Meredith C. Carroll: Local child care conundrum takes its toll on all of us
The list of what kept me up at night when I was expecting my first daughter usually ran longer than the actual nights themselves. Each time the sun went down I became the pregnant definition of insanity by attempting a comfortable sleeping position despite my womb playing host to an embryonic bowling ball prone to fits of kickboxing. Yet it wasn’t even the physical discomfort so much as some devilish details that usually set my mind racing once the moon rose.
I’ve never been known for my flexibility, which is why it was no surprise that I hurt myself doing the mental gymnastics required to figure out how my husband and I could manage to make more money to pay for child care once the baby arrived all while actually working less so as to achieve more togetherness.
Eventually the numbers added up, although the answer still came out wrong every time. No cookie-cutter solution was available that prevented us from severely diminishing our family time and financial resources. In a pre-Great Recession Aspen where spots in full-time day care were scarce to nonexistent, we settled for putting our first-trimester fetus on a waitlist to start nursery school when she turned 2 1/2 years old. If I called every month for 67 months, I was told my interest would probably be demonstrated sufficiently such that we could expect a spot in the program starting two days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It was news that hardly had an Ambien-like effect on me.
Nearly a dozen years later, not much has changed locally, with qualified day care staff and existing space available for only 22% of infants who need it in Pitkin County. Last week, Aspen City Council spent three hours discussing possible solutions to the local child care shortage, including converting the Yellow Brick building’s indoor gymnasium and outdoor basketball court into classrooms.
It’s hard to imagine taking away play space from small children, especially in a community so famously blessed with abundant natural and human-made (or inherited) resources. It’s even tougher to think about how much space the city and county have, and how long it has taken them to seriously consider using it to fill such a glaringly underserved portion of the community. Whether it’s the Old Power House building, the future-former city hall in the Armory Building, or even the Rio Grande meeting room, there’s plenty of opportunity and not enough emphasis on function over form.
Because what happens when 78% of babies lack access to reliable and affordable licensed child care is that 100% of their families suffer. Parents (and women especially) frequently put career-advancement opportunities on hold to take lower paying — and multiple — jobs with more flexible hours in order to compensate for day care shortfalls. It’s not uncommon to see adults under the same roof passing like ships in the night on their way to shifts on the opposite ends of the day. Family time before and after school, in the evenings and on the weekends, and on holidays and summer breaks can turn into chronically messy, money-sapping, labor-intensive and astonishingly tense periods of dread.
Too many hours at work (or away from it) spent worrying about minutiae, logistics, traffic, strict pick-up times, pediatrician appointments, limited sick and personal days and extensive school breaks during the high season in a resort town all contribute to the kind of fatigue that requires a whole other set of resources to help manage.
Romantic partnerships easily take a backseat when a family unit is constantly springing leaks. Chronic exhaustion and stress over child care and finances can lead to diminished mental and physical health. Given what so many working-class kin are up against, it’s no wonder depression and substance-abuse issues place Aspen on the top of the kind of lists that the Aspen Chamber Resort Association doesn’t like publicized.
Without an adequate plan for your offspring, it’s hard to perform adequately, exceptionally, or even at all at a job that was taken for the purpose of easing concerns, not adding to them. Hopefully, Pitkin County and the city of Aspen will continue raising the alert level on this issue that arguably requires more of a human touch and less of a bureaucratic lens. Because for families who require child care, few or no options mean little hope for anything resembling work-life balance, or really much of a life at all.
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.
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