Parenting in vet med—Lack of childcare affects us all
As we finish out Women’s History Month, I’ve been asked to write about balancing childcare and family responsibilities with a career in veterinary medicine. As a woman, mother, and veterinarian, I have struggled to figure these things out for the past 16 years. (Spoiler alert: I’m still figuring it out!)
Approximately 63% of veterinarians and 77% of veterinary technicians identified as women in 2022, and you might say that childcare is clearly a women’s issue. But it’s not just a women’s issue—this is a problem for all parents, and really, for all of us, in veterinary medicine.
When parents working in vet med can’t find sustainable childcare options or when they burn out from the stress of trying to balance it all, it’s not just these individuals and their families who struggle, but all of us, because we miss out on the hard work and valuable gifts those people could have brought to our teams, our practices, and our profession.
Childcare availability: A national epidemic (on top of a pandemic)
It’s not unusual for daycares to have long waits for infant and toddler spots. Parents are told to get their children on waiting lists before they’re even born. There was even a case in Oregon where a family had their frozen embryos on a waiting list!
COVID-19 made it even more challenging. Before the pandemic, 52% of parents had children under the age of six staying at home with a parent or guardian at least part of the work week. That jumped to 75% of working parents in early 2020, and less than 10% of them used childcare centers, according to a report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Many childcare providers closed during the pandemic. Some experts estimate that half of all US residents live in a “childcare desert” where fewer than one third of the children in need of childcare have access to a spot at a licensed childcare facility. These deserts tend to be disproportionately located in lower-income and rural communities.
Childcare: “The second mortgage”
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that childcare costs should not exceed 10% of a family’s budget. They define childcare as “affordable “only if it doesn’t exceed 7% of their income. Veterinary support professionals earning an average of $19–20 per hour (and sometimes much less) may find that daycare costs take up 20 to 30% of their income (or more). When it doesn’t make financial sense to work just to pay for childcare, some parents will decide to stay home instead.
It can be particularly challenging for families of multiple children in need of care. I currently have two children in daycare, and it’s basically like a second mortgage. My partner and I make financial sacrifices elsewhere because we couldn’t both work without this childcare, but we look forward to getting a “raise” when our boys start going to school full time.
Schedules and the hidden stress of “pick-up” times
When they were in elementary school, my first two kids would go to extended day after school and camp over the summer. They needed to be picked up by 6:00 pm at the latest, the same time I was supposed to finish my shift at work.
I felt like I was in an impossible position: I often had to ask my employer if I could leave early, pray that my partner could get off work, or ask friends or paid babysitters to pick the kids up for me. I felt frequent pressure not to let anyone down, and I struggled to askothers for flexibility and support. From these experiences, I have learned the importance of having a village and not being afraid to ask for help.
The unpredictable inevitability of sick kids
Sickness is the childcare issue that has caused me the most stress and anxiety over the years, and it is inevitable. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that last October, more than 100,000 adults missed work to care for sick kids. Between all the different cold viruses, RSV, influenza, norovirus, strep throat, hand foot and mouth disease, and others, it can literally feel like your child just gets one illness after another. Some parents have the option to work from home when necessary to stay with a sick child, or they are allowed to use paid sick days for this purpose, but not all parents are offered these options.
Creative solutions: Flexible schedules, onsite childcare, PTO for kids’ sick days?
As a profession that is overwhelmingly female, there’s no doubt that family caregiving will continue to be a challenge into the future—and it could also lead to some interesting and creative solutions.
Working moms (and all working parents) need support in a variety of ways. Some of these could include subsidizing childcare costs, providing onsite childcare, corporate discount programs, or access to emergency backup childcare.
Veterinary support professionals need to be paid a living wage so that they can afford to stay in the profession, whether they need childcare or not.
Employers can also guarantee paid sick days and let parents use them to care for sick children. Telehealth tools and remote tools can be explored so that parents who stay home with sick kids may be able to write up records, approve prescriptions, communicate with clients, or even conduct telehealth appointments to help support the workplace and avoid missing work entirely.
Employers and teams can also create a family-friendly work culture that emphasizes understanding, empathy, and flexibility—and this mindset should be modeled from the highest levels of leadership down. This includes supporting fathers in their responsibility to share childcare tasks with their partners.
It used to be assumed that childcare problems were for women to figure out alone, but those days are no more. All parents are responsible for making childcare work for their families. And all parents need support from their communities and workplaces so they can thrive both personally and professionally.
Website: COVID-19 Impact on Childcare, US Chamber of Commerce Foundation
The Importance of Childcare to U.S. Families and Businesses (Final report)
Case Study: Childcare Shared Services Alliances (US Chamber of Commerce Foundation)
Pricey Childcare is Keeping Many Parents Out of the Workforce
When your Kid is Sick . . . Again
The Gender Pay Gap: Why More Women in Vet Med Does Not Equal Gender Equality
Emily Singler, VMD, is a 2001 graduate of Penn State University and a 2005 graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She has worked in shelter medicine, private practice, and as a relief veterinarian. She currently works as a veterinary writer and consultant and has her own blog, www.vetmedbaby.com.
Photo credit: © SolStock E+ via Getty Images Plus
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.