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Facing limited choices in care

For many parents, finding help a hurdle

  • Kids from Puddle Jumpers in Peterborough feed sheep while on a field trip to East Hill Farm.

    Kids from Puddle Jumpers in Peterborough feed sheep while on a field trip to East Hill Farm.

  • Kids from Puddle Jumpers in Peterborough feed sheep while on a field trip to East Hill Farm.

When Pine Hill Childcare Center in Peterborough closed its doors, and Peggy Waterhouse moved it to Wilton to open a new operation under the name A Child’s Nature, she had to leave a lot of her clients behind. Among the handful that followed her was Sarah Aborn of Peterborough. Commuting to Wilton for childcare was a tough decision for Aborn. She looked around for other childcare possibilities in Peterborough, but found a dearth of options — most of the other local licensed care facilities were already full, or didn’t offer some of the things she loved most about Waterhouse’s Waldorf-based program.

“I’m willing to do it because it’s so hard to find good childcare around here,” said Aborn in a phone interview Sunday about the commute to Wilton.

Ultimately, Aborn worked out a carpooling schedule with some other parents to ease the burden of the transportation. It was worth it to keep the high-quality care she had come to expect, along with extras like all-natural toys and healthy snacks, she said.

Aborn is not alone among young families in the region struggling to negotiate a busy family life in a rural area that often provides limited options. The struggles, say many parents and care providers, are pronounced for parents of young children not yet ready for preschool. And the relatively few number of choices can also cause major logistical problems for parents on the days when their kids are sick, on vacation or out of school because of snow.

Michelle Golec of Peterborough, who has had her son in Pine Hill Childcare since the age of 4 months, is among those who has been frustrated by the lack of options. Her husband had scouted the area for suitable day cares when their son was first born, but had difficulty finding one that was open during their work hours. When Waterhouse moved her childcare to Wilton, after Pine Hill Childcare closed its doors , the couple took the opportunity to again scope out the local options — but there weren’t many that felt right to her, she said. She was interested in a licensed facility, and couldn’t find one to fit her needs, she said. Instead, she turned to a state-of-the-art facility near where she worked in Merrimack. But she was unhappy with the quality of care her son was receiving there, she said. Eventually, she too, decided that the longer commute was worth having her son in an environment she trusted. Licensed facilities are something the region has a dearth of, said Golec, who would like to see more options in the area. “There aren’t day care centers around here,” she said. “There are day care homes. I would like more licensed operating facilities dedicated to day care.”

Scheduling headaches

Aborn and Golec aren’t the only parents who have struggled with scheduling and child care, said Colleen Stone, owner of Puddle Jumpers, a preschool and day care in Peterborough. Puddle Jumpers has people on waiting lists to get access to both infant care and before-and-after school care, said Stone, which are the two offerings with the highest demand in this area. Infants especially, said Stone. Because infants need a higher caregiver-to-child ratio, facilities are limited in the number of infants they can take on.

Waterhouse said that she often sees couples arrange care with friends or family while their child is still an infant, and transfer to a day care situation once they’re toddler-age.

Stone said finding a day care that allows parents enough time to drop off and pick up their children, with padding for travel to and from work, is part of the challenge, too. When Puddle Jumpers first opened, its hours ran from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., she said, but there were so many parents who were seeking an earlier start, Stone pushed her opening time back an hour.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” she said. “I’ve had parents that have needed care even prior to [6:30 a.m.].” The care at Puddle Jumpers is provided by Stone and her daughter, so they have to keep their numbers small. And because they’re working a 12-hour day already, stretching it more to accommodate a single child isn’t feasible for their business model, she said. Larger centers with more children can afford to have more staff, which they can stagger throughout the day — that might mean more flexible hours, Stone noted. But more children equals less individual time spent with each child.

Sometimes, solutions can be found for busy parents who need one-time assistance with a scheduling issue. Stone said she’s taken children into her home either before or after Puddle Jumpers’ official hours, but only in emergency situations where a parent needs an extended day.

Days off

Waterhouse said that while her preschool was housed in ConVal, she worked with students there, training them to work with young children. Those students would sometimes make themselves available during holidays when the preschool wasn’t open, as they were usually out of school as well. She suggested local child care providers forge relationships with their schools to provide programs on days when school is canceled.

Local childcare providers are limited by state licensing in the amount of flexibility they can offer . For example, a child with a fever of over 101 degrees cannot attend a licensed childcare facility, and has to stay home until 24 hours have passed after the fever comes down. On that, local providers can’t budge, and have really no solution to offer parents, they said, unless that parent has another unlicensed caregiver they can call on.

“You just have to take the time and be home,” said Waterhouse. Parents may just have to accept that they won’t be able to have any regular vacation time during their child’s earlier years, when illness is more common, she said.

Stone agreed, noting that it can be hard with parents of multiple children, because they have to manage their sick time at work to include not only their own health issues, but take into account they may have to take off for any one of their children.

Golec said that she’s been at her job long enough to accrue an adequate amount of sick leave per year to stay home with her son when the need arises, but acknowledged that having to take off for sick days and for school holidays puts a strain on a lot of parents.

“A lot of facilities act like its still the 1950s, and the wife is home to take care of the kids. But now, you’re dealing with two parents working. This is the number one hot topic for working moms who are trying to juggle where their kids are when you can’t be with them. [Day care providers] are there to service a working parent, and parents work year round,” she said.

Aborn agreed that sick days are the toughest to deal with, especially as a single mother. “It is very challenging when he’s sick and I can’t bring him. I’m a single mom. I’m the one that makes the money and has to be there, and that’s a major challenge for me in terms of when he can’t go to school,” she said.

Another area that licensed caregivers can’t do much about is sporadic care for parents that need a short-term arrangement. Childcare facilities are always striving to operate at capacity, noted Stone, because that’s the only way to keep a profitable business, so there’s hardly ever room for a family that needs care for a specific, short period of time. Also, there are requirements for licensed facilities, including having the child’s immunization and medical records on file. Since most parents don’t have that information at their fingertips, licensed care facilities can’t just take in a child on a day when school is canceled, for example, even if they did have an open slot. Licensed before-and-after school programs, such as A Child’s Nature and Puddle Jumpers, will keep those already enrolled in their before-and-after school programs for the day in the event of school closings, however.

There are trade-offs to enrolling in a licensed facility, noted Waterhouse. Parents who enroll their children in a licensed care facility get the stability of knowing that their care provider will be there in the day-to-day. Where an unlicensed provider might call in their own sick day, Waterhouse is responsible for making sure that her facility has staff ready and available.

“Working parents are dependent on childcare to make sure the cogs of the wheel keep flowing,” said Waterhouse. “That’s part of why many parents like an organized childcare system, because it’s very stable.”

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