It’s 6:45 am on a Monday morning. Monyatta Carter has already been up for over an hour, getting herself ready for work and feeding the family’s four dogs, one floppy rabbit, and the fish scattered in the 11 aquariums that line the living room and front hall of their rented house in Conyers, Ga. She’s started a load of laundry, found the lid to her husband’s coffee cup, packed two tiny pink backpacks emblazoned with the cartoon princesses of the Disney movie Frozen, dressed the baby in a red Minnie Mouse tank top with bright blue leggings, and is struggling mightily to get three-year-old September out of her bedroom.
“I don’t wanna go to school!” the child wails, her legs locking. Carter balances 17-month old Temi on her hip, plastic bowls of grapes and strawberries for the girls to eat in the car in one hand, and, with the other, pulls September down the carpeted hallway toward the front door.
“I know,” Carter says evenly. “But you know we gotta go, Sprout.”
Throughout the morning routine, Carter constantly checks her smartphone to keep track of the time. To get to work by 9 a.m., drop the girls off at their family home care center, about 15 miles away, and drive another 20 to get to work, Carter has to be pulling out of the driveway no later than 7:30 a.m. If she’s lucky and the traffic is light, she’ll sometimes stop at the McDonald’s drive-through for a cup of coffee for breakfast.
Carter, 39, works in Decatur as a medical coder for Emory Healthcare. When she began looking for early care and learning, she wanted the girls close to her work in case of emergencies. Their care is primarily her responsibility. Her husband owns his own mobile detailing business and has an unpredictable schedule. Her extended family lives miles away in South Georgia. And her three older children from her first marriage are busy working and going to college.
Her first choice was her own employer’s on-site child development center, one of the best in the area, and only three minutes from her office. But she despaired when she discovered it was going to cost her about $1,840 a month, or $22,000 a year for an infant and toddler, even with her employee discount. That’s more than her rent and about as much as she takes home. She debated staying home. But her job provides not only steady income, but also the family’s health insurance. “I couldn’t afford to work. And I couldn’t afford not to work,” she explains as she wrestles the girls into their car seats, checks the time on her phone, and hurriedly brushes an unexpected army of ants out of the car.
"I wanted more than just a babysitter. I want my girls to have individual attention. I want them safe. I want them to learn. I want someone to be accountable if something happens. And I want to be comfortable where I leave my kids, and not worry about them while I’m at work.”
She began searching for licensed, high-quality care as close to her office as she could find. And the closest place that she felt was a good fit and that she could afford was 20 miles away, in a small family child care home that takes no more than six children at a time in Lithonia, about halfway between her work and her house. Care for the two costs $13,440 a year. But a small, privately-funded “Boost” scholarship, run by Quality Care for Children, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, to help low-income families get ahead, is picking up about $3,000 of that for now. “That has helped the family budget tremendously. I didn’t want to have to choose between paying for child care and paying for food,” she explains. “But I wanted more than just a babysitter. I want my girls to have individual attention. I want them safe. I want them to learn. I want someone to be accountable if something happens. And I want to be comfortable where I leave my kids, and not worry about them while I’m at work.”
After a winding drive on backroads, September now chattering happily, Carter pulls into the driveway of a cheerful yellow clapboard house with a small addition on the side. She untangles the girls from the car, gingerly carrying Temi, who’s fallen asleep, and knocks on the little green door. As she hands the girls over to the home care provider, a smiling Antoinette Elliott, Carter braces for tears from Temi. It always breaks Carter’s heart when the baby cries as she leaves. She takes a deep breath. Next year, she thinks. Next year, September will be four, and she’ll enter the lottery in the hopes of getting one of the slots in Georgia’s free universal pre-K program. The morning commute may be worse, taking the girls to two different places, but the break on the family budget will be a relief. Carter checks her phone again for the time. Traffic will be piling up. It’s time to get to work.