Darlene asks:My husband recently announced that he wants a divorce. We have three children, and I've been a stay-at-home mom since my oldest child was born. Now I have to return to work, which is a big change for us. Plus, I have to figure out how to find childcare quickly, and I don't even know where to begin! What are my options? Also, since we share joint legal custody, do we have to agree about the childcare we want for our kids?
First, I want you to know that you're not alone. Many women have found themselves in this exact situation - returning to work not because of their own of choice, but as a consequence of someone else's decision. As you mentioned, it is a big transition, and it comes on top of the changes you're already going through as a family. The good news is there are many childcare options available, including:
- Childcare centers - With this option, you won't have to worry about your provider taking sick days, since childcare centers have their own substitutes.
- Private childcare - Private turn their own homes into childcare centers. Just be sure that they adhere to your state's childcare licensing requirements.
- Childcare in your home - You get to choose the provider and she cares only for your children. One benefit is that she might also be able to do some light housework and cooking for you while she's there.
- Childcare provided by a friend or relative - This benefit to this arrangement is that your children would already know the provider. Some families even arrange their work schedules so the non-custodial parent can provide all or some of the childcare.
- Childcare co-ops - Co-ops are groups of parents who agree to provide care for one another's children.
- Nanny/au-pier - Don't rule out the idea of using a live-in or live-out nanny just because of the cost. See if you can p=Pair up with another single parent family and share one nanny's services.
- Extended day preschool or kindergarten - This option helps some families reduce the overall cost of childcare.
- Employer-sponsored childcare centers – See if your employer – or your ex's – offers any type of employer-sponsored childcare.
- Drop-in centers - These establishments are convenient when you need last-minute care. Just be sure to check them out thoroughly and let your children visit for an afternoon before you really need to use the service.
Prioritize Your Needs and Wants
Before you decide which type of childcare is best for you, consider what you want your children to get out of the experience. For example, are you most concerned about safety, learning opportunities, convenience, cost? Make a list of your priorities and rank them before making a decision.
Then, once you have an idea of what you're looking for, start scoping out childcare providers in your area. To do this, ask your friends for referrals, search online, and use the Yellow Pages. You can also contact your state's childcare referral service for assistance.
Once you've narrowed down your list to 3-5 places, you can research them online, call to ask logistical questions, and schedule an in-depth interview - where you can take a tour of the facility and interview the childcare provider.
Licensed vs. Non-Licensed Childcare
Most of the time, when a provider is caring for more than one child, he or she must be licensed with the state. This means that the provider has fulfilled the minimum requirements defined by the state for safety, health, and staff training. It doesn't necessarily mean that the provider is better at caring for children, or that the facility is safer – it just means that the state has inspected it at least once in the last 12 months and found that it meets the predetermined qualifications for licensing.
Some providers are exempt from licensing, though, such as nannies and relatives who are caring for children in their own family. Just be careful not to use a childcare provider who should be licensed and is not. If the state find out, the facility will be shut down immediately, leaving you in the lurch with no childcare.
Involving Your Ex
Given that you share legal custody, it would be best to make the decision about childcare together. Plus, you'll both be responsible for picking up and dropping off the kids – at least some of the time. In addition, if the right of first refusal is written in to your child custody agreement or parenting plan, you'll need to defer to your ex before hiring someone else to care for your children. In other words, if you need a babysitter for the night, you'll need to ask if your ex is available before hiring a third party to care for your children.