The Maternal Wall

You Need a Backup Childcare Plan: Here’s How to Make One

Whether it's a global pandemic or regular old scheduling mishaps, we've got ideas.

Finding reliable childcare solutions is one of the toughest hurdles parents face in the best of times — and the situation becomes vastly more complicated when you throw in a natural disaster or otherwise society-disrupting event. When a single parent or both parents in a partnered relationship work full time, an unexpected breakdown in childcare becomes even harder to manage. That’s why creating a backup childcare plan is crucial. Having backup childcare keeps your kids secure — and your career intact.

And it must be said: It’s no secret that motherhood bias is still very much a reality for working mothers, and having reliable childcare helps break down unfair stereotypes about working moms. And knowing your kids are in a safe place gives you peace of mind to focus on work. It shouldn’t fall to working parents to fix this systemic issue, but it helps to have some tools in our back pocket.

What is backup childcare? 

Backup childcare is simply a substitute childcare strategy. The reasons for needing a backup plan are endless — because life happens. Maybe you’re between childcare arrangements. Maybe you and your [partner, coworker, boss] got your wires crossed about important plans. Or maybe your regular caregiver is temporarily unavailable. Maybe your child’s school is closed. Or your kiddo has a fever. Or you have a fever. Or there’s a global pandemic. Despite the best-laid plans, childcare arrangements regularly fall through.

In fact, in a 2017 study by Child Care Aware of America, researchers found that nearly half of working parents miss an average of four days of work at least once every six months because of child care breakdowns. 

Why is backup childcare useful?

First of all, it’s difficult enough creating one solid childcare plan to keep your kids secure, let alone preparing for the unexpected. So think of backup childcare as a type of insurance, and arrange for it just in case. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, businesses lose $3 billion annually due to employee absenteeism as a result of childcare failures.

Advance preparation will fill in the gaps when issues arise with your regular scheduled childcare. Furthermore, being ready for the unexpected will provide peace of mind and it’s hard to put a premium on that.

What are some alternatives for regularly-scheduled childcare?

Even the most fastidiously-organized systems sometimes fail. These nine ideas for backup childcare can help keep your kids secure and your career intact.

1. Do the juggling act with your partner, if you have one

When both parents in a partnered relationship work full time, simply managing regularly-scheduled daily childcare pickups and drop-offs can feel like a Herculean task. Consequently, when something goes haywire with childcare, it can feel downright impossible to manage. Start by communicating with your partner. Make a schedule for as far out as you can, so you can identify any high-risk time periods. Therapists often advise partnered parents to make a list of every single household chore and responsibility they can think of — including childcare — so they can get a realistic view of who’s doing what. Decide together who has more professional flexibility to take the day off (if either of you are lucky enough to have flexibility in your work schedule) or miss a couple of hours of work — and make a plan for how to ensure that they make up the hours, to keep things equitable.

Like what you’re reading? Join us in The Riveter (beta) where we’re having conversations like this one LIVE ?

2. Use your village! 

It can be hard to ask for help, especially at the last minute. But no one can help you if they don’t know you’re in need. Consider asking friends, neighbors and nearby family in advance if they can be on “retainer” for you; then, when the need arises, the request won’t be a complete surprise. Remember that many people are happy to help, and you can always offer to return the favor.

Another option: Join neighborhood groups online and make some IRL connections in your immediate community to see if there might be other parents in the same boat. During a recent, unexpected weeks-long snow event in Seattle, some parents reported that their neighbors each took one day of PTO to babysit all the kids in their friend groups. Online options to explore: Facebook groups, local alumnae networks, Nextdoor, and right here in The Riveter (beta).

3. Hop on a friend’s nanny share 

If your normal childcare routine falls apart, ask a friend with a nanny share if your child can tag along. Sometimes adding another kid to the mix won’t be a problem at all, especially if you’re prepared to offer payment or a generous tip. Alternately, nannies often know other reliable caregivers who might be available on short notice. Ask for recommendations as to who could take your child for the day, or even for a few hours.

4. Try a drop-in daycare center

A 2015 Pew Social Trend report notes that 62 percent of American parents say they have a difficult time finding and affording high-quality child care. No wonder drop-in daycare centers are surging in popularity — it’s not only because of the inevitable breakdown of regularly-planned childcare situations, but because many parents have nontraditional work schedules that throw them unexpected hurdles.

Often, drop-in daycare centers are open for longer weekday hours and weekends. Most centers provide drop-in rates for the day. Others offer a monthly punch pass, and even provide a sibling discount. 

5. Find caregivers online

It may seem daunting to hire a stranger off the internet to watch your children. However, online agencies like Care.comSittercity and UrbanSitter (to name a few) are changing the game. They may not be the cheapest option, but when you need backup childcare in a hurry, and if you have the cash reserves on hand, online resources can save the day. These sites thoroughly vet and background-check all caregivers. Let the internet help with arrangements to keep your kids safe and your employer happy.

6. Make it a spontaneous “Take Your Child to Work Day”

Do you have a job where bringing your child to the office for a few hours won’t be too disruptive? Find out now whether your employer would be ok with it — don’t wait until the fateful day arrives — and if they are, bring your kiddo with you. Let your child doodle on company notepads or take a nap under your desk. If that’s what it takes to finish the day’s work, then bravo to you for the ultimate in multitasking. 

On the other hand, if bringing your child to work isn’t an option, maybe leaving work is. Try going somewhere that offers drop-in childcare, like your gym or nearby YMCA. Instead of working out, find a quiet corner, set up your laptop and maximize the kid-free time. 

Alternatively, try other places that offer safe play areas for children. Local community centers may have open hours for free play. Libraries offer story time. Some fast food restaurants and malls even have indoor playgrounds or bounce spots. Even if it’s just an hour or two, it’s still valuable work time. See what you can squeeze in, rather than thinking of the day as a total wash.  

7. Investigate your company policy

A 2016 national study of employers by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 7 percent of employers offer on-site or near-site child care. Find out if your company is one of that (decidedly small) percentage. If your employer doesn’t offer on-site childcare, benefits may include backup childcare. Bright Horizons is a well-known organization that partners with employers. They provide on- or near-site facilities and backup care from credentialed in-home care agencies and trained caregivers. 

Check with your company’s human resources office to see what, if any, options they offer. And if your employer is lacking in the childcare department, start the conversation to challenge the office culture.  

8. Fight to change corporate culture

All working parents need backup childcare. And equally important to figuring out backup childcare is proactively working with employers to create an office culture of acceptance. Options like more flexible schedules and working remotely mean less scrambling for parents to find care in a pinch.

In her book “Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest For Children,” the economist and researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett states that roughly one-third of what she calls “high potential,” (well educated, highly qualified, high achieving) American women drop out of the workforce every year. And according to a recent study by the American Management Association, 74 percent of women leaving their jobs say the primary reason why is the lack of decent childcare. Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, & Play When No One Has the Time,” writes in Slate that corporations must change their policies to offer more childcare solutions — and help pay for their skyrocketing costs — rather than penalizing working parents for taking time off to manage them.  

Working parents, especially working mothers, are often judged when out of the office because of the assumption they are tending to family matters rather than doing work. Addressing this motherhood bias head-on and encouraging employers to implement practices that support working parents creates an office culture of understanding. Having flexibility alleviates much of the stress of hunting for backup childcare.

What are you waiting for? Create a backup childcare plan today

Even with a stellar childcare plan in place, unforeseen circumstances can arise. Knowing you have reliable backup options will keep you grounded. You’ll know right away who to call for coverage when the need arises. 

Whether it’s knowing you can always knock on the neighbor’s door or signing up in advance with a local drop-in daycare center in case of emergency, creating a list of potential caregivers you can trust will put your mind at ease — and keep your career on track.

Hannah Fairbanks is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. When she’s not writing, you might find her reading, packing bento box lunches for her two young daughters, and adventuring around the Bay Area. 

Related Stories