Child care costs are exorbitant in the United States. In fact, child care costs are so extreme that parents are often left in a lurch trying to find out how to make sure their kid is supervised in a safe way while not breaking their bank account. Average annual child care cost in the United States runs about $9,000 a year, but that number changes depending on where you live. In a full 26 states, child care costs rival those of a year of in-state college tuition. This is no doubt why, for a few months last year, my wife decided to offer free child care to a neighbor and good friend. It’s the right thing, of course, but given the worth of her offer, it was difficult to shake off the feeling we were being taken advantage of.
Eliza, a precocious 6-year-old who is incredibly energetic and kind of a smart-ass, came to our house for several weeks toward the end of last school year. She spent afternoons here, banging on the piano, arguing with my children, making a mess, and driving my wife crazy.
This was an arrangement my wife had entered into with an open heart and clear mind. After getting a new job, Eliza’s mom had become desperate for child care to close the gap between school and the end of the workday. When my wife stepped up, offering our home and asking nothing in return, I tried to stop her. What I did not understand was that she was making an investment that would later pay off — for me, specifically.
In my family, as is the case in most households, conversations around investment are generally grounded in finances, rather than time and effort. We talk about investment when we talk about planning for retirement. We talk about investments when we speak with our financial advisor about homeownership. We talk about investment when we consider what kind of financial security we might be able to pass on to our children.
Less common are discussions about personal and community investments. I mean, we talk about volunteering and helping neighbors, but it’s in the context of time management, logistics, and schedules. It’s less common to talk about or manage those investments as deeply as we do our finances. This is wrong-headed. Relationships in a community create social capital — you know, like neighbors willing to offer up free child care when you need it. Think, “one good turn deserves another.” If this is indeed true, then there should be some type of accounting for those turns.
About a week into the arrangement, it became very clear how difficult it would be for my wife to take on Eliza’s after-school care.
At first, making that kind of accounting explicit feels a bit icky. After all, most of us have long been told that good works should be done without seeking reciprocity. But the notion of selflessness is a bit antiquated, rooted in ancient civilizations when communities were more closely knit and relied on one another for health and protection. It was easier to not ask favors for favors simply because community involvement was expected from all members. It was the norm. That’s no longer the case.
It’s a sign of the times that I blanched when my wife informed me that Eliza would be in her care for hours after school. It was too much to do for free, I told her. She was being too generous and going above and beyond the requirements of friendship. I suggested she might be allowing herself to be taken advantage of.
I was, in short, being a selfish asshole.
She told me this in the most gentle of ways and assured me it would be fine. She played the “What would you want them to do if we were in their place?” rhetorical gambit. She reminded me that Eliza’s parents were our dear friends and we should be happy to do anything for our dear friends. Ultimately, it wasn’t up to me. My wife was giving her time freely. And aside from the fact that I work from home and would be around during Elizas visits, there was little about the arrangement that would affect my life. After all, I could always put on my noise-canceling headphones and close my door when the piano-pounding started. Which is what I did.
About a week into the arrangement, it became very clear how difficult it would be for my wife to take on Eliza’s after-school care. Yeah, we had two little boys in the house already, but adding the little girl into the mix somehow the increased the chaos disproportionate to the amount of physical space she occupied.
Through my office door, I heard, dimly, the hollers and yelling, the occasional cries. I would occasionally emerge to see my wife’s brow knitted in angst or her cheeks flushed with frustration. And, Lord help my idiocy, I would occasionally take these opportunities to ask if she was sure about what she was doing, only to receive a clipped reply that yes, she was (so I should just shut the hell up).
The tight communities of yore weren’t just about good feelings, they were also about saving money. We were seeing the return of that investment in a real and meaningful way.
There was a sigh of relief when the school year ended. It’s not because Eliza was a bad kid — she was not — but because taking care of Eliza was real work that caused tension in our marriage, largely because I was being an asshole about it. The arrangement ended, Eliza entered a summer camp and all talk of this time dropped and eventually, I forgot the arrangement ever happened. Then, a few months ago, our own summer child care arrangements fell through for a week.
My wife had gone back to work. So the loss of child care meant that I would somehow have to find a way to parent my kids and work my day job at the same time. On top of that, there was simply no way we could have paid for a short-term babysitter, much less find one on such short notice. In a word, I was screwed.
We were talking about this shitty situation with our friends one day, and Eliza’s mother chimed in. “I can watch your boys,” she said, happily.
She explained that she had stepped away from her day job and had time to help out. “Besides, how many times did you guys watch Eliza last year?” she asked.
“A lot,” I replied, joking-but-not-joking.
And that’s when it hit me. My wife’s voluntary unpaid labor had turned our a friendship into an anachronistic communal relationship. It was as if we’d gone back in time to an era where communities were more close-knit and interconnected, relying on one another to make it through. In this, I’d discovered a crucial revelation: The tight communities of yore weren’t just about good feelings, they were also about saving money. We were seeing the return of that investment in a real and meaningful way.
There is a very real market value on what that investment is, based on the going rates for child care. Considering the average national rate for in-home care is about $15 dollars an hour and my wife worked for 3 hours a day, it would come out to somewhere around $900 a month. But that’s not (the entire) point. The emotional and social value of the work my wife did was just as tangible. In a sense, we created an emotional and social safety net in a time and place (America in 2019) that is unforgiving to parents. We were no longer alone in our struggles.
The return from Eliza’s mom was deeply valuable to our family. But more than that it caused me to shift my perspective about investments. They are not all about money and in fact, some of the most valuable investments are the ones we make in good works from our communities and neighbors. They can’t be given a value but they are more valuable than we ever give them credit for.