An American Family in 2020: Balancing Bills, Child Care, and Lots of Schedules

For Miriam Cruz, child care is not a basic right — it is a struggle that defines her days and nights.

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Most Americans do not live very political lives. Many don’t think about politics at all. Some 47 percent of the population didn’t weigh in on the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the most polarizing in American history. On average, some 100 million Americans who are eligible to vote in each election in the past 12 years choose not to. Why? According to a Knight Foundation study, it’s because they have less faith in electoral systems, are less engaged in the news, and simply aren’t sure who to vote for. For so many parents, it’s simpler: They don’t have faith that policy will help them get through the day. Affordable healthcare and child care are a distant hope for many, as is having enough of a cushion to get back up when jobs are lost. Who has time to follow debates when you have two jobs? Who has time to get political when you have only a handful of hours to see your kids?

The stakes have only risen in 2020. With a sky-high unemployment rate, a pandemic-fueled exodus of working parents (especially moms), and economic disparity that has not been seen in our lifetime, it’s easy to paint a bleak picture. Politicians are doing just that — stoking fears and painting in broad strokes that depict an aspect of American life, but hardly a full picture.

So what does American life really look like for parents in 2020? We wanted to know and went out in search of a more realistic portrayal of it. In our search, we found Miriam Cruz. Cruz, 35, lives in Santa Clara, California, where she is raising two children — an 12-year-old and 1-year-old — with her partner, Cliff, 32, and her mother. The primary struggle of the Cruz household is child care, something that takes up 40 percent of Miriam’s income. In America, this is close to the norm, where it costs around $15,000 per year to provide child care for an infant, or 22 percent of the median household income. This is, needless to say, a struggle for most parents. Miriam is no exception.

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, Miriam Cruz had never had to pay for child care. Her mother, who lives with her and her partner, Cliff Sr., cared for her 1-year-old son, Cliff Jr. But her nightshift got cut because of COVID and she was forced to work days again. With grandma working a different shift, there was no one to watch Cliff Jr. So, now, Miriam and Cliff must pay $140 a day for a neighbor to babysit.

“Our need for child care is an indirect result of the pandemic,” says Cliff Sr. “We wouldn’t need it if things were like they were.”

It’s an expense the Cruz-Henderson family wasn’t prepared for, but they’re making it work. They have to. Miriam is a court supervisor in the Santa Clara, California, court system. Cliff is a court interpreter. They need to be a dual-income household to make ends meet. Staying home permanently to watch Cliff Jr. was never an option.

Miriam’s day starts at 6 a.m. and ends around midnight. When she wakes, she prepares Cliff Jr.’s food as well as supplies for his sitter. After that, she makes sure Anthony, her 12-year-old, is set up for remote school. At 12 years old, he won’t go back to the physical classroom until at least 2021. So now, he sits down in front of the computer every single day from 8:30 to 12, alone in the house for a few hours. Miriam makes sure he has lunch ready, whether it’s in the form of a scheduled Uber Eats delivery or made from leftovers in the fridge. Then she’s out the door.

Cliff Sr. sleeps in until 7, and he’s out the door just as quickly. He’s glad to be working at all. From March until late June, his court interpreting work as a contactor essentially dried up.

“My work depends on court overflow,” he says. “There are interpreters who are employees who work at the courts. But there’s always a need for extra, which is why I’m usually able to work every day.” The courts were shuttered when the pandemic hit. Fewer court cases mean fewer interpreters were needed.

While work picked up for Cliff Sr., he’s still making, he estimates, nearly 25-percent less than he was before the pandemic. That’s because a huge part of his work was also through depositions and non-court related appearances. Those dried up, too.

All this means that the Cruz-Henderson family budget is tight. Not only are they on the hook for an additional $700 a week in child care, but their grocery costs have also increased because Anthony eats two extra meals a day at home. Anthony qualified for reduced-cost meals at school. He would get two meals (breakfast and lunch) for free for five days a week. But, while Santa Clara schools are doing their best and provide free lunch every day for students at pick-up-locations, the program just isn’t accessible for homes like the Cruz-Henderson’s, where there are two working parents. No one can pick up the meals.

“I know this is extreme,” Miriam says, “but the kids are home all day, and they’re just eating. My groceries have doubled in cost. I’m at work. I can’t be driving by to go get [the school-provided] meals.”

Miriam’s work has also been affected by the pandemic. In the beginning, when stay-at-home orders hit, the Santa Clara Courts were faced with tightening budgets and decided to move everyone to 32 hours a week — or four days — with a slight pay cut. It was either that or layoffs. Now, Miriam spends half her time working at the courts in person, and the other half at home attending depositions via Zoom. Miriam’s glad to have her job, but the belt-tightening is getting to the point where they’ve had to punch more holes in the leather.

Her work-from-home schedule does, at least, have one advantage: She’s home with Anthony and can try to keep an eye on him while she does her own work. Still, add this onto a sometimes-not-perfect child care situation for her youngest, and the fact that Zoom school has technical difficulties and limits her son socio-emotionally, and it’s by no means what it was before. Her son misses being in actual school. He misses his friends, and he misses playing sports. Cliff Jr. is too young to know what he’s missing — but old enough to be a handful.

Miriam and Cliff Sr. don’t see their current situation as impossible. But it is precarious. Cliff Sr. picks the baby every day after work, where he takes over until Miriam gets home. From there, it’s another rush of activities. Cliff makes sure Anthony has done his homework; then Miriam arrives and they both exercise while Anthony babysits for an hour. Afterward, Miriam starts on dinner. They eat. Miriam’s mom returns from work around 7 and the next few hours are dedicated to bedtime and next-day preparations. They might go on an evening walk. Miriam might do some work on her side life coaching business. Cliff Sr. might work on some music. If both of them are lucky, they’ll be asleep by midnight.

None of this schedule, of course, includes the standard parenting issues that occur throughout the days and weeks. Anthony’s school has been tricky for Miriam to navigate. In the beginning, she was relieved that her son understood what at-home school required and did his work.

“I’m super grateful that he is actually afraid of me and he knows he has consequences,” she said when he first began school. “So he knows that he needs to be logged on at 8:30.”

But this bliss only lasted a few weeks. A teacher called and told her that Anthony had nine assignments missing. And Anthony is bored. He’s tired of being on the computer — the Playstation, just a few feet away, beckons in between classes — and he misses his friends.

“He doesn’t enjoy Zoom classrooms, or the homework, or doing things electronically,” she says. “I’m trying to keep him motivated.”

Miriam understands that Anthony is her responsibility and no one else’s. But at this point, especially in the times she’s working from home, it feels like it’s another full-time-job on top of her full-time job. There are none of the supports that exist in a normal school environment. No counseling hours. No tutoring sessions.

“I understand that it’s a parent’s responsibility,” she says one Friday afternoon when she’s furloughed from the court. “But it’s a whole job in and of itself to get your kid to do their homework and the follow-ups, and things like that. If we had a little bit more support from the teachers in regards to missing assignments, or maybe just more communication…”

Miriam drifts off. Nine missing assignments that have to be done online for a kid who is already tired of being online all day?

“I’m not on the school website every day. I’m working. I have so many other things going on. And to be honest, he didn’t do them because he didn’t want to, and now I’m battling with my child,” she says. “He’s here all day and he’s sick of being on the computer. As a mother, it’s my responsibility. But sometimes, it’s a little bit too much.”

These are normal stresses of parenthood. Sometimes kids don’t do assignments. But now, during the pandemic, such small events can carry enormous weight.

Do Miriam and Cliff Sr. think the way their life is right now is sustainable? For Miriam, it oscillates. It is a struggle. But, she says, she’s in the best shape of her life — ever since her bout with postpartum depression, she’s had a consistent routine of Zoom exercise classes at least three days a week, has been in charge of her mental health and eats better than ever. Cliff, meanwhile, has stepped up along with her and things are looking up at work. They love each other, they’re happy people, and they’re handling the things the best they can through healthy coping mechanisms and a healthy perspective.

But there’s something they both appear to agree on: Whatever they’ve managed to cobble together in terms of child care to get through this time could be much better, much cheaper, or much more helpful.

A few weeks ago, the next-door neighbor who babysits abruptly canceled on Miriam because she feared she had been exposed to COVID-19. The move was one made out of a concern for safety, but Miriam didn’t have enough time to find child care. No centers are open near them. Miriam was lucky enough to be working from home and could sit Cliff Jr. on her lap when she attended depositions. But it certainly wasn’t ideal.

Miriam and Cliff Sr. are thinking about taking Cliff Jr. out of child care altogether on the off-weeks when Miriam works from home. It will save them $1,400 per month. It won’t be easy. But it’s something they’re considering.

It’s hard for Miriam and Cliff Sr. to imagine the government can’t be doing more than it is. Maybe it’s incompetence — she brings up the fact that nail salons in her area are open well before schools are — or maybe it’s that the government just doesn’t seem to know how to help.

“Because of the pandemic, we do now have to pay child care because of what happened with Miriam’s mother,” Cliff says when asked if he thinks there’s anything the government could do to help. “But it seems like an uphill battle to make a case for that.”

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