[cw: child abuse. Might not be a good thing to read if you’re a working parent who can’t afford expensive day care.]

Sometimes I get into conversations about why day care is so expensive.

My friends are Silicon Valley liberals, so their assumption when something is very expensive is that some government bureaucracy is going around making it so. However, in my home state of California, the rules for starting your own home day care are outrageously reasonable. You must be 18, live in the home, have no criminal record, take 15 hours of classes in first aid and CPR, and not have tuberculosis. There are various reasonable and easy-to-fulfill safety regulations: you are not allowed to have a loaded gun or an unfenced swimming pool, and if you don’t have liability insurance the parents have to sign a paper that says they know you don’t. The list of things which you are allowed to have is perhaps the most revealing, as it includes such items as using the same towel for every child, not washing your hands after diaper changes, and having an unlocked liquor cabinet.

I’m not honestly sure what room there is for decreasing prices by decreasing regulation. I am not sure whether there are enough people with tuberculosis dying to go into home daycare that they will have much of an effect.

The problem with home day care is math.

The maximum number of infants a home day care provider can legally take care of is four. Let’s assume your day care provider is making the Californian minimum wage of $11/hour. Let’s also assume that you have a spouse and both you and your spouse have fairly flexible schedules: you go to work late and your spouse leaves work early, so your child is only in care forty hours a week. Let’s also assume the day care has literally no expenses other than staff.

This day care will cost $440/month.

Now, I don’t want anyone reading this to take away “day care should cost $440/month.” That is the literal absolute physical minimum that a day care can cost. Most day cares have other expenses, such as taxes, rent (a huge expense in the Bay!), utilities, liability insurance, marketing, toys, books, cribs, and so on, which will add costs.

Let’s say you and your spouse both have jobs that demand you get in at 9am. Now you have to add in time for the commute, which means your child is in day care for longer. (Don’t forget to account for the time it adds if your day care is out of the way.)

And then there’s the question of how good care your child is getting for your, oh, probably it’s $650/month by now.

Taking care of babies is not complicated. The average sixteen-year-old can do a fine job at taking care of a baby, with a bit of training. But taking care of babies is really hard.

Sometimes they scream and can’t be comforted. Sometimes they try to stand up in their high chairs and do a backflip. Sometimes their poop explodes out of their diapers and covers their legs, genitals, onesies, and the furniture. Even if nothing goes wrong, they’re extraordinarily demanding– of cuddles, food, attention, play, diaper changes, songs, and being bounced up and down until your arms ache.

You don’t need a lot of knowledge to do well taking care of a baby. But you need spare emotional resources. You need patience and kindness and love.

In line with California’s general outrageous reasonableness on the subject, four babies is just about the maximum a human being can take care of at a time while making sure they’re fed, clean, and happy at least half the time. As the primary caregiver of a parent, taking care of four babies for forty hours a week is one of the most emotionally demanding and stressful jobs I can imagine. And you don’t get lunch or coffee breaks.

Minimum wage is not a lot of money: a person who makes minimum wage (assuming they’re not being financially supported by someone else) probably spends a lot of time stressing about how they’re going to pay rent and bills this month and definitely can’t afford to treat their depression or chronic pain. (Remember, health insurance costs money which we didn’t account for in our calculation.)

Do you really think our stressed, maybe sick person taking care of too many babies is going to do a good job?

I’m not talking about anything fancy here– I’m not saying “will she be able to feed the children a gluten-free vegan lunch all grown less than 50 miles away off golden plates?” I’m talking about things like: will she lose her temper and yell at the baby? Will she consistently notice every time any baby is doing something dangerous? Will she change the baby when they’re poopy or leave them in a poopy diaper until they get a horrible rash? Will she– God forbid– hit the baby, or leave the baby alone in the house for an hour, or shake the baby?

I’m not saying that our hypothetical day care provider is a bad person. If you make a stressed, sick person do an incredibly emotionally demanding job, at some point they’ll snap.

So let’s up the wage to $20/hour (including benefits), which isn’t exactly programmer money, but is enough that the caregiver isn’t constantly stressed about money and maybe can afford to see a doctor sometimes. And let’s say she’s taking care of two babies, which is a reasonable and sustainable number. Again, this is for 45 hours a week. Assuming that all other expenses are about 30% of what the caregiver earns, high-quality day care costs $2340 a month.

Very, very few people can afford $2340 a month, which is why most babies in day care are in day care with underpaid, overworked caregivers, who often don’t do a very good job taking care of them.

A while ago, a friend told me I should apply for a job at her company, which pays $70,000/year. I’d be good at the job, it’s a great environment, and I’d probably really enjoy it. I turned her down because, between day care and taxes (since my husband makes six figures), working a $70,000/year job would cause me to have an extra $15,000/year in my pocket.