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Beyond Daycare

Allow me to set the scene: I'm typing this in my garage. Or what used to be my garage, before my now 3-year-old twins were born and I converted it to a home office. I can hear their squeals of glee in the background as their babysitter conjures up some kind of amusement I can only imagine from my cave not 20 yards away.

Donna, the sitter, arrived at 9:00 this morning. Because I have a ten-second commute, I was at my desk by 9:15. At noon, I took a break and joined my kids for a macaroni lunch. At 2 p.m., Donna will put the twins down for a nap. I'll see her off, creep into their bedroom for a quick look and a kiss, and then duck back into my office, where, if I'm lucky, I'll have another two hours to work while they sleep. I barely notice the hum of the baby monitor in the background as I type.

On Fridays my husband cares for the twins, and I get a full day's work in. On Saturdays, my mother joins us, and I sneak in a couple more hours. For us, and for now, this is what works.

Am I making it sound easy? I'd better clarify. Most days, I feel like a full-time writer and a full-time mom, with all the exhaustion that "double shift" implies. Some mornings  -- as I peel the play dough off the keys of my computer  -- an office full of grown-ups seems the height of luxury. Some nights  -- as I sit at my computer past midnight struggling to meet a deadline, knowing I have only a few hours before I'll hear the stirring sounds of my children waking up  -- full-time motherhood seems like a cushy deal. But most days, if you ask me how I feel, I'll say, "Lucky." I've found a way to combine work and parenthood that might not work for everyone but feels just right for me and my family.

An increasing number of American families are experimenting with the work/parenting/childcare equation, each coming up with the solution that works best for them. Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healthy infant and toddler development, says several factors are converging to lead more families to seek alternatives to the traditional choices  -- full-time daycare, full-time nanny, or full-time parent at home  -- in the hope of obtaining that elusive goal known as "balance."

As women postpone childbearing, Lerner notes, more couples enter parenthood with two well-established careers to accommodate. At the same time, she adds, there is increasing acceptance of stay-at-home parenting as a legitimate and valuable choice for any parent, including one who leaves behind or scales back a career to do so. This emphasis on the importance of both career and child rearing is leading toward a society that is more open to a wide range of parenting and work arrangements, from the traditional to the tangled. "There's now an acceptance that parents have a range of needs and skills," Lerner says. "There are choices."

The key to making your own choice involves paying careful attention to both your work and parenting styles and your child's individual needs and preferences. If you're easily distracted, working at home may not be the best bet for you; if your child has a hard time separating, having you at home but behind closed doors may not work for him either. A child who is adaptable and socially outgoing may be able to handle some flux in a daily situation; one who needs a high degree of predictability to feel secure will do better with a more consistent arrangement.

Child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, M.D., whose book The Four-Thirds Solution lays out a model wherein each parent works two-thirds time and shares responsibility for childcare, says he sees more and more parents practicing some version of this formula and loving it. "A lot of parents tell me that it's very meaningful," says Dr. Greenspan, "and that they didn't know what they were missing until they did it."

He offers a few simple guidelines for new parents seeking their own work and parenting balance: "Be flexible, find out what works best for you as a family, and don't be limited by traditional gender roles." He also suggests that couples discuss their child-rearing priorities before they have children and then work together to chart career paths that will allow them to fulfill their parenting as well as their professional goals. In some cases, he cautions, one or both partners have to compromise or make sacrifices: "You can't both be litigators and at the same time have five children and still be personally involved in your kids' lives."

Dr. Greenspan encourages parents who feel that a "four-thirds" solution could never be practical to look a little deeper  -- particularly at their attitudes about money. "A lot of people are busy making money so their kids can go to college, not realizing how important the early years are," he notes. "Healthy development comes from strong relationships that begin early in life." There may be as many ways to navigate those early years as there are individual families. No one ever said it would be easy, but the following three families have each come up with a different formula  -- and all, like mine, feel they've struck a balance.

Cobbled-Together Care

When Helen Matzger of Berkeley, California, was pregnant with her first child, she didn't give much thought to her childcare options because she didn't think she had many. She worked as a development director and volunteer coordinator at a nonprofit agency that served foster children. Her husband, David, ran a small landscaping business. Neither made enough to support the family alone. So Helen assumed that when her three-month maternity leave was up, she would go back to work and baby Louisa would go to daycare.

But Helen was only a few weeks into her maternity leave when she decided she did not want to be away from Louisa full-time. "I hadn't understood what an intense experience motherhood would be," Helen says now.

So one night, when Louisa was just a couple of months old, Helen and David sat down at the dining room table, their bills arrayed around them, and calculated their expenses down to the last penny. They figured out exactly what they would need to meet their bare-bones expenses. Then they sketched out new work arrangements that would allow them to bring in what they needed while spending as much time as possible with Louisa.

The upshot: Helen cut down her job duties and went to half-time, David scaled his business back to four days a week, and they found a daycare provider who would take Louisa for a day and a half each week.

Their new budget left Helen and David without a penny to spare. Helen's boss wasn't thrilled about the new schedule. Both Helen and David sometimes had to play catch-up on evenings and weekends. But Louisa was thriving, and both parents felt more involved in their daughter's earliest developments.

When their second daughter, Neli, entered the picture three years later, Helen and David sat down again  -- bills and schedules before them  -- and worked it out one more time. At first, Helen worked just one day a week and David cared for the girls that day. After a few months, Helen went up to three days a week. By this time, Louisa was in preschool part-time, and a neighbor invited Neli to join a nanny-share a couple of days a week.

In a nanny-share, a caregiver watches a few babies from different families at the same time. Parents split the cost and often rotate the home where the care takes place. Babies in a nanny-share get personalized care at a less-than-astronomical rate, as well as built-in playmates. Helen's mother takes the girls one afternoon a week, which saves the family $100 a month in childcare costs  -- just enough to keep their precision  -- calibrated budget balanced.

Helen would be the first to tell you that this kind of "cobbled-together" care isn't easy to orchestrate. Sometimes she feels like she is starting from scratch every few months. Other times she just feels worn-out. Not every family could live with this amount of financial uncertainty  -- and building a savings account that offers a safety net for unexpected circumstances is a good idea. But for Helen, it's worth it. "My children are both really happy, good-natured kids," she says. "It takes a lot of finagling, but somehow you're able to get it to work."

Tag-Team Parenting

Stephanie Mullen's workweek started at 8 o'clock Monday morning, when she left the house for a temporary editing job. Tuesday and Wednesday, however, she was back home in Blauvelt, New York, caring for her three children while her husband, Patrick, a firefighter, worked a 24-hour shift. Thursday and Friday Stephanie was back at the office while Patrick looked after the kids. Saturday he'd pull another 24-hour shift at the firehouse while she was back on duty on the home front.

When their two older children  -- now 8 and 6  -- were small, Stephanie and Patrick relied on babysitters and daycare. But by the time their third, now 2, was born, they'd been through more colds and ear infections than they cared to remember  -- a common side effect of group care  -- and seen more money than they liked to calculate go into childcare. This time around, they decided, they would "juggle" instead.

Stephanie  -- a freelance editor and writer  -- now gets her work done when her husband is home between shifts. When she has a deadline or an assignment that requires her to work out of the house, he calls a fellow firefighter and swaps shifts. Usually, she says, her husband's colleagues are more than willing to help; many of them have working wives and similar arrangements themselves.

This kind of tag-team parenting requires that at least one parent have a shift job or flexible hours. It also demands cooperation and accommodation  -- something at which both Stephanie and her husband have grown adept. If she's got to be out of the house by 8 a.m. and his shift runs until 9:00, he'll call someone from the next shift and ask him to come in early. If he's been up all night responding to fire alarms, she'll watch the kids while he naps and then work later in the day.

Because they take equal responsibility for parenting, they have learned to respect each other's parenting style. Stephanie admires her husband's patience and the calm with which he navigates the "terrible twos." He relies on her when limits must be set, sometimes calling her at work so she can dispense a final "no" when the kids won't quit nagging him.

Together, they manage to work a combined 70-hour week (40 for him and 30 for her) with no childcare save the occasional Saturday-night sitter. They miss spending time alone together, but Stephanie says it's worth it to know that they are involved in every aspect of their children's day. "If we forget to change a diaper," she says, "at least it's our own fault."


Serial Careers

When Malica Aronowitz of Belmont, Massachusetts, became pregnant with her daughter Olivia, she was enjoying a high-powered career as a computer programmer. Her husband's job as an engineer was equally demanding. It didn't cross their minds that having a child would change any of that; the baby, they figured, would somehow fit in.

That was before the nanny parade  -- four different sitters in a year and a half. One brought along not only her child but also her dog. Another eventually revealed that she had a debilitating illness that prohibited her from leaving the house. Another was out sick more than she was in.

Malica began working from home so she could care for her daughter during the long stretches in between nannies or oversee the caregiver who was there. She often wound up doing most of her work after her husband Jeff got home or in the wee hours of the morning. By the time her second daughter, Alexis, was born two years later, this schedule had left her so exhausted she could barely see straight most days. Jeff went to half-time at his job, but they were both still stretched to the breaking point. Something had to give.

Malica's job paid considerably more than Jeff's, so Jeff told his boss he wanted to take a leave of absence while his children were small. Fortunately, Jeff's boss had just become a doting grandfather and was so enjoying every moment he spent with his grandchild that he supported Jeff's proposal wholeheartedly. Malica went back to the office full-time, and Jeff took a 6-month leave that has now hit the 18-month mark, a leave that most employers would not tolerate. "It started out as a strategy to get through the baby years," says Jeff, "but we've seen clear benefits. Our children are secure, very happy, and they listen almost better than one could hope."

Jeff misses work and hopes to trade places again sometime soon. Malica misses the kids and would love to be home with them. Once both girls are in school, Malica and Jeff plan to reassess their situation and see if it makes sense to rotate roles. (This plan could also be done every other year so that each partner avoids losing ground professionally.) They envision a future in which they take turns working and staying home throughout their children's school years. "Everybody has to give something up for this to succeed," says Jeff. "But the best part is that we've spent a lot of time with our kids."

The diaper years don't go on forever, but they're the most childcare-intensive, and experts agree that the care your child gets during this crucial period has a profound influence on her future development. Finding the right balance between work and parenting isn't always easy, but if you trust your instincts  -- and stay open to the increasing number of possibilities  -- you can find something that works for you and your family.


Nell Bernstein is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California, who frequently covers health for the magazine.