Using Mental Models To Select Childcare

Luna was born during the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic in the United States.

In the early days, there was a thick silver lining to our new normal. Being forced to stay home allowed us to focus 100% of our attention on Luna for 3 months. 

During that time, we were able to lay a solid foundation for her feeding and sleeping schedules. When it comes to newborns, if you could figure those two things out, everything else sort of falls into place. 

As Luna became a well oiled routine machine, Dia and I started to suffer from cabin fever.

What started as a weekly trip to the grocery store turned into a weekly hang with our best friends who also have a baby the same age as Luna. 

That snowballed into another weekly hang with our cousins who have children a little older than Luna. 

More recently we started going into big box retailers like Costco, BuyBuyBaby, and Target as a family whenever the need arises, which is basically daily.

We started to wonder:

  • Are we becoming too relaxed? 
  • Where do we draw the line? 
  • How do we draw a line?

A small gathering for our friends’ twins’ first birthday party? We don’t want to miss that.

A house warming party with a small group of gym friends? We don’t want to miss that either.

These one off decisions, and many more like them, exposed us to incrementally riskier situations.

We did try to stick to one guideline, however. We hardly went anywhere without other young children present. We found comfort in knowing our friends and family with small children are equally incentivized to keep their children safe.

More recently, we had a tougher long term decision to make. 

With Dia going back to work on October 12th, we needed to arrange for Luna’s care.

The Alternatives

We had 3 alternatives to choose from.

1. Grandma & Grandpa Shak

My parents stepped up and offered to watch Luna while Dia was working, but we had a few reservations. 

Pros: 

  • Luna is exposed to another language and spends a massive amount of time with her grandparents.
  • My parents’ hearts explode with love everytime they see Luna.
  • It’s free. 

Cons:

  • Despite their claims, my parents are not really social distancing.
  • My mom’s answer to everything we don’t want her to do with Luna is, “Well I did that with you and you turned out fine”. This is hard to argue, but I just don’t want to argue. 
  • My parents aren’t old, but they also aren’t young. Caring for a child full-time is not easy. Dia and I are exhausted by the end of each day. Do I want to place that stress on my parents?

2. Hiring an In-Home Nanny

I have no experience with nannies, only preconceived notions. A few of our friends have hired nannies so if my assumptions are wrong, I’d love for you to call me out. 

To me, a nanny is kind of like a baby-sitter. Only they’re paid better because a baby requires more attention and physical work. 

I’m also not sure if a typical nanny is as concerned with hitting milestones and development as they are with just keeping a baby on schedule with naps and feeds.

Pros:

  • The environment is the same for Luna. 
  • After a few weeks, the Nanny should be able to execute the master schedule.
  • 1:1 Caregiver to Baby Ratio. Less bodies = Less Risk (Corona wise)

Cons:

  • No social aspect
  • We would have to start acquiring a lot of “stuff”: toys for Luna to play with, educational material for her to stay on track.
  • A nanny is expensive.
  • If Luna’s needs aren’t being met by the Nanny, it will be extremely difficult for Dia to not get distracted while working from home.
  • We have no control over what the nanny does outside our home (social distancing wise).

3. Daycare

Before Luna was born, we were bullish on sending her to a good daycare center. It seemed like the best way to ensure she was safe, stimulated, and properly educated.

However, “the Rona” took a hot and steamy dump on that plan. We pumped the brakes hard. 

Pros:

  • Social aspect
  • Predetermined Learning Curriculum
  • Certified Professionals
  • More affordable than a nanny

Cons:

  • Lots of people involved (babies, teachers) - Higher risk
  • Luna was exclusively breastfed so the transition period to bottle would take some time
  • Environment isn’t conducive to good sleep

Decision Making Through Mental Models

How would you make such an important decision with quite a few alternatives? 

Of course we started by asking friends and family for advice. But in the end, we needed to confidently come to our own conclusion instead of influenced by others opinions.

We turned to using mental models to work through the decision making process. 

A mental model is the thought process you use to explain the way the world works. You probably don’t know it, but you use mental models all the time. 

Throughout life, we adopt mental models from our parents, class-mates, friends, colleagues, etc. We start to see the world the same way as the people around us.  

The more mental models you’re familiar with, the more perspectives you can leverage to solve a given problem.

Here are a few of the mental models Dia and I ran through to make our decision to send Luna to daycare.

1. Regret Minimization

Regret Minimization is the mental model made famous by Jeff Bezos.

Bezos asked himself a very simple question before quitting his full time job to start Amazon. “In X number of years, will I regret not starting Amazon?”

Dia and I tweaked this model and asked ourselves:

  • Will we regret sending Luna to daycare if she contracts Coronavirus?
  • Will we regret hiring a Nanny if they bring Coronavirus into our home?
  • Will we regret receiving help from my parents if they bring Coronavirus into our home?

The answer was invariably yes to all of those questions. However, we did feel like there was a hierarchy. 

If my parents brought Coronavirus into our home, there would be a lasting resentment on top of regret. 

If a nanny brought it into our home there would have been a “we should have known better” on top of the regret. 

But in the case of daycare, there was an oddly reassuring feeling of failing by consensus.

2. Consensus

Consensus is basically doing what most people do, which typically works out fine for 90% of life-decisions (as long as your cohort of “most people” are positively contributing members of society). 

Daycare, in my non-expert opinion, is the de facto childcare option.

We do have a few friends who hired nannies. However, I believe they went into that arrangement thinking it will be temporary.

We also have a few friends who enlisted their parents for help. Free is nice, but no headaches are nicer. Ultimately making that option a temporary solution as well. 

3. Comparative Advantage

Comparative Advantage is an economics term that basically says one party has the ability to carry out an activity more efficiently than another party. 

When it comes to parenting Luna, no one has a comparative advantage over Dia and me. 

However, when it comes to child-care and development, we’re kind of low on the totem pole. As Luna gets older, it’s becoming increasingly clear to us that we are not the best candidates for making sure she hits her milestones. 

If we’re not changing her, feeding her, burping her, or holding her, we’re basically all staring at each other twiddling our thumbs. We don’t really know what to do with her to keep her entertained and educated.

Is it a better use of our time to learn and execute the development? Or do we leave that to the “professionals” and continue spending our days executing the tasks where we do have a comparative advantage?

4. Illusion of Control

Illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events they demonstrably do not influence. 

We hesitate to send Luna outside the house for child-care due to a lack of environmental control. 

But how much control did we have, or exercise, anyway?

In the first 3 months of Luna’s life, we basically saw nobody and went nowhere. However, in the past 3 months, we were much less vigilant.

5. Entropy / Inversion

Entropy is basically Murphy’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong.

Inversion is pretending the thing you don’t want to happen, happens. 

Instead of focusing your energy on worrying about negative experiences that may not come to pass, make plans to prevent them from happening OR be prepared to solve them quickly in case they do happen. 

It was clear to us that our daycare center took a lot more precautions than we would take with a nanny or my parents. 

Whenever someone (child / teacher) enters the daycare center, their temperature is taken and they are required to answer a questionnaire. They also wear a mask at all times and no teacher is allowed to enter more than one class room per day. 

Were we going to be as buttoned up with a nanny? Maybe for a week or two. 

Would we be as strict with my parents? Maybe for a day or two. 

Daycare it is

Dia ended up taking 6(!) months of maternity leave.

Somewhere between month 4 and 5, it started to feel like the last few days of a vacation. You kind of just want to get back to work.

We yearned to be productive, but we were worried about our long term child care solution. 

When Luna was born, we never imagined Coronavirus taking so long to go away. We were sure by 6 months we’d be in the clear. But we weren’t. 

Dia considered burning all of her 2020 vacation time to extend her time off another 5 weeks. 

We even talked about moving back in with my parents, or somewhere significantly less expensive so she could take an extended leave of absence.

But as time went by, neither of these options seemed like a long-term solution, and I’m not a fan of band-aids on gunshot wounds. 

So we landed on daycare as the best option for us. We’re two weeks in and while the first couple days weren’t easy, I think we’re getting more and more comfortable as each day goes by.

So far Luna has learned how to sit on her own, drink from a bottle, finger-paint and so much more. It feels nice to see her learning and doing things we probably wouldn’t have done with her otherwise. 

At this point, we’re still worried about the “what if”, but we are confident we made the best decision for us given the circumstances and information available.

Sunny Shakhawala

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