Washington state has the sixth most expensive child care in the nation. Rather than working full time to pay that off, some mothers are choosing to delay returning to work. But the longer they wait, the more challenging it becomes.

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ANNE YOUNG WAS shopping at Goodwill a few months back when she found something she didn’t know she was looking for: professional work clothes.

A stay-at-home mom since her son, Dominic, was born 18 months earlier, Young has often thought about rejoining the workforce.

But then a tangle of questions and worries starts tumbling in her head: How would she find the time and energy to job-hunt while caring for a toddler? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until Dominic was older? How would the family move forward financially if she continued to stay home? Would the gap in her résumé make it harder to get a well-paying job doing meaningful work?

And then, the big question: How could she justify working when most of her income would go toward child care? For Young, that question has always been the deal-breaker. Working 40 hours a week to pay someone else to take care of her boy seemed ridiculous, she says. Also unavoidable, in a state that has the sixth-most expensive child care in the nation.

And yet, there she was at Goodwill, contemplating just that as she put the first tiny seeds of change into her shopping cart.

When Young, 35, talks about the shopping excursion, she becomes buoyant, as if the recently acquired office clothes represent some form of clarity amid the noise in her head. Having tried various forms of contract work, the college graduate — who had worked for 10 years before becoming a mom — knows, even in Seattle’s hot job market, it could take months to land an interview for a job that pays the bills.

“I’m not going to have my ideal child-care situation, but maybe it’s time to take the plunge,’’ Young says, as her curious toddler careens around their basement apartment in North Seattle, examining everything in the spacious living room as if seeing it for the first time.

In a city with a steroidal housing market that has all but squeezed out middle-class families, the decision feels less like a leap of faith than an ultimatum.

Anne Young brings her son, Dominic, 18 months, to the Ballard Goodwill to look for professional clothes to wear when she tries to get back into the workforce. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Anne Young brings her son, Dominic, 18 months, to the Ballard Goodwill to look for professional clothes to wear when she tries to get back into the workforce. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

“If I wait longer, there’s pressure for a second child,’’ she says. “That’s digging a deeper hole. I love the idea of a sibling, but not at the cost of further entrenchment, and not having our own place.”

Young’s husband, a real estate agent, is working in a nearby room. Their apartment, located in a house that also contains an adult family home, belongs to his father, who also lives in the house. The couple lives rent-free, with an expansive view of Puget Sound in a city where people pay a king’s ransom for a studio apartment with an alley view.

Young says it’s a “a great luxury” to be able to stay home with Dominic, and that she’s grateful for the circumstances that have allowed her to do so. Yet, given her receding career opportunities, she also thinks it’s a luxury she can no longer afford.

 

BECAUSE JUDGING MOTHERS has become an internet sport, it deserves mentioning that none of the women we spoke with is an anomaly. Read the postings on Facebook moms’ groups or the comments section on parenting articles, and you’ll find a broad spectrum of human experience, with common themes around working and staying at home.

While her son, Dominic, 18 months, plays with a game on the floor of their Seattle home, Anne Young looks for work on her laptop.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
While her son, Dominic, 18 months, plays with a game on the floor of their Seattle home, Anne Young looks for work on her laptop. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Women’s choices are deeply personal, often driven by circumstance and age, and exceedingly difficult when desire and possibility cannot be reconciled.

Read enough of the comments, talk to enough mothers and fathers, and it becomes an act of willful ignorance to say that the economic consequences of becoming a parent are the same for women and men.

Studies have shown that for every two years a woman remains out of the workforce, she reduces her earnings by 10 percent throughout her career. One study, by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, showed earnings dropped 30 percent after being out of the workforce for two to three years.

And women who take off four to 12 months after childbirth are 15 percent less likely to be promoted, according to a study by the Pew Center.

As if all this isn’t depressing enough, decisions about child care are usually made when parents are grappling with the emotional, physical and financial challenges of adjusting to a newborn.

For couples with infants and toddlers, child care is the biggest expense after housing. For many single women, child-care costs eat up about 50 percent of monthly earnings.

Claudia Pettis gets help from her 9-year-old daughter, Maddy, as the two put away groceries after Claudia got home from school. Claudia has been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, and now that her two daughters are older, she is studying to become a nurse.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Claudia Pettis gets help from her 9-year-old daughter, Maddy, as the two put away groceries after Claudia got home from school. Claudia has been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, and now that her two daughters are older, she is studying to become a nurse. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Editor’s note: In 2016, Pacific NW magazine will explore our world of work. In Seattle’s workplaces, one thing you can count on is change. We’ll try to help you make sense of it.

More from the series:

In 2014, a coalition of nonprofit groups surveyed 350 child-care centers and 400 family home providers in King County and found that, on average, full-time care in King County cost $17,337 for infants and $14,983 for toddlers per year at a child-care center, according to the coalition’s report, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: King County’s Child Care Crisis.”

Based on those numbers, full-time care, from infancy until kindergarten for a single child, would cost $80,800. That’s more than tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington.

The number is even more mind-blowing when you consider these Bureau of Labor Statistics facts: 71 percent of women with children at home work, and 40 percent of working mothers are the sole or primary breadwinner in the family. For a significant number of parents, there is no choice but to pay up.

 

ATTORNEY JO HEINAN is working for nothing. Or at least that’s what her bank account shows.

In reality, Heinan is working for herself, and her future.

It’s a Tuesday, and Heinan is having lunch at a noisy restaurant just down the street from the labor law firm where she works. The mother of toddler twin boys seems barely to notice the din.

Heinan, 33, learned she was pregnant in 2013, shortly after leaving the law firm where she had worked as a litigator for nearly two years after graduating from the University of Washington’s School of Law.

What started as a journey to explore career options quickly turned into an exercise in maternity planning. She landed a six-month contracting job at a law firm, working for a partner who also was pregnant and expecting around the same time as Heinan.

The contract allowed Heinan to show her mettle, and when she left early under doctor’s orders to finish her pregnancy at home, the partner urged her to stay in touch.

Heinan expected to take six months off after the births — the usual three months for an attorney, times two. In reality, she was out of work for about 18 months.

After coming home from work, Jo Heinan (right) gets a TV show ready for her boys to watch while they eat dinner. She has scissors in her hand because she also will be trimming their hair while they eat. After baths and a little reading, it’s off to bed for her toddlers. Her husband, Vincent Nappo, gets the boys to day care in the morning, and Heinan cares for them in the evening. Nappo, an attorney, is finishing work, at left. Heinan is a contract attorney at the firm of Robblee Detwiler & Black in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
After coming home from work, Jo Heinan (right) gets a TV show ready for her boys to watch while they eat dinner. She has scissors in her hand because she also will be trimming their hair while they eat. After baths and a little reading, it’s off to bed for her toddlers. Her husband, Vincent Nappo, gets the boys to day care in the morning, and Heinan cares for them in the evening. Nappo, an attorney, is finishing work, at left. Heinan is a contract attorney at the firm of Robblee Detwiler & Black in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

“Life with twins was a huge adjustment,’’ she says. “Everything that made you you didn’t exist anymore. It was the most difficult year of my life.”

After coming home from work and feeding and bathing the boys, Jo Heinan (right) and her husband, Vincent Nappo, get diapers on their toddlers. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
After coming home from work and feeding and bathing the boys, Jo Heinan (right) and her husband, Vincent Nappo, get diapers on their toddlers. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

She and her husband, Vincent Nappo, an attorney who also is in the early stages of his career, assessed the situation: With no family nearby to pitch in, one of them had to stay home with the boys, or work just to pay for day care.

“Two newborns in full-time day care in Seattle is not cheap, affordable, possible,’’ Heinan recalls thinking. “I would be making so little, if anything at all (after day-care bills), that it didn’t make sense for me to return to the workforce. So we decided I would stay home, and we slowly ate up our savings, and cut costs where we could.”

After the boys’ first birthday, Heinan began decamping to a coffee shop on weekends to peruse job listings. She applied for about 40 jobs, and got one interview.

“You’re in a better position coming out of school than you are coming from home, having taken a gap,’’ she says. “It’s about momentum.”

Four months later, the firm she worked for before her children were born offered her another contracting job. Miraculously, two slots were available at a family day care where she had been on the waiting list.

After paying for child care and health insurance, Heinan says there’s nothing left to bank except career momentum and the “mental sanity” that comes from working at something she loves.

“In the end, I was ready to move forward in my life,’’ she says. “There’s a social stigma around me saying that it’s for me, as opposed to needing money. Returning to work has been a way for me to find a part of myself again, to feel a little like my old self. That was an amazing feeling for me. I will always be a mom, but now I also have my own slice of life, too.”

 

Claudia Pettis (at left, in kitchen) prepares dinner as her 9-year-old daughter, Maddy, practices on the piano. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Claudia Pettis (at left, in kitchen) prepares dinner as her 9-year-old daughter, Maddy, practices on the piano. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

CLAUDIA PETTIS makes it possible for other parents to work.

Since her daughters were babies, Pettis has been all-in on the mom front: soccer coach, chaperone for every school field trip, cookie baker, Girl Scout leader, driver for her and others’ kids, school library volunteer … If it needed doing, she did it.

“I’m not one to dump my kids at day care,’’ says Pettis, 45. “I used to be super-judgmental: How could they do that?! But I realize what it takes to be a stay-at-home mom, and I can respect that now.”

The West Seattle mom relishes her role. Or did, until her kids reached the eye-rolling ages of tween and teen.

“I’m not enjoying being home,’’ she says, matter-of-factly. “I know my family probably appreciates me, but I don’t feel appreciated at all.”

Rather than simmer in resentment, Pettis decided to go back to work after a 14-year absence. When we meet to discuss her journey, she is less than 24 hours away from returning to school, something she’d sworn off after college and graduate school nearly two decades ago. The prospect makes her visibly nervous.

“This is something I want to do in my heart,” she says of her plans to become a nurse. Still, she’s worried about making the grade with a heavy courseload that includes chemistry, advanced math, biology, anatomy and the like.

Pettis says her husband, a real estate appraiser, began prodding her to get a job about five years ago. She didn’t give it much thought until last November, when a friend’s husband was hiring an executive assistant with a starting salary of about $80,000.

Pettis racked her brain to recall her previous jobs and bosses, and hired a professional résumé writer who helped jog her memory. Five days and $250 later, Pettis was ready to roll.

“It was empowering,’’ she says. But even with 14 years’ worth of volunteer work, she didn’t get past the initial interview.

Pettis took an $11-an-hour job working part-time in a school computer lab, and researched nursing schools after recalling how much she enjoyed taking caring of her sick mother.

Then she took the plunge, signing up for a six-week nursing certificate course that will allow her to get paid for the 100 hours of hands-on work required to enter a three-year nursing program.

The change will require new schedules, and a division of labor around the house. But the upside is worth it, she says.

“I think my girls are old enough that I need to be a role model to them to go get a job that pays good money,’’ she says. “I’m in my 40s. I want to do something that makes me happy.”

Later, she adds: “I kind of regret staying home 100 percent. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I wish I could have kept my foot in the door. I’m at the point in my life where I want to get paid. I’m done working for free.”

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As a couple heads toward a staircase after getting married in a venue in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, Cho Barron watches with her notes that tell her the order of events after the ceremony and at the reception. Barron’s husband, Beaux Breaux, is the DJ for the wedding. Barron’s mother doesn’t live far away from the couple’s Federal Way home and often baby-sits for their 19-month-old daughter when the two are at work. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
As a couple heads toward a staircase after getting married in a venue in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, Cho Barron watches with her notes that tell her the order of events after the ceremony and at the reception. Barron’s husband, Beaux Breaux, is the DJ for the wedding. Barron’s mother doesn’t live far away from the couple’s Federal Way home and often baby-sits for their 19-month-old daughter when the two are at work. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

CHO BARRON, 37, doesn’t have the usual 8-to-5 day-care woes.

Barron, a Federal Way mother of an 18-month-old girl, works 10- to 12-hour shifts, usually on weekends, with her husband, Beaux Breaux, AKA DJ Gumbeaux, running a disc jockey service, Magnolia Rhapsody.

Barron runs the administrative end of the business, arranging bookings; answering inquiries; and juggling paperwork, taxes and the like.

During gigs, her parents usually travel from Lacey to watch their granddaughter. When they can’t make it, Barron taps into the wedding-planner baby-sitting network, which can run about $300 for the weekend.

“It’s hugely expensive,’’ she says. “I didn’t realize how much it would cost.”

Running a business with her husband has provided Barron with flexibility she wasn’t able to build into previous administrative jobs with other small businesses.

A 2012 graduate of The Evergreen State College, Barron took four months off work after her daughter was born in August 2015 — “smack dab in the middle of wedding season,” she notes.

When she resumed working, however, her schedule became a sleep researcher’s nightmare. In addition to weekend gigs, she works in the wee hours of the morning for about three hours. When her daughter naps, she cleans the house and cooks. And when her daughter goes to sleep, she works another four or five hours.

All told, she averages about four hours of sleep a night. Work on her novels, short stories and freelance blogs has mostly stopped, at least for now.

“We’re getting busier and busier,” she says. “I feel my parents are overtaxed.”

Come fall, she says, she’s going to have someone come in for four hours every few days or so to watch her daughter.

She’ll think about the challenges that presents when she has time. She’ll figure it out because she has to.