Think you'll be a working mom?

Making up your mind about day care is hard. Getting in is even harder.

THE PANIC SET in about two in the morning one day as I soothed my jittery newborn daughter. Holding her close in the dark of the nursery, stroking her head as I nursed her, I tried to imagine a stranger calming the vulnerable bundle in my arms. For the first time, I found myself questioning the wisdom of day care, a strange experience for someone who before motherhood felt squeamish about giving up even one day of work. Yet if I discovered a surprising vein of sympathy for the Christian conservative argument against day care, I also realized that day care is the bedrock of feminism. Without it, women like me—women who not only enjoy their jobs but define themselves by them—would be forced to shed a central part of their identity. As my mind anxiously wandered over these contradictions in the dark, I never thought to question whether day care was available if I wanted it.

In the world of day care, waiting lists are long, available spots go quickly, and demand far exceeds supply. Child Care Resources, a nonprofit that refers parents to day-care providers around King County, came out with a report in June estimating a need for at least 33,000 spots above the 50,000 that currently exist in the county.

More day cares aren't opening up because they simply don't make money, according to Nina Auerbach, Child Care Resource's executive director. She says day-care providers end up subsidizing parents, who "can't or won't pay" what it really costs to care for their kids. It's no wonder: She estimates the true cost of caring for a baby to be around $1,200 to $1,500 a month—more than many people pay for housing.

Of course, the women having the hardest time finding child care are those who can afford to pay the least, like those on welfare who as of July 1 were told they must work unless they had children under three months old. But even the rest of us are squeezed by the day-care shortage.

My own search for day care took some surprising twists and turns. It began when my daughter was about three months old, her newborn nerves having given way to a disposition like sunshine. Despite my doubts, I hoped to find a place I could trust in the three months I had before returning to work. I started making calls.

I got my first inkling of trouble when I reached a day-care center downtown, a location I could easily get to from my office to nurse or just check up on the baby—the only way that day care seemed palatable to me. A cheerful female voice told me that that there were no openings until at least September—four months too late—and she didn't sound too promising about then, either. If I could possibly hold out, there was another problem: Each "class" of kids, grouped by age, moved up to the next level only once a year. So if my kid by some stroke of luck made it in, she'd be stuck in the infant room until she was almost 2, walking and talking while those around her would still be babbling on their bellies. My kid was barely out of the womb, and already she faced the prospect of being behind her peers. (She would also risk being behind if she didn't go to day care, according to some child "experts" now advising that children must learn socialization skills before kindergarten.)

The person on the other end of the phone told me, however, that I was welcome to take a tour. In fact, I needed to do so before being allowed on the waiting list—and pay a nonrefundable deposit of $100. I continued my search.

Space, it turned out, was particularly tight downtown because lots of moms made the same mental calculations that I did. All over it was the same story. One place wouldn't even let me in for a tour until a spot opened up, nor would staffers promise to call me unless I called them once a month to check in. Another allowed visitors only once a month on a group tour. When I finally got one, with a month to go before returning to work, the director told us point blank that we wouldn't all get in. Looking around the crowd, I saw a number of pregnant women only starting to show and realized how late in the game I was. Yet I couldn't imagine schlepping around to day-care centers while coping with nausea, a bloated body, and preparations for the birth.

I was also disturbed to find that parents are essentially punished for trying to spend as much time with their kids as they can. Many day-care centers don't have part-time rates, which I needed because my husband and I each planned to spend one weekday at home. And staffers advise "locking in" care as soon as possible. In essence, you're more likely to find a spot if you turn your kid over at two months than at two years, because spots for older kids are filled by the younger ones there moving up.

I widened my search to neighborhoods around my home.

But even while I was trying to get into these places, I continued to have doubts about them. I got downright depressed after visiting one highly recommended place where the infant room was dark and cramped, and the only babies getting attention were the ones crying. Others seemed brighter and more cheerful, the babies calm. But in the two or so hours I stayed at each place, I seldom saw babies read or sung to, or even meaningfully engaged with direct eye contact and conversation.

I did find one place I loved, where staffers made homemade applesauce, blew bubbles, and knew a thousand other tricks for producing a smile. I had one chance. The director was waiting to hear from a woman to whom she had offered a spot, which otherwise would go to me. I put my name on the waiting list and hoped.

A FEW WEEKS before I was due back at work, I heard back. The other woman had taken the spot. The next one would likely open up in the fall of 2000. I heard nothing at all from the handful of other places whose waiting lists I was on. Luckily, my husband was able to take a paternal leave for two months. We switched into phase two of the day-care search: finding a nanny. It seemed our only option, but it was an attractive one, offering one-on-one care in our own home.

We placed a help wanted ad. The calls streamed in. We heard from teenagers and women in their 60s, retirees and young mothers who wanted to bring along their own kids, liberal arts graduates and immigrants calling for their friends who couldn't speak English. Reliability was a problem. My husband, now home and conducting the search, made three interview appointments for one day. None showed up.

A more subtle issue presented itself when people did show up. Who were we to be employing what would formally be known as domestic help? As we heard about the work history of the most credible candidates—one had worked for a prominent millionaire whose name made my jaw drop—we started feeling a little embarrassed about our circumstances. "It's a small house," my husband would say as he showed people around, even though it seemed luxuriously roomy to us when we moved in last year after years of apartment living. Most of our potential employees drove better cars than we did.

We were fortunate to be able to even consider hiring a nanny, a proposition more expensive than a day-care center. But there was no way we could compete with some of the wealthy families in the hiring pool.

Finally, we hired an elegant Guatemalan woman, but only by agreeing to stretch our offer beyond what we really could afford. "We're counting on you," we told her pleadingly as she left for a trip to Guatemala, to return only a day before she was due to start with us.

The Sunday night before, we came home from a weekend away to find a message from her on our answering machine. "I called to let you know. . . ." She was cut off. With a sinking feeling in our stomachs, we called her in Guatemala. She said she was having a family emergency and could not come back in time.

With all of two days before we needed someone, we frantically called a woman who had offered to be a backup, a Russian grandmother who knew the parents of close friends. Mercifully she agreed to come. Miraculously, she turned out to be the most wonderful caretaker we could have imagined, both loving and joyous. "How's our girl?" she asked recently, calling on her day off to check up on our daughter's runny nose.

Our search was over, after five long months. All we can hope is that she'll stay with us for as long as possible, so we don't have to do this again any time soon.

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