Mary Wuerker plans to stay home to care for her 11-month-old son, Kenson, before she goes back to work as a speech therapist in September. The Middle Township woman already has priced local child care options so she will be ready to resume her career - and got a surprise.
"That was an eye-opening experience. The costs are very high," she said. "Right now, we're on a spending freeze so I can stay home with our son."
Finding affordable, reliable child care is one of the biggest challenges for working mothers and fathers, said Janet Garraty, co-chairwoman of the Atlantic County Advisory Commission on Women.
"We'd like to frame it as a parents' issue," said Garraty, of Absecon. "But we are the mothers. We're the nurturers. Finding solutions is still falling on the shoulders of women."
Finding care is a daily struggle that about 289,800 working New Jersey women with a child under 6 face each day. About a quarter of those have a toddler younger than 12 months.
Full-time childcare in New Jersey costs $10,949 per year on average, according to the nonprofit group Child Care Aware of America's 2013 review. That is nearly as much as the $12,321 in tuition and fees that freshman paid this year to attend The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Locally, daycare centers charge rates based on the age of the child and the number of days they attend. For example, Fundamentals Learning Center in Middle Township charges $180 per week or $9,360 per year for infants up to 18 months, director Ashley Shelton said. Older children, who typically need less one-on-one attention, are charged at lower rates.
Shelton said almost all of her clients enroll their children in daycare so they can return to work. The center offers flexible hours to accommodate working parents, whose children might spend part of the day enrolled in public pre-kindergarten.
New Jersey's childcare costs are higher than much of the country's but comparable to those of other Northeast states. New York and Washington, D.C., had the nation's highest costs.
And while there is nothing new about parents juggling work and family obligations, it has become harder for some since the recession.
"The Atlantic County economy isn't so hot to begin with. You add a burden of being a single mother, and you have even more of a problem," Garraty said.
The 2012 Child Care Resource and Referral Network found that infant childcare in New Jersey absorbs as much as 36 percent of the income made by a single mother and more than 10 percent of the income of two-parent households.
"That's definitely a big question when you have a baby - to go back to work," said Aly Baker, of Millville, who works at Gibsons Kidstown Childcare in Port Elizabeth. "Most of them do it. It's not an option. You have to work to pay the bills."
The U.S. Coast Guard's Training Center Cape May maintains a daycare center that is open to the public but often has a waiting list. It charges $150 per week or $7,800 per year regardless of the age of the child, director Kathi Getka said.
"A majority of the parents we enroll are probably working," said Getka, of Cape May. "We have a lot of school teachers' children here. Practically everybody goes back to work after having a baby."
Getka said finding reliable, affordable childcare is a constant battle for South Jersey parents.
"I have to tell people all the time that there's no room. You can tell they're heartbroken. We have people we have to turn away," she said. "There is not enough childcare in South Jersey. That is just a fact."
Parents find creative solutions, from relying on relatives or neighbors as baby-sitters to working staggered shifts.
Shirley Fantasia, of Woodbine, works in the office at the Bacharach Institute in Galloway Township while her husband, Keith, cares for their 9-month-old son, Leonardo. She cares for the baby when he works.
Among the many considerations women must weigh in a cost-benefit analysis is the possibility of stalling or even derailing a career.
Working mothers can lose promotions and standing if they drop out of the work force for any significant time and have trouble reclaiming their former earning power when they do return.
Working moms make about 7 percent less in salary than their childless peers, and the gap increases with every additional child, according to the nonprofit advocacy organization Center for American Progress. About 10 percent of the wage gap between men and women is directly attributable to women leaving the work force to have children, the group found.
Wuerker said she was not concerned about losing seniority or promotions as a public school employee. But she is worried about falling behind on the latest advancements in her field, education.
"My district is adopting a new model for assessments," she said. "There are a lot of changes happening in education right now. I was afraid of being out of the loop."
The working poor in New Jersey are eligible for subsidies that can cover the majority of childcare costs.
For example, a single parent making just less than the $31,000 eligibility threshold pays about $78 per month or $936 per year - or less than 10 percent of the annual price of childcare.
For these parents, promotions and salary increases can be a mixed blessing if it pushes them just beyond the income eligibility for subsidized childcare.
"Everybody wants a raise. But getting a promotion or climbing the ladder - that little bit might just cut their eligibility," said Percy Figueroa, program director for the Child Care Resource and Referral Agency in Linwood.
But Figueroa said one goal of the subsidies is to help poor working families focus on their jobs and career advancement so they can improve their financial stability.
"If they can get their childcare taken care of from birth to age 5, that's a big accomplishment. At that point, childcare is not as huge a concern," she said.
Finding an opening at a private daycare center can be a challenge. Daycare centers in South Jersey often have waiting lists or recommend early enrollment.
Kate Dunn, of Wildwood, kept her 18-month-old daughter, Madelyn, enrolled in a private daycare a few hours a week even after she was laid off in August so as not to lose her spot when she went back to work.
"That way I'll have the spot when I need it," she said. "But the ideal situation would be to work from home."
And then there is the angst all working parents feel when they have to leave their child in someone else's hands for the day. It's a moment Wuerker said she is dreading.
"I think the transition will be easier on him than on me. I'll be the one in the car crying," she said.
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