After receiving their joyful news, parents expecting their first baby are initiated into another fact of life: there’s a waitlist at every licensed early childcare center between Parachute and Aspen. “People hear through the grapevine that the moment they know they are pregnant they must get on a waitlist,” says Kelly Beal, co-owner of Honey Tree Childcare, a licensed facility in Carbondale. At Honey Tree, Beal says 53 families have signed up for nine openings that will become available in June, for the care of infants between the ages of about six weeks and 12 months. She says that while the Honey Tree list is verified, duplicate applications make most waitlists inaccurate. “Everyone gets on all the lists they can.”
At Blue Lake Preschool, with locations in Carbondale and El Jebel, the number of applicants is 541, says Executive Director Michelle Oger. Factoring in multiple sign-ups, she estimates that the real number of applicants is about half. Even this, she says, “is crazy.” One mother who declined to be identified says her newborn was number 43 on the waitlist at the only childcare center in her area. Now two years old, the toddler is number 38. Siblings of children already in a program have priority, says the mother, who works at home part-time while her husband works full-time.
“We are not on vacation. It feels like nobody is doing anything for the families who live here all year,” she says.
Usually, it’s new moms — rather than new dads — who adjust their careers. “I had to ask, did it make sense for me to stay in teaching, or to find a way to make money from home?” says Rachel Perkins, who loved teaching for the Aspen School District. Her salary made the $1,500 month fee for infant care difficult to afford. Perkins now works part-time for a sport journalism website. Through her husband’s job they receive housing.
Even parents who secure a spot in an early childcare program and keep their careers on track know the anxiety of the waitlist. “It’s really scary,” says Sara Nadolny, a Basalt town planner who returned to work fulltime 10 weeks after her daughter was born. Nadolny works with the Basalt Early Childhood Coalition, established in 2006, to increase infant and toddler care capacity. Last month the town of Basalt signed an agreement with Blue Lake Preschool to open its third infant and toddler care facility in Willits. Planning for the center is in the initial stages.
Many families endure long commutes once they secure infant care. From the time her daughter was 10 weeks old until she was one, Valley Settlement Development Director Sally Boughton drove five days a week from the family’s home in New Castle to the El Jebel childcare center, to the organization’s office in Glenwood Springs, then back to El Jebel to pick up her daughter before returning home.
Ironically, one of Valley Settlement’s missions is to increase early childhood care and education for Latino families living between Parachute and Aspen. About 1% of Latino families enroll their children in licensed preschools, according to Valley Settlement.
To address the gap in early education in the Spanish-speaking community, the organization offers a mobile preschool. It also provides infant care coaching for 32 Spanish-speaking, at-home providers. Though they don’t have to be licensed, such family, friends and neighbors, or “FFNs,” are indispensable, says Kenia Pinela, a peer support manager. Some FFNs take infants as young as four weeks old. Providers earn between $20 and $40 per child per day, which can begin at 5 a.m. and go into the evening. “It’s heartbreaking for our families when both parents have to work two jobs each and commute long distances,” says Boughton.
Shirley Ritter, who heads Aspen’s Kids First children’s resource center, says the town needs more FFNs in addition to more licensed centers. “The state offers a $5,000 incentive for a private home to get licensed, but I don’t think anyone who lives on Red Mountain is going to go for the money to open a childcare facility,” she says.
Ritter shuns words like “daycare center” and “babysitter.” Instead she talks about the need for “classrooms” and “teachers,” because quality infant care includes education, in addition to being a safe place for a baby to eat and sleep. “That’s why infant care is so expensive,” Ritter says. “Infant classrooms require one trained teacher for every three babies.” She says it takes a year for teachers to get the training to understand how rapidly an infant brain develops and what learning opportunities to offer.”
Limited paid leave and inflexible employers pose other obstacles for working families. One mother who declined to be identified said she took off three weeks of unpaid leave after her second child was born; her husband had six weeks of paid leave. She returned to work as her employer required, but the mental pressure was unbearable.
“I came to a breaking point,” she says. “I couldn’t give my employer what she demanded, and I couldn’t give my children what they needed. We decided I had to quit my job, get healthy and stay home with our kids.” Money is tight. “We hope nothing goes wrong with our car.” And they pay $850 a month for their older child to attend a center a few days each week, so they don’t end up at the bottom of the waitlist, when the mother returns to work.