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Money Talks: The couple navigating child care in the pandemic

Evan and Sarah are attempting to balance work, child care, and public health concerns as they stare down a long summer.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Evan is a 33-year-old blogger and parenting writer at Dad Fixes Everything. His wife, Sarah, is 31 and is the director of customer strategy and success at a software company. They live in Atlanta, and their annual household income is around $200,000.

Evan and Sarah have a 5-year-old daughter and a new baby due in August. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, their daughter went to day care and spent some afternoons with her grandparents. Now Evan and Sarah are trying to balance work, child care, and public health concerns as they navigate an unpredictable summer. As coronavirus cases rise in Georgia, Evan and Sarah have to decide whether they should still send their daughter to day camp next week — and whether they’re going to let her attend kindergarten when schools reopen this fall.

Sarah: Georgia is great because it has a state-funded pre-K program, so [prior to the pandemic] our daughter was in pre-K day care from 8 am to 2:15 pm every day. Then we did a combination of after-school activities, Evan doing some afternoon care because his job is flexible, and the grandmas each taking one afternoon.

Evan: The state pre-K was free but held at the same private day care we used when our daughter was younger. We paid about $200 per month for her meals, snacks, and other costs there while in pre-K.

Sarah: Then her school suddenly closed — it was that Friday [March 13] when everything started happening — and at that point, we went from school plus grandparents and flexible things to just the two of us working from home and taking care of her full time.

Evan: It was going to be an unusual summer for us anyway, because our daughter was transitioning out of day care. We had signed her up for some day camps and some week-long camps, hoping to get a little bit of coverage while we were both trying to work over the summer, and the coronavirus lockdown threw a lot of that into uncertainty.

Sarah: Georgia’s schools get out really early, so most of the summer camps started at the end of May. Some of the ones that we had signed her up for didn’t go through, like this art camp she was going to be in. She did attend one week-long camp back in the beginning of June; it was a swim camp where they had swim lessons twice a day. She wasn’t swimming yet, so we were like “Do we weigh water safety versus exposure to the virus?” We did end up sending her, and they followed all of the state regulations. Frequent cleaning, no sharing food —

Evan: Temperature checks at the door, all of that kind of stuff.

Sarah: That went really well, so that gave us a little more confidence. Then, of course, cases started rising, so we’re starting to get a little more uneasy. Next week she is supposed to attend her second camp, and we are currently still thinking — pending what happens over the next week in the state, with some of the cases — we’re still planning on sending her, right now.

Evan: We’re always reevaluating, depending on what’s happening, and the camps are doing that too. They won’t really say anything until a couple weeks before things are scheduled to start, and then they’ll make the best call they can. You’re never really quite sure what’s going to happen.

Sarah: We’re constantly weighing the risks of exposure and all of that — and I’m pregnant, so that’s a whole other complexity in there. But you can tell, when our daughter hasn’t done something for a while, you can see her mood changing. Leading up to the swim camp, we had a pretty rough week. Then we went to swim camp, and then we had a week where we went to the beach and rented a condo and were isolated there, and it was a change of pace. The two weeks after that were great, and now you can see her starting to get really bored of us again.

Evan: Even though the camps are expensive and they make us a little nervous, it’s nice to see our daughter get excited about something. Without camps, we’d be stuck continuing to “trade off” parenting duty throughout the day so each of us could work. It’s tough because Sarah has easily 40-plus hours of work to get done each week and only a handful of productive hours each day to do it. I run my own business and have a lot of flexibility, but it’s been a real struggle to continue growing it without much time to spend.

Sarah: Most of the camps she’s in are about $250 to $350 a week, depending on the camp. They were all prepaid, but anything that we paid could be put toward a camp next year [if we decided not to attend]. One swim camp would have let you put the money toward swimming lessons, and the other one said you could put it toward next year’s tuition.

Evan: We initially signed up for over $1,000 in summer camp costs. These are camps where we drop her off and we’re trusting she’s in the care of the camp for the whole day, and then we get to go home and try to focus on our work for a few hours.

Sarah: Actually, because of Covid, the policies have been stricter. We can’t even walk her in or anything. Someone comes and gets her from our car, does the temperature check, and takes her in.

Evan: Pulling up the first day, dropping her off with people we’d never met, not going in and getting her settled — that’s the way they’re doing it now. I just worry that we’re surging ahead with opening everything up, regardless of whether it’s safe. We’re doing the temperature checks and the hand sanitizing, but I worry that it’s not enough.

Sarah: Kids and masks, how much can they really enforce kids wearing them? I feel like we have to knowingly take the risk without counting on that protection.

Evan: Our daughter actually kind of likes her mask. She thinks it’s exciting. We got her a special one with a unicorn on it, and she wants to wear it. She’s not dreading that she has to put it on every day.

Sarah: That’s definitely true.

Evan: [Visiting the grandparents]… well, it’s complicated.

Sarah: That’s the understatement of the century.

Evan: My mom, it’s safe to say, is in the compromised population. She has some health problems, and we don’t really want to expose her. She’s really locked down, so I’m really cautious to bring anything her way. Sarah’s mom works in a health care setting and has been working with Covid patients, so we’re worried about being exposed to what she might be bringing home. We’ve had a lot of conversations about the level of risk that we’re comfortable with, so we can see our family.

Sarah: During the first 10 weeks, we were like, “They can come to the driveway and have a socially distanced chat, and that’s it.” Then, like a lot of other people, we’ve gotten worn down somewhat — so we started to reintroduce seeing them. With my mom, she works two nights a week and they’re back to back, so we’ll see her after she’s had a few days of not being at work. She’s a hospice nurse, and they have had a handful of Covid patients. With Evan’s mom, she’s been fine with seeing our daughter right now, but when our daughter goes back to school, we’re going to worry about that as well.

Evan: We live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of kids, and the kids run around outside all day together, climb trees, do whatever they want to do without supervision. Sarah and I are not really comfortable with our daughter being outside with other kids, unsupervised and sharing germs, but we go back and forth sometimes. She misses her friends, and she looks out the window and sees them playing — we’ve had some disagreements about it, and we’ve had to weigh the pros and cons a lot. The emotional health of our child versus keeping her safe.

Sarah: I think, like with seeing my mom at first, we were on opposite sides of it, but then we talked it through and got to a good conclusion together.

Evan: Here’s what we’re in the middle of right now. Our school district decided to punt the decision to parents: “We’re going to start on time. You can keep your kids at home for the semester, or you can send them.”

Sarah: Georgia schools start a little earlier than the rest of the country, so August 3 is her first day, if we decide to send her. Two weeks before my due date.

Evan: We have to decide within the next week, honestly, whether we’d like to send her to school and expose ourselves to whatever that may bring, before we’re about to go into delivery, or whether we want to keep her home for the semester and deal with a new baby at home while doing virtual learning. We’re really struggling with this decision at this point.

Sarah: I have 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, so I’ll be off until the middle of November. Evan works for himself, so he has flexibility — but he still has to run his business. Our daughter hasn’t had any virtual learning yet, so that’s another thing.

Evan: I would say she doesn’t love video chat. It’s hard for her to sit down and watch a screen and have a normal, structured conversation. When we visit the grandparents on video, she runs around the house and puts on the silly filters and shows them everything in the house.

Sarah: The only time she has a tablet is if we’re going on a long car ride or plane ride. She usually watches something then. She hasn’t done a lot of computer games or online activities or anything like that, so I don’t know how that would go.

Evan: I don’t know where the tipping point is. It feels like the cases are going to go up, but they aren’t going to explode to the point where it will be obvious that we shouldn’t send her.

Sarah: I don’t know — they are going up quite a bit!

Evan: It doesn’t feel like they’re going to go down and we’re going to be able to say, “Everything’s safe now.”

Sarah: She’s a super-bright little girl and we really want her to be in a school setting, so I feel like our comfort level with sending her to school will happen a lot sooner, just because of the pros of it, versus some of the other things, like large gatherings or anything like that. I don’t know when I would feel comfortable with a large group gathering. Probably a long time from now.

If you have a compelling story about how money comes into play in one of your relationships — whether with a partner, a friend, a sibling, a coworker — we want to hear about it! Email and with a little about yourself.

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