For working parents with young children, the challenge of paying for child care is a daily cause of concern, if not outright panic.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) reports that 65 percent of U.S. children who are age 5 or younger have all parents who live with them in the workforce. And the annual average cost to place two children in a child care center is about $18,000.

It’s not hard to see where the math behind those statistics often leaves working parents. They either have to spend a large chunk of their paychecks on child care, or they leave the workforce entirely to take care of their kids.

While the latter option may seem to be the most economical—bringing a loss of income, but a corresponding cut in expenses—the equation isn’t actually that simple.

“For most low-income and middle-class families, there is little government help with child care costs, but the cost of career interruptions can add up dramatically over a lifetime,” warns CAP. “Each year out of work can cost a family significantly more than three times a parent’s annual salary in lifetime income.

“Many low-income and middle-class families are stuck in a financial catch-22, with too little income today to afford child care that can sustain careers, raise incomes considerably, and provide a measure of financial security for the rest of their lives.”

To show just how serious those long-term impacts are, CAP created an online calculator that working parents can use.

CAP is among the organizations to suggest that a generous, federal child care tax credit is needed to make care more affordable for working parents, allowing them to avoid the short- and long-term costs of leaving the work force to care for their children.

While affordable child care is one tool that could be used to combat this problem, another is improved work flexibility.

For example, consider the impact of offering meaningful part-time work to parents of young children. Several studies have shown that more than half of working mothers and working fathers would appreciate the opportunity to work part time.

However, many working parents don’t have that option, or opt not to seek part-time positions due to the downsides that usually accompany them. For example, at many companies, people who work part time are less likely to receive raises, meaning they lose out on future earning potential for every year they’re not full-time employees.

Likewise, part-time employees may be less likely to earn promotions, despite the quality of their work, even when they later return to a full-time position. And on a more emotional level, they may feel that their colleagues who are working 40 hours a week think less of them and their contributions.

All of these problems can be overcome if a company embraces part-time work as a strategic workplace offering. By maintaining pay and promotion opportunities for part-time workers, and valuing their contributions regardless of how many hours they work every week, executives show working parents that they truly care about them as both employees and people.

While the advantage to parents handling child care duties while also working is obvious, part time opportunities can also be beneficial to companies. Competition for top talent is intense in many industries, and if allowing a star performer to work part-time keeps him or her on the payroll, that’s a step worth taking. Despite myths to the contrary, part time workers are also often as effective if not more so than their full-time colleagues.

On a broader level, as CAP highlights, parents who take time out of work to care for their children face penalties on their return. Tackling these stigmas requires recognizing that parents who return to work aren’t any less committed or qualified than they were originally—and have likely gained a whole host of new skills from taking care of their children (conflict resolution, for one). Creating better on-ramps for mothers or fathers who have taken time off from work would not only benefit working parents, but also lead to the kind of loyalty, happiness, and productivity that all companies seek.

The lack of affordable, high-quality child care remains a challenge for many working parents, and as the CAP calculator shows, the costs are only compounded over the long term. While finding ways to help parents pay for care is an option worth exploring, businesses also should focus on flexibility. In doing so, they can help parents care for their children while still progressing in their careers. As is so often the case with flexibility, that kind of result is good for everyone.

“When you’re able to choose where you work (from home, a coffee shop, the office), when you work (while your kids are at school, at night after they’ve gone to bed, or on a flexible schedule), and how you work (limiting the noise and distraction of the office, setting up a comfortable home office, etc.), you’re much more likely to be a productive employee,” says 1MFWF contributing author Brie Reynolds in a blog post on MomsRising. “Parents have so many competing interests to juggle every day, and flexible work options help them master the juggle.”

What kinds of child care challenges have you faced as a working parent? How have you overcome those problems? If you haven’t been able to do so, what would help you the most? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

photo credit: