The Portland Phoenix

Will Work For Childcare: Maine moms and families navigate ‘impossible’ child care system

Aryana Vermette with son Elroy in a playroom at Growing Learners in Steven's Square in Portland on March 3, 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Aryana Vermette with son Elroy in a playroom at Growing Learners in Steven's Square in Portland on March 3, 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The Great Resignation. The Great Reshuffling. Workforce Revolution. Labor Shortage. Regardless of the terminology, it’s clear that the tides have been changing in the jobs game for the last three years. Magnified by the pandemic, systemic issues in work culture earned massive media attention. Now, employers and employees are, in a sense, pitted against each other in a battle of bottom lines. One camp says no one wants to work, and the other clarifies that no one wants to work for nothing

But the salary argument, while valid, is superficial at best. Reducing a labor shortage to one solution ignores the experience of a vital yet historically undervalued workforce demographic: working moms. 

“I don’t know how we do it,” says Malory Ferguson, a single, working mother of one in South Portland, who also attends nursing school. “It’s impossible to keep everything in order. So much of [our] life is just drinking from a firehose. If I survive every day, I feel good. I’m not thriving.”

Sure, women have made gains in equality over the last fifty years, but what they’ve gained in corporate America, they’ve lost in childcare. When moms go to work, who takes care of the kids? Now, in the midst of a national childcare crisis, parents of all genders are finding themselves in a classic catch-22 — and they’re speaking up about it. The verdict is in. There’s not a shortage of labor; there’s a shortage of support for working parents.

The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a steady decline in the number of women with children participating in the workforce since 2019. The most obvious culprit for this decline is, of course, the pandemic. After all, 3.5 million working mothers left or were forced out of their jobs at the height of Covid-19. Between the stresses of juggling work and family, now merged in the remote work revolution, and the types of jobs cut, women bore the brunt of job losses throughout the pandemic. While these numbers are shocking, women with children are not surprised. 

Malory Ferguson and son Everett in their house in South Portland on March 3, 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

While families can take all kinds of configurations, it often falls on moms to carry the ‘mental load’ for the household, act as the primary caregiver, perform domestic labor, coordinate enrichment or extracurricular activities, and shoulder the guilt that comes with spending time away from their kids, all while performing their job duties outside of the home — assuming, of course, that they can find childcare within their means.

This is a tall order across the country right now, but especially in Maine, where hundreds of childcare facilities closed during the pandemic. With more and more people migrating to the state, particularly Portland, the demand for quality, affordable childcare has never been higher. 

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services 2021 Market Rate Survey shows that in Cumberland County, the average yearly cost of full-time child care at a licensed childcare center is $15,756 for infants, $14,508 for toddlers, $13,680.16 for preschoolers, and $9,360 for school-age children. And that’s for just one child.

To put those numbers in perspective, the University of Southern Maine’s current in-state tuition rate is $11,940. Basically, it’s more expensive to send a toddler to preschool in Portland than it is to send an adult child to state college.

The hefty price tag attached to childcare is, for a majority of families, out of reach. A parent working full-time at state minimum wage brings home $28,704 before taxes. That means over half of their salary is dedicated to child care alone. In a city where the cost of living is 16 percent higher than the national average, that’s just not feasible. 

State officials have tried to help. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, allocated more than $100 million of federal funding for childcare during the pandemic as of July 2022, including state funding that gave more than 7,000 childcare workers monthly stipends of $200. The state also maintains a website, Child Care Choices, aimed at connecting parents to local care options.

But cost is only one component of the current crisis. Even families who can afford full-time care can’t find it, as childcare scarcity has precipitated insanely long waitlists. Regional Manager of Growing Learners Childcare Centers in Greater Portland, Aryana Vermette, shared that their current waitlist for entry is in the 700s. Of those, about 500 are infants — some of whom haven’t even been born.

Aryana Vermette with son Elroy in a playroom at Growing Learners in Stevens Square in Portland on March 3, 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Maine’s childcare insufficiency influences intimate family decisions, like if or when to have more children and even where to live. It also robs families of the ability to select the provider that’s best suited to them, forcing them instead to send their children wherever a spot becomes available.

“I have this really nostalgic, romantic idea that you just pick the [daycare] that feels the best to you and fits your lifestyle and your parenting style and your ethics, but in reality, you’re fighting to get a callback from anywhere. It feels like desperation at its finest,” says Ferguson.

To make matters worse, the lack of availability is exacerbated by incompatible hours. Working parents in most industries, particularly food, retail, and healthcare, often find themselves patchworking childcare together just to make it through the day. 

Liz Turner, a Portland mom and trauma surgeon, is well-versed in the patchwork model. With a work schedule ranging from 60 to 130 hours a week and no family nearby, she’s had to piecemeal a network of neighbors, teachers, colleagues and babysitters to bridge gaps before and after childcare, including overnights and weekends as needed.

The stress created by childcare desperation can be insurmountable. Working parents simply cannot continue on this trajectory. So what can be done? The most immediate solution is creating more childcare centers — something Falmouth mother, realtor and broker Lauren Jones has been working toward by brokering childcare centers in Southern Maine communities.

When Jones couldn’t find care for her daughter, she found an investor to purchase a vacant facility in Falmouth to be leased by a promising childcare provider.

“My dad says, ‘When you don’t have a seat at the table, make one yourself.’ It was definitely a very rewarding transaction. I love dropping [my daughter] off and seeing all the other kids come in,” says Jones, who has since brokered childcare centers in South Portland, Yarmouth, and Cape Elizabeth. 

Lauren Jones with daughter Mary in her office at F.O. Bailey Real Estate in Falmouth on March 3, 2023. Jones brokered childcare centers in three locations, hoping to find a solution for childcare needs in her family and others. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Maine nonprofits are also working to help solve the childcare shortage. Coastal Enterprises, Inc (CEI) in Brunswick recently announced they are accepting applications for their Child Care Business Lab for the fourth consecutive year. This program helps individuals interested in starting both home-based and facility-based childcare businesses in Maine through training and funding.

“An unprecedented amount of grant funding is available through Governor Mills’ Maine Jobs & Recovery Act to help people start and grow child care businesses,” Jennifer Sporzynski, a senior vice president at CEI said in a February press release.

According to Vermette, Maine’s childcare industry needs more of that state support if we stand a chance of making it through the current crisis — through scholarships for early childhood education majors, grants to increase teacher pay and grants for those seeking to open new childcare centers.

The struggles of working mothers should not fall solely on childcare centers that are already overextended. And while much of the problem is deeply rooted in the devaluing of work traditionally done by women, dads and all kinds of parents are getting looped into the childcare dilemma. It’s no longer a problem that affects women exclusively; perhaps that’s (sadly why it’s finally gaining some recognition.

Mattie Wahosky, a Portland mom working in advertising, was hopeful that issues brought to light during the pandemic would usher in more progressive workplace practices for employees with children. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“It feels like no one took stock in the learnings we got from being home in Covid and looking at what was broken and what needed support and what needed funding; it was just glossed over,” Wahosky said. 

It’s no coincidence that every parent consulted in the research for this piece suggested that businesses (with the means) implement on-site childcare. Even company partnerships with childcare providers would ease the strain. Beyond that, adopting policies that normalize parenthood and offer flexibility for caregivers would go a long way. 

“Employers who build more rounded-out and inclusive family environments have the ability to greatly change the family dynamic,” says Lorilye Holland, a mother of two in Limerick. “Not having to worry about who’s taking care of your kids and having them near you would free up more quality time. Your day would run smoother; there would be less rushing, less stress and less conflict in the home.”

Nicole Whalen, a marketing manager for the online grocer Misfits Market, brings her personal experience as a mother — a mother who’s been laid off while pregnant, nonetheless — to the table to advocate for parental understanding and flexibility in work models.

“I try to make sure that I don’t hide the fact that I am balancing being a parent and having a career,” Whalen said. “I want people to see that, yeah, my baby sometimes comes to meetings, and so can yours, and that’s great because something has to change.” 

Jordan Peden is a Portland-based freelance writer and a contributing editor for Ask Us Beauty Magazine.

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