I’m a single mother with a PhD, and “I literally worked seven days a week” to make ends meet

By | December 22, 2023

Ask any American with young children what their top household expenses are, and you’ll hear the same answer almost every time: childcare. Every family finds its own way to deal with it. Some parents are pushed out of the labor market. Others work jobs they wouldn’t otherwise take or work multiple jobs to support their family’s needs.

To show you how real families are dealing with this child care challenge, HuffPost profiles parents across the country. If you would like to appear on an episode, email us at parents@huffpost.com.

Sherrie Bain and her son.

Sherrie Bain and her son.

Sherrie Bain and her son.

Name: Sherrie Bain

Age: 46

Age of the child: 6

Place: Monterey, California

Annual household income: $60,000 this year when she completed her dissertation. In previous years, she did more paid work and earned about $90,000 a year.

Childcare costs: None at the moment, as Bain watches her son at home after school while she works. However, she expects to spend $300 to $400 a month on after-school care by 2024.

Work appointments: Bain is a microbiologist with a Ph.D. in health sciences, who has worked primarily in academia. Most recently, she was a senior microbiologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“I’m currently doing some consulting work at a biotech company based in Florida. That has been my main source of income since I took time off this summer to write my dissertation.”

Childcare plan: “I am a single mother. My relationship with my son’s biological father ended when I was two months pregnant. He had limited parental and financial involvement. Primarily, I have been my son’s parent.”

Her son, who Bain described as “intellectually oriented,” skipped first grade and is now in second grade.

“This semester is really the first time I haven’t paid for his education, having had him at a private school so far. When he was a baby, I was lucky enough to have childcare from my relatives. So I had them rotate in and out for the first six months, which was very helpful. But after that, daycare tuition was about $500 a week. That was certainly more than half of my income at the time, but you have to consider what is the best environment for your child and try to find what is most suitable, even if that is sometimes outside your budget. That’s the way I looked at it to say, “I might just have to spread out a few bills as best I can.” [Child care has] has always been a large, significant part of my expenses.”

Because Bain currently works from home, she has not used after-school care.

“But realistically it’s probably something I’ll have to take advantage of from the new year onwards. That’s probably about $300 or $400 a month. And then of course I have to take into account things like vacation time from school [that] in. I’ve been very lucky. I have many siblings and nieces who have been more than happy to trade in during his vacation times in the past. [But] that may not always be possible in the future. What am I going to do when he has two weeks of vacation and I work full time again? That will be something I have to take into account in my budget. In the summer he spends about four weeks with his biological father, who lives in Maine.

“When I first got it, I switched from working in a university environment because I sometimes had to teach evening classes. So I started teaching high school, just to have a little more flexibility in terms of my vacations and so on. But it was still a lot of things to navigate with his vacation times that may or may not have coincided with my vacation times, because even at that young age, sometimes the daycares close for two weeks at some point and they have to give their employees time off.”

Bain pulled her son from several daycare centers due to various concerns before finding one where she felt comfortable keeping him. For example, in one center she was called every Friday afternoon to pick up her son because he was sick, but when she arrived she found him perfectly healthy. Ultimately, she realized that the daycare was understaffed and she rotated the children they had on site to accommodate the ratio of children to caregivers.

‘On the second or third day it was taken [to one center], he started to get really worried when we were going to pull up to the building. And at first I thought, he’s just getting used to the place, but he’s never been a kid who would cry or be angry if I left him at school. My motherly instinct told me that something was going on in the daycare. Then the next day I got a call that a child had bitten him on the cheek. He had a huge bite wound on his cheek. When I got to that particular spot the next day (keep in mind he is two and a half years old) he started shaking in his car seat and I just called my boss and said, “I’m not coming.” in today.’ I ended up having to cut back my hours at work until I could enroll him in his third school, which turned out to be great.”

He was there until Bain moved for a better-paying job, and then she found a pre-K that cost $2,800 a month. “I literally worked seven days a week. I took extra assignments at school, I would do aromatherapy [sales], anything I could find to supplement my primary income. Anything where I could work online, I would do it so I could have an income but not have to worry about paying for extra childcare. … It was a beautiful environment, and I don’t regret the financial sacrifice – but it was a financial sacrifice.”

During the pandemic, when Bain was working from home, “I ended up just having a little workstation at my dining room table for him so I could work with my students online on my computer. My wall suffered a lot because sometimes I would be in the middle of teaching and I would see him writing on the wall. But there are only so many things you can control at once, and the most important thing for me was that I could be there for him and do something that also generated income. So if the walls were painted with chalk for a while, that was fine.”

What would help their family: “I really wish the private sector would invest in providing subsidized care for their employees. That would have helped significantly – knowing it would be safe and comfortable, but it wasn’t 100% cost-wise for me. I wish more employers would do that, and also consider potentially partnering with childcare agencies or organizations so that employees can have their child in an environment that is not only safe and affordable, but also close to where you work, so you may not have to worry about rushing to pick up your child. That’s also something I’ve had to take into account when it comes to where I’ve placed it in the past. I’ve had an hour and 15 minute commute, so I had to make sure I was somewhere close to work. But often it would also mean that it was more expensive somewhere.”

Employers could also help working parents by being more flexible, Bain said.

“As a microbiologist, I had to work a lot in a laboratory. But there are times when I write a report or something like that, [and] I don’t necessarily have to be in a laboratory. Having the flexibility to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to designate this day, one day a week, to just work from home’ – especially during the summers – that would be really helpful.”

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