables? Because I wanted to save money.
In my defense, last September marked the first month since 2012 in which a hefty sum wasn’t deducted from my bank account to pay for daycare. My husband and I were so excited at the prospect of this “found money” that we wanted to retain as much of it as possible.
It’s understandable, at least on the surface. The problem is that we still needed childcare. We needed a reliable, consistent system. But the temptation to trim the fat beckoned, and so we rationalized the decision. How hard could it be to find someone who can babysit a few days a week? Kids want to earn money, right?
Not necessarily. As it turns out, most eighth graders and high school students have schedules that rival those of C-suite executives. Between homework, sports and community service projects, they’re busy, and often overwhelmed. As a result, sometimes they forget to notify me when plans change, or they wait until the last minute to cancel. It’s not because they don’t care, but because they’re still learning how to balance priorities. Taking care of my kids may be their job for a few hours, but it’s mine all day, every day.
I’m the one who should’ve realized that something as important as a childcare plan can’t be pieced together. It needs to be researched, carefully constructed, and revisited. It should be able to withstand this question: “Am I confident that I’ve made the right decision?”
In my case, I wasn’t. What I should’ve done, I now realize, was reached out to other parents and asked for input. I should’ve listed the pros and cons, and then made the call.
In the end, I may have spent less money on childcare, but when I add up all the time spent scrambling for coverage, the late hours worked after a sitter had cancelled, and the agitation it caused, I didn’t save anything. In fact, it ended up costing more.
So if you’re thinking about employing a patchwork strategy, my advice is to have a backup plan for when it inevitably falls apart.