Child care that works for working parents

A sign for Plug & Play in Austin, Texas. Mothers who have cut back on work to spend time raising children find themselves with few affordable options when they look for child care that fits their schedule. Plug & Play is trying to fill that void.

Lauren Walz is a stay-at-home mom dipping her toes into the freelance world. Two years after quitting her job as a corporate lawyer, she's decided to make a go at a writing career -- starting with a food blog called Gourmet Veggie Mama.

"I just pulled up my website, and I'm looking at my stats for the past couple of days. I have a few posts that I wanted to work on today," said Walz on her laptop in the kitchen while Nora, her 20-month-old daughter, slept upstairs.

A couple of paragraphs in, Walz heard her baby crying over the baby monitor. After 20 minutes or so of calming her cranky toddler, she carried Nora downstairs and sat down on the couch with her laptop. But Nora quietly pushed her mother's hands away from the keyboard.

"Honey, oh are you closing my laptop for me? Yeah, I don't think I'm going to get anything done with this child around," said Walz.

Walz said it became clear early on in her new career that working from home was not an option. She started looking into child care and came away with sticker shock.

"Child care is expensive! It kind of blew my mind, how expensive it was," said Walz.

In Austin, full-time child care for an infant will run you up to $1,300 a month, and a little less for older kids. Part-time isn't that much of a savings. Walz felt uncomfortable with the cheaper drop-in daycare. Then she found a new business called Plug & Play, where she could pay as little as $200 a month. In return, she gets supervision for Nora, and a quiet spot to work along with other parents. It's called a co-working space.

"Traditional child care is really set up to be rigid and around routines," said Amy Braden, owner of Plug & Play, which opened in July. "So it is not conducive to people who have alternative work schedules... It's basically coworking with hourly child care."

Places like Plug & Play have been popping up in recent years -- in London and Atlanta, for example. This one is at the end of a strip mall in Austin's suburban northern fringe. When you walk in, you're greeted by a distinctively modern workspace. There are high ceilings and letterpress prints. You drop off your kids on the "play" side, which is separated by a heavy, insulated door to muffle distracting noises. Then, you get to work on the "plug" side.

"We have semi-private work nooks, we have a work bar," said Braden.

Pricing for Plug & Play works kind of like a smartphone plan. But instead of buying minutes and data, you first buy coworking hours.

"We have a work-a-little and a work-a-lot package. Our work a little package is $35 per month," she said. "And then we have the $100 work-a-lot package."

Once you're signed on for coworking, you choose a child care package. It works out to about $9.50 for infants, and $8 an hour for kids up to five years old. That's comparable to prices for a drop-in daycare in Austin.

"The pricing structure is still a work in progress," said Braden.

Braden is actively experimenting with the business model. The first few months Plug & Play was open, there were lulls when the child care was empty. Now she's trying out a part-time pre-school, where parents commit to two mornings or afternoons a week for seasonal sessions. Signing up lowers your hourly price to $5.50 an hour. But if your kid misses class, there are no make-ups. While drop-in is still available, Braden is banking on the pre-school to create a more reliable revenue stream.

"It's definitely a delicate balance because our business takes two concepts and melds them together," said Braden.

There are hopes of franchising once the business model is proven. But the concept has already met with success from moms like Walz.

"It gave me a reason to get out of the house, try it out, see how it went, baby steps -- and as long as things keep going as they're going, I see this becoming a really great new career opportunity," said Walz.

It might cost her an extra few hundred dollars a month, but for Walz the ability to choose to work whenever she wants is worth every cent.

About the author

Lindsay Patterson is a reporter in Austin.

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