How to Plan Child Care in Uncertain Times
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Executive Summary

When Covid-19 hit, the foundation of every working family’s careful balance was pulled out from under them —namely, school and child care. Now families are navigating suboptimal options for schooling, and others are navigating tricky issues, like understanding the risks of sending a child back to day care, whether they can afford the cost of a tutor, nanny, or part-time sitter, whether this is the opportunity to move closer to family for help, or whether to cut back at work to help weather the uncertainty for the family. The author recommends a three-step approach to help working parents build plans that they can adapt for a range of situations: First, list your priorities and pick three you want to protect most. Then, make multiple plans for each priority — a Plan A, B, and C. Finally, put the plans in action, with ample buffer.

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Lisa and Geoff are a dual career couple, living in Chicago, IL with their six- and eight-year-old sons. Until last March, managing two careers and two kids was challenging — especially without family in town — but they had figured out a routine that worked for them. The boys were in kindergarten and second grade at a neighborhood school they loved that also had a great after-school program. Work was demanding and engaging but manageable. Like most families today, it wasn’t easy, but it worked.

Then Covid hit and the foundation of every working family’s careful balance was pulled out from under them — namely, school and child care. While Lisa and Geoff managed to cobble things together for the rest of the school year and through the summer, they held out hope that the fall would bring a return to some semblance of structure and certainty. That hope was shattered when, like many school districts across the country, their school announced options for 100% remote learning or a limited hybrid model of two days in school and three days remote.

Further Reading

Now Lisa and Geoff, like millions of other working parents, are left wondering how they’re going to manage. Some are navigating suboptimal options for schooling — trying to decide whether structure, socialization, and support of an in-person classroom outweighs the health risks and extra complexity of managing remote learning at home (if given the option at all). Others are weighing different questions: understanding the risks of sending a child back to day care; whether they can afford the cost of a tutor, nanny, or part-time sitter; whether this is the opportunity to move closer to family for help; or whether one partner needs to cut back at work to help weather the uncertainty for the family.

As the founder and CEO of a company that builds software to help working parents manage the weekly complexities of running a family, I’ve seen variations of these dilemmas play out in thousands of households. There are different priorities and situations for each, but the worry, anxiety, and exhaustion are all the same. What we’ve found is that there are two things at play:

  1. Dealing with constant uncertainty: On top of existing work and home challenges, parents are managing the cognitive load and exhaustion of making — and adjusting — plans that can be quickly rendered obsolete.
  2. Lack of child care makes everything shaky: For most families, schools form a critical part of daily child care. Without in-person school, parents are feeling uncertainty in all of the other parts of their lives — from their ability to work to their mental health. And with day cares limiting class size and others not reopening, this stress extends to most parents with kids under 12.

Given this, we’ve found it’s important to help parents build plans that work for their specific needs but that can also be adapted for a range of situations. Here are three steps for how you can do the same.

Start with your priorities.

Parents are already master prioritizers, but in times of greater uncertainty, we need to protect the most important things — no matter what. Make a list of all possible priorities in your family’s life. (To make it feel less daunting, focus on just the next quarter.) Then, pick the three that you want and need to protect most. This doesn’t mean that the others aren’t important, but just that anytime the top three are in jeopardy, the rest will have to take a backseat.

For instance, a single parent living close to high-risk grandparents may prioritize their extended family’s health, their job, and their family’s social and emotional health. A dual-working couple with elementary-aged kids may prioritize their relationship, consistent logistics, and both jobs. And a single-income family with a high-risk child may put education, physical health, the parent’s job first. Even though each of these families have core child care needs, what their priorities are will guide the options they’ll explore. A starter list of priorities for your consideration include:

  • Extended family
  • Relationships with partner + kids
  • Education and extra learning
  • Physical health
  • Social/emotional + mental health
  • Socializing with friends
  • Careers
  • Financial health

Identify options for each priority. 

Now that you have your top family priorities, consider how you’ll best be able to maximize each as using three sets of options: Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Plan A can be what is ideal, assuming all is going as planned. Plan B is your classic backup for when A falls through for the most obvious reasons, like a sick caregiver, an unexpected injury, a scheduling conflict, and so on. Finally, Plan C is your safety net, a potentially more drastic option if the first two stop being effective.

To create these plans, consider how options on the table might vary depending on your priorities. For instance, if extended family is a priority, like it was in the single parent example above, your options may range from including grandparents within your bubble, choosing remote learning, or taking the opportunity to move to be closer to family. Protecting your career may mean reducing your child care uncertainty; options can range from hiring a nanny to teaming up with two to three other families in a similar position and taking turns handling last-minute hiccups. For education, you might decide to dedicate part of your budget for a private tutor that can supplement school curriculum, or you might keep learning opportunities at the forefront all week through real-world adventures and explorations. Consider your priorities and outline plans that work within them — what you want to do, a backup, and a third-tier option.

Put plans in action, with ample buffer.

With the plans and options identified, it’s time to enlist the help of others and create actionable weekly plans. Communicate the high-level points of your plan with people in your life — from your nanny or sitter to helpful neighbors and fellow parents in the community that you might be collaborating with during Covid.

With high-level plans in place, it’s time to execute efficiently. We’ve found that the greater the uncertainty, the greater the gains in proactive planning vs. last-minute reacting. Families we work with find that dedicating just 10 minutes on Sunday evening to plan the week ahead results in fewer missed things, an ability to anticipate tricky spots, and a general feeling of family cohesion and collaboration. We also found that this approach saves roughly 20 minutes each day that is otherwise spent in researching, debating, and deciding — a number that easily adds up to a critical 10 hours a month.

To get started, schedule a standing weekly meeting with your partner (Sunday evening after the kids are in bed is a popular time). Then, use this guide to walk through the six main areas:

  1. Schedule review: Identify your meetings and high-priority items that you need dedicated time for and must work around.
  2. Child care shifts: Decide who handles pickup and drop-offs for school and day care, or covers remote learning and child care shifts throughout the week.
  3. Meal plan: Jot down a quick list of what lunches and dinners — nothing fancy — to save valuable time and energy during the week.
  4. Key reminders: Talk through anything remaining that you need to remember.
  5. Priority household to-dos: Pick no more than five chores to divvy up and add them to the schedule.
  6. Backup planning: Talk about the trickiest parts of the week and how Plan B and Plan C will kick in if Plan A fails.

Despite the best-laid plans, we know each day can and will bring unexpected challenges. The goal, then, is not planned perfection, but something solid that you and your partner feel good about.

Families have never been under greater pressure to manage a tremendous amount of uncertainty, while needing to make critical decisions that involve our health, learning and relationships. In this marathon, we need all the help we can get in lessening the uncertainty and creating plans that work for our specific needs, whether that’s in the time of a worldwide pandemic or simply another week as working parents.

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