By Kate Stapleton
By now, lessons from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead have become part of the common vernacular of working women. We lean into our careers early on; we seek opportunities for advancement; and, for those of us with children, we invest in high-quality childcare. Sandberg urges us to view the expense of quality childcare as an investment not only in our children, but in our future careers. She rightly contends that in order for both spouses to excel at work, neither can be worrying, moment-to-moment, about the kids’ well-being.
As military spouse attorneys, we must lean in harder than most. Most of us take multiple bar exams over the course of our careers. Each PCS presents new challenges: gain admission to another state’s Bar, quickly assess professional opportunities in the area, and then explain your spotty resume to potential employers. We want to lean in, but even Sheryl herself would find such a situation frustrating.
Hey, Sheryl: what’s the difference between leaning and falling?
In order to advance in our careers— especially in light of all the challenges posed by military life— we must have quality, dependable caregivers for our children. Without their support, leaning in can be- both literally and figuratively- disastrous. To make matters more challenging, most military families are geographically distant from relatives and long-time friends. Many of us arrive at each new duty station without a network of people to babysit in a pinch, or even to tell us where the best nannies and schools are.
Finding great childcare after a PCS is challenging, and even daunting, but it is a necessary step toward maintaining satisfying careers. Having lived at three different duty stations since my oldest child was born four years ago, I’ve gained a few skills for making the childcare search a little simpler.
Tip #1: Know that financial help is available- if you know where to look.
One factor preventing many military families from finding quality childcare is the expense. Most military spouse lawyers aren’t working full-time immediately following a PCS. We need to devote several weeks, or even months, to the relicensing process alone. After that, if a job in our preferred area of law isn’t available, many of us spend time volunteering to keep our skills sharp and immerse ourselves in our new communities. Studying for bar exams, volunteering, and attending networking events are all part of our work as attorneys, but paying for the requisite childcare can be very difficult without a paycheck coming in. Fortunately, resources are available to alleviate the financial burden of paying for childcare during these (usually brief) periods.
One fantastic military benefit is the NACCRRA subsidy (GSA for Army families). Both organizations subsidize the cost of private daycare by sending a monthly check (dependent on family income) directly to the daycare; families cover the remaining cost. Both agencies have rules regarding schools’ eligibility for the program, which vary according to each family’s situation. Information about NACCRRA can be found at usa.childcareaware.org; learn more about GSA at gsa.gov.
If your school of choice doesn’t qualify for NACCRRA or GSA subsidies, or if the school qualifies but you’d like to minimize your out-of-pocket costs while waiting for the subsidy paperwork to process, ask your school or daycare if they offer a military discount. Many schools near bases offer these, and I’ve seen discounts as steep as 10%. If you have more than one child, ask about sibling discounts as well.
If you are considering using an on-base Child Development Center (CDC), be aware that tuition is based on a sliding scale. If you are using childcare because you are in school, volunteering, or studying for a bar exam, the amount you will pay at a CDC will reflect your decrease in household income. CDCs offer sibling discounts as well.
Tip #2: Use your networking skills!
Many outstanding early education centers lack websites, and most don’t advertise. Often, the best way to find out which schools in your area have the best reputation is by asking around. Parents are eager to share when they have found a great program, so don’t hesitate to ask. Also, some programs have lengthy waitlists and can be exclusive. With these schools, a referral from a family already in the program can get you in the door.
Tip #3: Don’t overlook the CDCs.
Each branch of the military offers Child Development Centers (CDCs) on its installations. Even though separate CDCs exist for each branch, active duty service members may use any branch’s CDCs. All CDCs are NAEYC accredited (see NAEYC.org for accreditation requirements) and accept children as young as six weeks old. Army CDCs offer the Strong Beginnings program for Pre-K aged children, which uses a structured curriculum to prepare kids for Kindergarten (learn more at armycysconnections.com). As far as convenience, the CDCs are unmatched— many offer extended hours to accommodate unusual work schedules, and a CDC is almost guaranteed to be within a few miles of each service member’s workplace. They are also open year-round, all day, and only close on federal holidays. CDCs also provide all meals and snacks, and accommodate special diets.
Aside from charging tuition based on family income, CDCs offer other financial perks as well. They provide the unusual benefit of not requiring payment while your child is on vacation (up to two weeks per year, advanced notice required). If you are in the Air Force, you are entitled to 20 hours per child of free childcare during a PCS move. The Air Force subsidizes the cost of childcare for community volunteers as well. See more about childcare-related Air Force benefits at afas.org.
Although all CDCs must adhere to the same set of accreditation and military requirements, each has its own feel. Some also offer extra services, such as hourly drop-in care. Air Force CDCs also offer evening care on a monthly basis through the “Give Parents a Break” program, allowing parents time to themselves. Every CDC is run by its own Director, who seems to set the tone for the entire program. If you are considering a CDC, I recommend meeting with the school’s Director to get an idea of whether the program will be a good fit for your family and to learn about any additional perks your particular CDC offers.
Perhaps because of their convenience and affordability, CDCs almost always have limited availability. The best way to guarantee care for your child at the earliest possible date is to call the main CDC at your family’s new duty station as soon as you receive orders. Some programs will not place your child on a waitlist until after the service member’s report date— and they require families to apply for care in person. Many will allow you to join a waitlist long before your PCS date, and some will even offer your child a space before your arrival. In this case, you will be able to reserve a space for your child for a small deposit (I once paid $100 to guarantee care for my child beginning on our report date). The best way to find out about your duty station’s CDC policies is to call the office and explain your family’s needs.
If all the CDCs at your duty station are full, or if you prefer in-home care, you may get a list of certified (by Child Development Services) in-home daycares from the CDC office. In-home daycares provide care for babies as young as four weeks, and have much wider availability than the CDCs.
Tip #4: Start researching early.
As soon as you receive orders, begin your search. Although nothing compares with a face-to-face visit, several websites engines will allow you to narrow your search to a few programs, allowing you to start learning about interesting programs well before your PCS date. Childcare aware.org allows users to search for state licensed and nationally accredited programs according to city, state, or zip code. They also offer resources specifically designed for military families. You can also begin your school search by looking for schools with a particular accreditation—for example, NAEYC.org has a “search by city or zip code” function. Narrowing your search to NAEYC accredited schools also guarantees that your family will qualify for a GSA or NACCRRA subsidy, since national accreditation is usually required to qualify.
Tip 5: Call the school directors, and ask questions.
Once you’ve narrowed your search to a few options, put in a call for the director of each program. Most school directors are proud of their programs and are happy to discuss their schools and policies with you. This is a good time to get a feel for the school’s culture, ask specific questions about academics or discipline, and address any special needs your child will need to be met. Asking about the teachers’ training and qualifications can also be very informative. Find out what the school’s availability is like, and whether they have a wait list.
Tip 6: Visit the school.
Once you’ve reached your duty station, be sure to visit the schools you’re considering. Even with a prestigious accreditation, a charismatic director, and great website, some schools just don’t feel like a good fit in person. This is the chance for you (and your child) to see the classrooms and meet teachers. Seeing a school in action can get your child excited about starting, or allow you to to cross a program off your list.
Tip 7: Consider a nanny.
Two factors prevent many families from considering nannies: nannies are perceived to be prohibitively expensive, and the interview and vetting process can be quite time-consuming. Sittercity.com and care.com remove both of these barriers. Both companies perform background checks on potential nannies, and provide families with detailed profiles and references for each caregiver. Nannies post their hourly rates, which are often comparable to private daycares’ rates. To increase affordability, families can create a co-op to share a nanny. Sittercity offers deep membership discounts to military families; care.com features a USAA discount and runs periodic promotions offering free short-term memberships for military members.
Tip 8: Once you’re in, schmooze a little.
Once you’ve found a great program or nanny, be sure to remind your child’s caregiver that you appreciate the work he or she does. Bringing donuts periodically, remembering birthdays, and learning more about their lives and families goes a long way toward building a trusting, mutually supportive relationship. I’ve found that especially in new situations, a small gesture like bringing baked goods for the teachers is so appreciated— and remembered.
Hopefully, these tips will make finding a great school a little easier. If you happen upon any other tricks or shortcuts, please share them below!