More stay-at-home moms, rising childcare costs: What's driving the trends in Maryland?

BALTIMORE - Childcare costs in Maryland are among the highest in the country. At the same time, the number of stay-at-home moms nationwide is on the rise.

Sharon Peer has a demanding full-time job, but she doesn't get a paycheck for it. She's one of the growing number of stay-at-home moms in the U.S. It's a reversal of a decades-long trend that saw more and more mothers working outside of the home.

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A recent Pew research study found that in 2012, 29 percent of all mothers identified as stay-at-home moms, up from a record modern-era low of 23 percent in 1999.

"We have five kids, so we have a lot of children at home and so there's a lot of childcare costs," she said. "And just thinking about the expense of childcare versus what I would bring in working, it didn't also seem like the best option, didn't make a lot of sense financially."

It's a question many families with young children must consider. Advocacy group Child Care Aware points out that in Maryland, child care costs can amount to more than college tuition. Steve Rohde, deputy director of the Maryland Family Network , said he's noticed that trend for some time.

"We always talk about how it's even greater when you look at it in terms of young families, it's a greater expense because young families are at the lower end of their income potential, whereas, families typically who have children in college are at the higher end of their income potential," he said.

The Child Care Aware report estimates that the average cost of childcare for an infant at a center-based program for a year is $13,055. Compare that number to the average yearly in-state tuition and fees at a public college in Maryland, which the report lists at $8,220. It's a nearly $5,000 difference.

With figures like those, financial planner Kirk Kinder said it's not surprising more moms are choosing to leave the workforce.

"You still may make a little bit more money by working, but it may be be substantial," said Kinder, who owns Picket Fence Financial . "So when you have two incomes, sometimes you get bumped into a higher tax bracket. So your after-tax take home pay really isn't all that high."

Kinder said the high cost of early childhood education in Maryland goes beyond the state's high cost of living. It's simple supply and demand.

"Maryland tends to have more dual-income families than a lot of other states," said. "So when you have a lot more of that situation, you're going to have a bigger demand for childcare."

Surprisingly, most daycare teachers make less than half of what their public school counterparts make on average. But the state's push to improve early childhood education, through additional voluntary accreditation and professional development is also driving up operating costs. We paid a visit to Woodbrook Early Education Center in Baltimore to see how a highly accredited center with a low child to teacher ratio operates. 

"The state of Maryland, as other states are doing, are putting into effect, quality standards so that programs go beyond just basic licensing requirements," Rohde said.

Research shows it's worth the added expense in the long run, as the first five years of life are the most essential to children's brain development and can be an indicator of their future success.

"Cost should be an element, but it should also be, 'What am I paying for and am I getting the most value for that?' Rohde added. "We urge parents to look at very high quality programs for their children, because it does make a difference."

It's why as a stay-at-home mom, Sharon Peer tries to find fun and educational ways to get her boys out of the house and interacting with other children. While her decision to leave her job was partly financial, it's also a choice she finds personally fulfilling.

"They're only little once, she said. "And when you're working full-time or even working part-time, you miss so much of it. And so, I just decided to take this time and be with them when they're little and when they get a little older and they get a little more independent, then i can think about going to work."

The Child Care Aware report also compared the average yearly cost of pre-school daycare in Maryland to public college tuition and fees. There was a smaller gap of just under $900, but daycare was still more expensive.

The Maryland Family Network has a free service called LOCATE that can help you find the childcare option that works best for your family.