Jillian Phillips is a working Massachusetts parent trying to navigate a pandemic. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job full of highs, lows, and a need for public policy innovations.
Phillips, a single parent by choice, has an 8-year-old daughter and twin sons who are 19 months old. Another daughter, who would be five years old, died in infancy.
Phillips had relied on her mother, a retired nurse, who lived with the family, to provide child care.
“If I hadn’t had my mom at the time, I certainly would not have gone on to have more children because I wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” Phillips says. “The cost of child care, especially in our state, is out of reach.”
Earlier this year, however, two tragedies struck. Phillips’ mother passed away unexpectedly, and the global pandemic exploded in the United States.
So Phillips had to manage her grief, take care of her children, and work full time. A social worker herself, she supervises social workers who provide early intervention services for families.
“I’ve found a rhythm, but I’m slowly drowning,” she says of her work, family, and personal responsibilities. “Thank goodness, my job is flexible. I can fit things in during the kids’ naps, after they go to bed, or before they wake up — which means I’m working all the time because there’s no other way to do it.”
“Part of why I sit in this corner,” Phillips says of the location where she conducts Zoom calls, “is because the rest of my house is a nightmare. I don’t have time for housework. I have to keep a roof over my kids’ heads.”
Without child care, even a small errand became a small ordeal. Phillips says she and her children once waited in their car in a store parking lot for more than an hour to pick up groceries that she had ordered. Then she was told the order had been cancelled. “So I’m wondering, how am I supposed to get milk now for my children?”
Help showed up during the summer when the teenaged daughter of a colleague volunteered to help with Phillips’ kids for a nominal sum of money.
“She keeps them safe while I’m working. I try to keep them in snacks.”
Phillips was concerned about sending her children to a child care program because they have health challenges, and she herself has asthma.
Now that the school is starting, Phillips has chosen the remote option for her daughter. Phillips was going to keep her sons at home, but earlier this month, after watching them essentially “raise themselves” while she worked, she decided to enroll them in an in-home child care program for a few days a week. She can afford this thanks to an income-based voucher and the fact that during the pandemic Massachusetts is paying parent copays. But because she knows this copay support could end, Phillips is looking for a second job that she can do from home on nights and weekends to help make ends meet.
It has been a daunting time, but Phillips is sharing her story to help policymakers understand the daily – and hourly – challenges that parents are facing, and how these challenges could lead to policy innovations.
“One alternative that would be great is if there were stipends that I could use to pay an early educator to come to my home and watch my children, someone who is trained and who could educate them. There are people who are unemployed right now, why not shift their unemployment payments to a stipend so they can come and watch my kids?”
Unfortunately, states don’t have the policy or the funding flexibility to make these kinds of shifts and adaptations, even in an emergency and even though, as Phillips says, “That’s the reality I’m hearing about in talking to my friends, we all have different needs.”
Another challenge that Phillips points to is equity.
“Wealthy families can pay a teacher $200 an hour to educate their children. If I had a lot of money, I would hire a nanny, but I can’t afford that, and neither can most people. And a lot of people who have to go to work aren’t white, and those families aren’t getting the resources they need.”
Smart policies could make a difference.
“So many things that Jillian and other parents are going through have a policy solution that people are working on,” Amy O’Leary, director of Strategies for Children’s Early Education for All Campaign, says. “What many parents need is not out of reach. Their problems are solvable if we really think about how to use resources in different ways.”
“If policymakers want kids to be okay,” Phillips herself says, “if they want any chance that this current generation is going to grow up to be okay, they have to put in the funding and resources.”
“There has to be some creativity invested in this. We have to hear the voices of people who are saying, What you’re doing isn’t working for my family. It’s not asking for a handout. But the fact is we do provide free public education for kids, but not for infants and toddlers. Why? Infants and toddlers are just as deserving. If we had federal funding, we could pay early educators a living wage and provide early education that supports families.”