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Nontraditional Child Care: The 24/7 Solution

Doctors and hospital staff. Corporate execs called away on business. Self-employed sales professionals and part-time consultants. Midwives, birth photographers, flight attendants and pilots. Moms who simply need a break. Parents who operate outside of the 9-to-5 grind find themselves facing a childcare dilemma. Childcare arrangements can be precarious enough for parents who work when most daycare centers are open for business. Add in evening hours or split shifts, overnighters, single parenting — or simply an erratic, on-call schedule — and finding reliable childcare can pose unique challenges.

Maria Pokluda has seen that wall from both sides. The Coppell mother of three gains an extra child some seven to 10 days per month, when she watches the 5-year-old daughter of a flight attendant. Because her client’s hectic schedule sends her out of town anywhere from a single day to a night shift to three days at a time, Pokluda picks up the little girl for as little or as long as needed. “We have pretty much folded her into our life,” she reveals. Over the years, the two mothers have grown easy with their fluid arrangement. “Sometimes, her mom will drop her off on the couch in the early morning if she has an early flight that day,” Pokluda chuckles. “She lets herself in and gets her daughter tucked in, and I’ll wake up and find her on the couch.”

But Pokluda dreams of becoming a doula, and the prospect of sleuthing out a similar arrangement for her kids is, well, frankly terrifying. With a husband who travels frequently for his own work, she knows from experience that she doesn’t want to have to wake up and move her family to a caregiver’s location if she gets called to attend a birth in the wee hours of the morning. Most working mothers she’s turned to for advice seem to have found extended family to pitch in and solve their off-hours challenges. “What I need for child care is a me!” she exclaims. “I need someone who will work on an on-call basis and can come to my house during the night. That kind of child care is almost impossible to find.”

The mother load
About one-third of employees with young children work evenings, nights, rotating shifts and variable shifts, according to the 1997 National Survey of the Changing Workforce. But like banker’s hours that work better for the bankers than for the customers, childcare solutions are not keeping up. “Child care is a realm where even the best-laid plans usually do go astray,” reports the Families and Work Institute. “Finding child care is especially difficult for employees who work evening or weekend hours or for those who have rotating shifts.”

A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) survey of childcare providers found that a minority (from 12 to 35 percent) offers care during nontraditional hours, and only 10 percent of centers and six percent of family daycare homes offer weekend care. Most of the providers that do offer nontraditional hours are home-based services with space for relatively few children.

Childcare problems dog even parents who thought they had basic care in the bag. Consulting specialists Bright Horizons surveyed more than 100,000 employees across multiple industries over three years and found that unresolved childcare issues hold back a significant proportion of working parents from:

• Working overtime or longer hours (60%)
• Traveling for business (50%)
• Arriving at work on time (49%)
• Pursuing or accepting a higher position within the company (46%)
• Concentrating on the job, being as productive as possible (39%)

As difficult as it is to find childcare for evening and late-night hours, still more challenging is finding part-time, sporadic and on-call care. Parents who work in these jobs can be trapped because nobody will guarantee their child a spot on a part-time or on-call basis. Despite all the talk about building bridges with other moms at school and church and in the community, parents who need nontraditional care are often the very ones racing in early or late to scoop up their kids and are not part of the social network.

Nicole Eades, a Frisco birth photographer who works at the beck and call of her clients’ labor and deliveries, echoes Pokluda’s sentiments about cloning herself. “Originally, I’d hoped to find someone to essentially be ‘me’ on the days I had a birth to photograph,” she explains. “But, I wasn’t able to find someone willing to be on call and willing to drop their own lives to be me for the day. So I had to go to plan B.”

Much to her dismay, Plan B splits Eades’ two daughters between various caregivers. To cover all her bases, she keeps a list of six possible sitters for her school-aged daughter and one primary caregiver plus two backup options for the younger child. “It’s not ideal, but I work on a very limited basis, so it’s manageable,” Eades says.

What is working, what is not?
Many parents avoid transportation merry-go-rounds and musical beds at pick-up time by using in-home care. “Actually, in-home childcare is nontraditional, and that is what we do,” notes Kim Winblood of Mom’s Best Friend agency, which serves both Dallas and Fort Worth. “Families want their children to at least be at home, if they can’t be with them. Our business is really split in half with families who just need an occasional sitter (temp) and families looking for a permanent nanny (perm). The nanny route is an ever-increasing option for parents. Our temp families average about eight to 16 hours a week.”

Finding (and keeping) a consistent sitter for part-time, occasional and on-call work can be challenging. “Our temporary pool consists of nannies who cannot commit to full-time or even a consistent part-time schedule,” Winblood cautions. “We do have many standing appointments where ‘Susie Sitter’ comes every Tuesday from 9am to 1pm. We try to be as consistent as possible, but it is often times difficult.”

Nannies are a solid solution for fairly stable schedules. Nannies can travel along with mother (or father) and child on business trips or hold down the home front while you’re away. They’re also a good choice for overnight care in your own home. “We definitely deal with the professional class: some dual-income, doctors, lawyers, business owners and business execs,” Winblood says. “We also have many new moms overwhelmed by multiples and existing work/family conflicts. Many call us for a date night, and others have a sick child who cannot go to school or day care. I would say that most of our temporary jobs are booked several days ahead and that we get one to four calls a day for last minute jobs, i.e., sick child, work conflict, etc.”

Some parents solve scheduling dilemmas by alternating shifts with their spouses; one parent works days, while the other works nights. It sounds good on paper, but the plan leaves families with little time together as a family and often runs into trouble at transition hours. Self-employed and part-time workers can trade childcare with others in similar situations, but these arrangements are prone to backfiring when someone gets sick or has a scheduling conflict.

One of the biggest challenges for parents with nontraditional schedules is the school pickup. Children’s taxi services were big in the ‘90s but now have largely disappeared. Although the service was much-desired, parents weren’t prepared to pay the kind of fees that were necessary to meet costs – commonly $6-$9 for a one-way trip, with contracts for a minimum number of trips.

Backup care is temporary or short-term care that picks up when normal arrangements fall through. Employers are recognizing the value of reliable childcare arrangements for their employees, providing backup care as an employee benefit either through on-site facilities, arrangements with other facilities or with cost offsets for employees. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing employee benefits, according to survey results released in June 2007 by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), which estimates that 14 percent of employers offered some type of backup care assistance in 2006, up from just 6 percent in 2005.

A new option: Drop-in centers
The latest trend in childcare solutions is also what many of its young clients would call one of the most fun: drop-in childcare centers. In just three years, one such center, Adventure Kids Playcare, has exploded to five locations across the Metroplex. The reasons? Flexibility and dependability. Adventure Kids accepts children from 6 weeks to 12 years old as late as midnight six days a week, no reservations required.

Brenda Teele-Jackson, familiar to many as host of Good Morning Texas on WFAA-TV, is a drop-in care fan. The busy Dallas mom, who zooms from mornings in front of the camera to a vice president’s desk at her husband’s law firm and then dashes home as primary caregiver to an 8-year-old and 4-year-old twins, thrives on the flexibility she gets from drop-in care. “I always have things come up at the last minute,” she confesses. “I may get off later than expected, or I may have a function to attend. There are times when my day doesn’t end until 10pm. Even if I had a nanny, she couldn’t keep up with my schedule.” Family members who live nearby sometimes pitch in, but her frenetic needs usually pop up after family members have made other plans.

Drop-in care gives Teele-Jackson the reliability and peace of mind to snatch a date night with her husband or fill in an afternoon of overflow meetings or evening events. And the kids love it. “My children ask me every day if they can go to Adventure Kids,” she says. “I have to explain to them why they should spend time with me rather than explain why they have to go to the babysitter. I admit I feel guilty when I’m not able to spend time with them. But, something tells me that my guilt is their pleasure.” Her bottom line? “Always have a Plan B. A drop-in play care is a Plan B you can rely on,” she asserts.

Despite the casual sound of their names, drop-in centers offer a regular calendar of activities for children. “The misconception is that the kids are running wild doing as they please,” says Colleen Watson, director of operations at Adventure Kids Playcare. Adventure Kids’ curriculum includes a schedule of educational activities including afterschool homework help supervised by college education program students. The centers are contracted with Work Options Group as a backup care agency for many local employers.

Drop-in facilities are licensed by the state. Staffers at Adventure Kids are all certified in CPR and first aid and receive regular monthly training on child nutrition and development, managing common childhood behaviors, special needs children and more.

Reservations are not mandatory at most drop-in centers, although they’re recommended for busy weekend nights, some holidays and for infant rooms where staff ratios are tight. State regulations limit attendance at these centers to 15 days per month per child, so they’re not the answer for regular childcare needs.

The kids are alright
How are the kids taking all these arrangements? Maybe better than you think. A recent study in the journal Family Relations shows that teens actually feel closer to shift-working mothers than to moms working regular daytime hours. “Perhaps shift-working mothers work harder to compensate for their absence, spending time listening to and encouraging their adolescents when they are at home,” theorizes researcher Kelly Davis.

Eades has deployed some truly clever strategies to ensure her children are at ease with their changing arrangements. Since her older daughter is not very familiar with the people on her pick-up list, Eades came up with a unique tool that she’s shared with school staff. “I have a card in her backup (file) with the photo, name and phone number of the first three on her list of sitters,” Eades explains. “I think having that card takes away a little bit of the anxiety for her, and it helps her teacher, too.”

Communication is the key to helping kids feel safe and secure. Only explain to children what they can understand at their individual ages, advises Sarah Balint, a licensed professional counselor in the Park Cities area. “With a younger child, talk about other jobs that are not 9-to-5, to help the child understand your schedule,” she offers. “With older kids, talk openly about their feelings regarding having to go somewhere else to sleep or having an unpredictable schedule. Try to address their concerns or needs within reason.”