My life as a single mother has often meant looking up, helpless, waving goodbye like Wile E. Coyote, after I'd realized the ground had dropped out from under me. A car breaking down, an illness that prevents me from working, or losing government funding has often been enough for me to sit at home, staring out the window, chewing my nails through waves of anxiety so great my vision grew fuzzy.
Several times in my years of working while putting myself through college, or working to start my freelancing career, the reason for this stress has been not qualifying for any form of child care assistance and not being able to afford it on my own.
It's not a problem reserved for single parents. Working families throughout Missoula struggle to find affordable care, and it's something Grace Decker at Child Care Resources has been trying to address for a long time. Decker's spent 20 years in child care and early education, serves on the board of trustees at Missoula County Public Schools and, for the last four years, has helped Missoula parents pay for care through CCR. She's seen the problem from every angle.
"Child care availability in Missoula is at crisis proportions," she recently wrote on social media. "At the same time child care workers are paid starvation wages, literally, and several large programs have closed over the past couple of years. It's a huge problem. And yet we treat it as though it's each individual family's personal private problem."
That last sentence rings true, though I'd never realized how much. As a single mother for almost a decade, I am not a stranger to difficulties in finding any kind of child care, and long ago knew that places like Montessori schools and other high-quality programs would not be available to my family because of the high cost of tuition. But good luck finding an affordable program in Missoula that accepts babies.
I sat with Grace recently in Bernice's Bakery to talk about solutions to a problem every working parent faces. It wasn't the first time. She'd been an empathetic ear during my past struggles. Now, I was speaking to her not as someone in desperate need of help and guidance, but as an ally in helping her advocate for families who'd been in the same situation I had.
Infant care in Missoula is nearly nonexistent, and parents are growing more and more exasperated. In a recent live video post on Facebook, Missoula mom Jacole Johnson was emotional after learning her infant daughter's child care center was abruptly closing.
"Here in Missoula we have an abundance of amazing preschools," said Johnson. "But for early care, you have to get on a waitlist when you get that positive pregnancy test."
In the video, Johnson speaks of her experiences working in early childhood education, which she received a degree in, and how difficult it was to afford operating her own center. She also speaks of the hoops many families have to jump through to guarantee a safe place for their infants to attend once maternity leave ends and both parents go back to work full-time.
"Many families are paying for their infant's spots before their babies are even born," Johnson said.
These are common scenarios, according to Kelly Rosenleaf, CCR's executive director.
"For some centers, the waiting list is so long, your baby will be 2 by the time their spot is available," she says. "So families have to pay when their spot opens, even if they're still pregnant."
Rosenleaf says in Missoula, Ravalli and Mineral counties, there are 162 licensed child care facilities, 47 of which are centers and 115 are in private homes. But only 19 of those centers are licensed to take children under 2. Most of the home-based centers are licensed for infants, but simply can't afford to take on a months-old baby.
"If I had a partner, I'd be willing to provide infant care," says Denise Rohan-Smith, who has operated Little Dipper Daycare out of her Missoula home for 33 years. "But it's difficult to give an infant the attention he or she deserves while having to do everything else myself, like preparing meals, taking the kids outside, toilet-training other children."
Rohan-Smith's home is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and she also spends time outside of that on training and cleaning inside and outside her house. Even then, she struggles to get by and pay not just her own costs, but those of the daycare.