by Karina Gafford
Childcare is a major factor that military families must consider when selecting a neighborhood. In pricey areas such as Arlington, Virginia, where daycare can cost close to $2,000 per month per child, an amount that far exceeds the budget of most military families. Given these high costs, many spouses who would otherwise prefer to work make the prudent option to stay at home with their children; however, if you do find yourself near one of the high cost of living duty stations, other options for childcare do exist.
Some of the more popular options for childcare for military families include the Child Development Center (CDC) and daycare centers located near the military installation, your home, or your place of work. However, many other options for childcare exist. While some, such as a live-in nanny, do not typically meet the budgetary constraints of a military family, there are many other affordable options. These more affordable options include in home daycare centers at the caregiver’s home, in home daycare in your home, or a live in au pair, which is a childcare option that remains popular in the rest of the western hemisphere, though less common as an option in the US. While more affordable than most in town daycare centers or live-in nannies, each of these options presents its own set of challenges. Hopefully, the following information will better prepare you to make the best childcare decision for your family at your next duty station.
In Home Daycare Centers at the Caregiver’s Home
The first option, daycare in the home of a caregiver, presents the most traditional option for daycare that best reflects the kind of care that a child would receive from staying in the home of an extended family member during the day. Most military families do not have the option of leaving children with grandparents, aunts, or uncles during the day, as their family may live several states away, if not completely across the country. Typically, this option is the least expensive daycare option.
Daycare in the home of a caregiver presents a more family style environment than that of a corporate daycare. For one example, this kind of daycare is more home-like and less institutional in nature, as the caregiver is most likely a mom herself. Additionally, the home-like experience is further emphasized by the fact that in home daycare centers generally cannot offer age segregated groups, so this means children are exposed to a larger mix of ages akin to what occurs in the typical dynamics of a family composition. This opportunity for interaction with children of multiple age groups helps improve a child’s socialization skills with those of ages other than its own. Further, in home daycare often offers smaller groups, providing greater opportunities for individualized attention for your child. Having the opportunity to garner more personal attention at a young age greatly increases a child’s chance at developing a stronger capacity for speech and advanced motor skills, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This same professional institution, therefore, encourages a low child to staff ratio, encouraging that, "children younger than 12 months should be 3 to 1 no matter what kind of childcare you have."
Unfortunately, in home daycares do not come without significant disadvantages. It is imperative, first of all, to ensure that the caregiver’s philosophy on child rearing techniques mirrors that of your own. Otherwise, potential disagreements in child rearing may cause undue stress both in your home and in your child, as he struggles to separate the boundaries that exist in daycare from those in his own home. Furthermore, in many cases, parents must determine whether a caregiver’s home meets sufficient health and safety requirements, as licensing is not a requirement in all states or counties. The parent must do due diligence in determining if the caregiver’s home meets the needs of their family by taking steps to inquire of references from other parents as well as any additional online research regarding the home and caregiver. If possible, requesting a copy of a recent background screening may help alleviate any further concerns for parents. Finally, one big disadvantage in daycare through an in home caregiver revolves around the less predictable schedule of a single caregiver; if the caregiver gets sick or goes on vacation, another caregiver may not be available to care for your child. Hopefully, the caregiver has prepared for this contingency, but to ward off such surprises, it is incumbent upon families considering in home daycares to inquire about back-up plans for daycare in such events.
Daycare in Your Home!
The second option, daycare in your own home, offers greater flexibility for your schedule than daycare in a caregiver’s home, though it too has its own set of disadvantages. Typically, daycare in your own home is more expensive than at the home of a caregiver where the cost of childcare is divided among the multiple families attending the program.
Daycare in your own home offers busy military families many great advantages. First of all, having in home daycare does not necessitate all day long daycare as do corporate daycares or most daycare programs in a caregiver’s home. This greatly benefits military families where the spouse works part-time, and thus may not necessarily need either day care for an entire workday, or perhaps who only need care for a few hours after school each day and during school holidays. For spouses who either volunteer in the community or who have more erratic schedules, it is of great benefit to have the flexibility of contacting a caregiver to come to your home on an as-needed basis.
The advantage of your ability to flexibly schedule your daycare needs comes with its own inherent disadvantage: The caregiver likely has other clients with their own flexible schedule needs, and often, scheduling occurs on a first come, first served basis. Further, whereas daycare in the home of a caregiver offers children the opportunity to improve upon their socialization with both other children and children of other ages, children with daycare in their own home do not have these opportunities unless there are siblings or the caregiver brings her own children.
Fortunately for military families, the Department of Defense recognized the great need of military families to have easy access to a wide array of reliable caregivers at their duty stations, and thus they contracted with SitterCity, an online resource for pre-screened babysitters and nannies, to provide free access to the website since 2009. This resource provides military families with the peace of mind of knowing that their caregivers have completed background checks, references on file, and reviews from other parents.
Affordable Live-In Caregivers
The third option, hiring a foreign au pair, offers the most flexibility of any of the daycare options; however, this option remains limited for military families who choose to live on base. As this option is more unorthodox and less familiar to military families, we will discuss this option in a greater depth.
An au pair is, essentially, a live in nanny from another country who works on a schedule determined by the family to provide 40-45 hours of daycare per week. The au pair, in exchange, receives an opportunity to improve upon her English in addition to room, board, and a weekly stipend provided by the family. The average stipend for an au pair in the US is approximately $200 per week, though the family pays typically $350 per week to the hosting agency to cover the costs involved in finding and training the au pair. Therefore, the total cost for an au pair for one year is approximately $18,000 in addition to room and board. Depending on your location and the number of children in your family, $18,000 may seem cost prohibitive, but for a family with three children living in a higher cost area, the amount is relatively low for childcare, particularly if it affords both spouses the opportunity to work full-time.
Stephanie Gardner, a military spouse at Fort Bragg who helps partner au pairs with military families through a national program called Cultural Care, explained that there are many benefits to hosting an au pair, but as she and program manager Bob Mitchell emphasized, it is vital to ensure that a military family is fully informed about all of the details of this less orthodox option for childcare. Hosting an au pair offers many benefits akin to that of the benefits offered by having daycare in your own home with one great additional benefit—the opportunity to learn and experience aspects of another culture first hand. As a disclaimer, I was raised in Ireland, and my sister and I had the opportunity to have a new au pair each year; in many cases the au pairs were siblings or friends of former au pairs. Our au pairs came from France, Spain, and Italy, providing us the opportunity to learn many foreign languages and experience delicious foreign cuisine at an early age.
Aside from the great cultural benefits, other benefits exist, too. For the most part, an au pair will live with a family for one year follow an intensive screening process of both the au pair and family to make sure both are a good match. As Mitchell explained of the importance of the screening process, "Our goal is to help families have a successful year because that maintains the integrity of the program." Gardener explained that short term au pairs do exist, though they are few in number; a short term au pair may present a good option for those who want a little extra assistance when a spouse is deployed for a period of less than one year. For dual military, in particular, an au pair offers the great advantage of a dependable provider for helping with childcare, errands, and the many last-minute emergencies and temporary assignments that can arise for military families.
While au pairs offer the most flexibility for military families, an au pair does not present a suitable option for every military family. First of all, the average age of an au pair is only 19, so depending on the ages of your children, the au pair may not have either the experience or maturity to work with your children. Further, it is less likely that the au pair will have the experience to work with children who have special needs. Also, depending on the country from which your au pair originates, she may not have any experience with driving, and you may not wish for her to begin learning with your children sitting in the back seat. These items are all of great importance to consider when contemplating the option of having an au pair.
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to having an au pair is knowing whether the au pair is even permitted in your home. If you live on base, for instance, in many cases, you will not receive permission to have an au pair live in your home. A representative from DeLuz Family Housing at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, for example, explained that this issue has simply never arisen. "We don’t have anybody like that living on base," she explained to MBO, "…there would be all sorts of rules and regulations for base housing since she is not a US citizen or permanent resident." A representative from Fort Drum Mountain Community Homes, the privatized base housing community at Fort Drum, was a little more positive, explaining that in the case of a live in nanny, such as an au pair, a family could appeal to the community manager to permit the au pair to live with the family. However, one of the requirements for an au pair is that she has her own bedroom, but given that the au pair is not enrolled in the DEERS program, they would not qualify for a bedroom. If your family, therefore, only qualified for a three bedroom home, then your children would all stay in one bedroom while the au pair would need her own private space. Depending on the age of your children, this option may not cause a problem, but it is definitely something to keep in mind when considering whether an au pair presents a good fit for your family.
Now that you have had the opportunity to consider three options for childcare for your family—one more traditional, one offering better in home flexibility, and one less orthodox option, hopefully you are now better informed about your options for considering childcare for your next duty station. If you have other suggestions for childcare for military families, please consider sharing them in our comments section below this article.