When their son, August, was a baby, Kate Holly and her husband Joel started renting out rooms in their four bedroom house—located in the Lents neighborhood—in order to increase their income and cover childcare costs.
“The first time we did it, I was sleeping with one eye open, thinking of all the things that could happen, renting out a room with a kid in the house,” says Kate.
August is now two, and Kate says their family has had so many houseguests, it now feels normal to find themselves having breakfast with semi-strangers in their own kitchen.
Some other things that have become normal to the couple since having a child: working seven days a week between the two of them in order to minimize childcare costs, figuring out how to navigate eligibility rules for public assistance programs such as food stamps, and the relentless anxiety around paying for the childcare they do have on top of the mortgage and other costs of living.
Their financial balance is so delicate that one traffic citation, says Kate, can be cause for a near crisis. She is now pregnant with their second child, due in June.
“I wanted August to have a sibling,” she says, “and even though we didn’t have a good plan in place, I felt if we waited we’d never be able to do it.”
Looking forward, however, Kate says she is terrified about handling the increased childcare demands with two kids under the age of three.
Affordable childcare is not a problem exclusive to low-income populations or people living in poverty. When the Hollys file their 2014 income taxes, they will reflect an income close to that of the state’s median household income of $50,229. As President Obama acknowledged in his most recent State of the Union, it’s now not uncommon in the United States for middle class families to pay more for childcare than they do for housing.
Oregonians have found themselves at an even greater disadvantage than those in other states, as our wages are less than average, our unemployment rates are higher, and our childcare costs are some of the steepest in the nation. For families like the Hollys, these economic dynamics have a very real effect on everyday life.
Kate, who is 35, says she was somewhat surprised after her son was born to find herself feeling so stretched financially. She and her husband both have college degrees. Before she became a parent, she was living what she describes as the Portlandia life: She spent her time biking around the city, attending cultural events within her reach. She had just finished a master’s degree in theater and was splitting her time between teaching yoga and directing plays. Her husband was working at a small non-profit.
“There’s a certain naiveté that you have before you have kids,” she says. “You just assume it’s a workable thing to do. I didn’t realize that every single hour I was going to work I would have to make twice the minimum wage to pull in an income.”
Now she’s caught in a cycle familiar to many parents. She and her husband need to work more in order to make more money, but they can’t afford the childcare that would allow for more hours. This crushing dynamic, says Kate, began when August was only eight weeks old. Without any paid family leave she felt she had no choice but to go back to work before their family was ready in order to make up for her lost income.
A low point was when she started teaching a yoga class and needed to leave the crying newborn with her husband.
“It never occurred to me before having kids that I’d be able to understand how child abuse happens,” she says. “But those first three months—with the sleep deprivation, trying to pay the bills—there just wasn’t anyone we could reach out to for help.”
“I was getting these SOS texts from him during yoga class,” Kate says. Worried about them both, she pushed through her class in a panic. “It never occurred to me before having kids that I’d be able to understand how child abuse happens,” she says. “But those first three months—with the sleep deprivation, trying to pay the bills—there just wasn’t anyone we could reach out to for help.”
Today the couple pays for partial daycare, three days a week. Kate runs her own yoga studio in the Montavilla neighborhood and brings August with her to work when she can. Joel works part-time at a bike shop. Sundays are the closest thing to a family day together, when Kate doesn’t work until the evening. The couple has indefinitely put off home improvements, buying a new car, paying student loans, saving for retirement—or saving at all.
“Families are sustaining a really high level of stress to force the various pieces of the puzzle together that just don’t fit,” says Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, a non-profit that advocates for family friendly policies including access to affordable, high-quality childcare and paid family leave.
“As a result, their relationships are compromised. It’s not good for parents and it’s especially not good for kids.”
Paluso points out that, despite their sacrifice and struggle to maintain their jobs and raise their kids, the Hollys have a number of assets that many “median” families don’t: two parents, for one thing. Kate has also been able to keep working; a common story is the family who goes from two incomes to one when they realize the cost of childcare outweighs take home pay—a shift that can cause loss of income for years as parents have a hard time finding their way back into the workforce.
In fact, many “average” Oregonian families who are trying to both take care of children and work, Paluso says, are living on such a tight budget and with so few safety nets that they are perpetually one disaster away from a housing or healthcare crisis.
“There’s this feeling of shame around it, like no one wants to be the one who says childcare isn’t working for them,” says Paluso. “The thing is, it’s not working for anyone.”
Kate has one other, less tangible asset, and that is her sanguine approach to life and the obstacles that are thrown her way. “Every time we don’t have enough time or money, it’s been challenging for my husband and I not to blame each other,” she admits. “But I finally realized that he did not invent maternity leave policy in this country.”
She tries to direct the energy she can into activism around supporting more, better social programs for parents and on the short term wins: making payroll, constructing a small childcare space in her studio where parents can leave their children while in class, and keeping the emergency snack bag for August stocked for those critical moments when she’s trying to teach yoga and juggle childcare.
“I try not to internalize the struggle,” she says. “I just try to see it for what it is.”