- As a third pandemic summer approaches, many working parents are stressed about childcare.
- The average cost of day camp is $178 per day, and some camps are dealing with staffing shortages.
- Experts say employers need to provide parents with resources, accommodations, and flexibility.
Ah, summer. That languorous season of impromptu cookouts, carefree patio happy hours, and sun-drenched beach vacations. But for many of the 43 million working parents in this country, including me, summer is also two months of childcare headaches.
With school out for the year, my husband and I have managed to piece together a patchwork of day camps, town rec programs, and activities with benevolent relatives to ensure coverage for our tween daughters. It’s horribly expensive — the cost of day camp has doubled in the US this year.
It’s also inconvenient: We’re already wondering how we’ll manage multiple drop-offs and pickups at different times and in different locations — let alone what we’ll do those last three weeks of summer when camps are finished — and still keep our heads above water at work.
Childcare is costly, hard to find, and a logistical hassle at the best of times. But today, as a third pandemic summer approaches and at a time when parental burnout has reached epidemic proportions, childcare stress has hit a new level. Roughly half of working parents say they have reached their breaking point as the pandemic continues, and childcare challenges are the prominent stressor.
“Even before the pandemic, summer was definitely a challenge for working parents,” Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, a director at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, said. “This summer, parents have been in pandemic-survival mode for two years. They’re already feeling drained, so it’s just that much harder.”
Experts say that employers need to not only recognize the constraints that working parents face this summer, but also provide them with resources, accommodations, and flexibility. “If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s how complicated people’s lives are,” Sabatini Fraone said. “Hopefully, one of the long-term effects is a little more empathy for working parents.”
What the summertime-childcare crunch feels like
It’s difficult to describe what the summertime-childcare crunch feels like for working parents in terms that corporate America understands.
Daisy Dowling, an executive consultant and author of the childcare book, “Workparent,” puts it this way: “Imagine that your head of HR, CFO, and head of technology all quit on the same day. Poof! That’s what it feels like when your kids get out of school for the summer.”
School provides many essential functions, and once it goes away, there’s a huge gap to fill, Dowling said. “It’s not just a matter of making sure kids are safe and cared for, it’s also, Are they engaged? Are they interacting with other kids? And are they learning something?”
The pandemic economy has exacerbated the standard childcare problems of cost, access, and availability. The average cost of day camp has swelled to $178 per day in 2022, compared to $76 last year, according to the American Camp Association. Meanwhile, many camps around the country have scaled back their programming or announced closures due to staffing shortages.
“Everything is heightened this summer,” Dana Sumpter, a professor at Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School whose research focuses on the intersection of work and family, said.
With the labor shortage and inflation, parents have fewer options than in the past. “And even when you do have the right plans in place, things can quickly fall apart. Camp might shut down due to staff sicknesses or your child could be exposed to COVID and need to stay home,” Sumpter said.
But it’s not just logistics and finances that have amplified this summer’s stress, she said. There’s a heavy emotional layer, too. Amid widespread concern about kids’ mental health and guilt over missed milestones and lost experiences that kids will never get back, the “trauma of the past two years has caught up with parents.”
“We’re worried about the well-being of our children and on top of that feel a sense of guilt and sadness about what our kids have missed during their childhoods,” Sumpter said.
The upshot, she said, “is that people desperately need employer and manager support.”
How employers and managers can help
Experts say there are a few practical ways organizations can help parents this summer.
Employers could provide backup childcare and subsidized summer-camp programs. They could partner with virtual-class suppliers, like Varsity Tutors and Sitter Stream, which offer programming designed for school-aged kids. Employers could also allow employees to work flexible schedules, or work remotely if their jobs allow it.
Compassion is also key and front-line managers might need to make adjustments, said Dowling. Monday-morning meetings may work in the rhythm of the school year, for instance, but when summer arrives, Mondays are manic.
Friday afternoons are also often tricky. Many camps dismiss early that day, and caregivers are eager for a head start to the weekend, which can put working parents in a bind.
Dowling’s advice to managers: “Don’t create undue stress by sticking to weekly routines that aren’t workable in the summer.”
Working parents, for their part, ought to be as transparent as possible about their childcare situations, said Liz Gulliver, the founder of Kunik, which helps employers with corporate-culture development while especially focusing on work-life issues.
“You would think that two years into a pandemic when childcare has been such a constant source of strain, this would be a given,” she said. “But a lot of parents have become increasingly hesitant to talk about personal issues, like childcare, for fear of repercussions.”
Nearly a third of working parents don’t feel comfortable talking to their boss about childcare issues, according to a survey from Betterup, a coaching platform.
Gulliver urges parents to push through their discomfort. “You need to be proactive, not reactive, about your needs and what they might mean for your team and your manager,” she said. “You don’t want to be gasping for air at the end.”
Parents should also try to keep these challenges in perspective. Yes, the camp drop-off shuffle is stressful and can be a pain, but it’s only for a couple of months a year. Work is work; but summer is fun, magical, and fleeting — kind of like childhood itself. I plan to bear that in mind.