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One mom’s maddening search for childcare in a city where the daycare shortage is beyond critical

When I moved back to Toronto from Berlin, a newly single mom, my first order of business was finding good, affordable childcare for my two boys. What I discovered was a daycare system on the verge of collapse

Take my kids, please!

The author and her children, Liam and Theo

Bernard Hellen, a 46-year-old business development manager and father of two young children, doesn’t usually spend an entire Sunday out walking his dog. But one Sunday last May, his field spaniel, Arfie, had the pleasure of being summoned hourly for an amble around their block in Roncesvalles Village.

The outings had a purpose. Hellen’s eyes were trained on the pavement in front of Howard Junior Public School, home to one of the most coveted daycares in the neighbourhood—Howard Park Children’s Centre. Situated on the third floor of the building and accommodating 88 children ranging in age from four to 12, the daycare is run by early childhood educators and other support staff—some of whom have been there for more than 25 years. The centre enjoys lots of parental involvement, full integration within the school and relatively reasonable monthly fees ($650 for kids in half-day kindergarten and $320 for those school-aged). Registration was to begin at 7:30 the next morning, and competition for admission is fierce. Ten spots are made available each year, some of which are reserved for siblings of kids already enrolled.

At 4 in the afternoon, Hellen spotted two fathers loitering in front of the school. Game on. He got in line, called his wife, Holly, to come hold the spot, then took the dog home and grabbed the sleeping bag and puffy chair he’d recently purchased at Walmart. He then hurried back to the school and took his place third in line.

Nancy Carr, a writer and a mother of two, was returning home from the park with her kids for supper when she noticed the lineup at Howard was already six parents deep. She, too, joined the line, then called her husband, Dale, to come and take her place. Dale did the evening shift, and she took over, with sleeping bag, book and flashlight, at midnight.

The 15 parents in line had a lot in common: most were professionals in their 30s or 40s with young children and a desperate need for good, affordable childcare. In the evening hours, they had pizza and wine; at midnight, they tried to sleep. At 2:30 a.m., Hellen was awoken by the sound of raccoons fighting. Peering into the darkness, he discovered four television cameras pointed at the row of sleeping adults.

When the tousled and bleary-eyed parents paraded into the school the next morning, Hellen was among the six who were granted a spot. Nancy Carr was first on the waiting list. A week later, she received a call saying that a family had dropped out and her older son, who started JK at Howard in September, was in.

Both Carr and Hellen were so ecstatic about getting into Howard Park that camping out now seemed a minor inconvenience. After all, 15 hours in a lineup is a small price to pay for six years of peace of mind. Up until then, Carr and her husband, who works in sports media, had been sending their sons to a private daycare to the tune of $2,450 a month. Bernard and Holly, an office manager at a major architectural firm, had spent a fortune paying for four different nannies over four years, plus all of the extracurricular activities they felt were necessary to ensure the kids were properly stimulated and socialized (an extra $4,000 a year). Nearly all of Holly’s salary had gone toward childcare expenses. Now that they’ve found a secure arrangement, Hellen jokes about their ordeal. “When we were kids, we lined up for Springsteen,” he says. “In our 30s, it was for iPods. And now, in our 40s, we line up for daycare.”

In a perfect world, or in places like Sweden, there’s a licensed daycare spot for every child. In Toronto, there’s one for every five. Parents vying for such a spot spend years on waiting lists, and if they’re lucky enough to be offered one, may then sacrifice a good chunk of their income paying for the privilege.

Without a provincial or national daycare program, Toronto is languishing in a kind of childcare limbo. The city’s subsidy system—its primary public funding mechanism—is severely oversubscribed, with more than 21,000 children wallowing on the waiting list, a figure that rises by the thousands every year. In July, Giorgio Mammoliti, head of the mayor’s task force on childcare, recommended that the city exit the daycare business altogether, which would jeopardize the 52 city-run centres—the closest thing Toronto has to a coherent system. Our catch-as-catch-can approach to childcare has led to a fragmented and inefficient system in which parents scramble to cobble together affordable childcare, sometimes leaving their kids in questionable arrangements or shelving their careers to stay home in the hopes that the job market will be kind to them when they resurface.