Denver’s broken childcare system forced this single mom to declare bankruptcy

“You can only get kicked down so many times before you’re just not able to get back up again”
18 min. read
Sylvia and Bodhi Johnston play in a ball pit in Bodhi’s room. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

In Sylvia Johnston's 936-square-foot West Washington Park high-rise apartment, egg-smeared dishes are piled in the sink, diapers protrude from a pail and laundry slouches from the hamper across the floor.

Bodhi, Johnston's two-year-old son, screams through the apartment, leaping off furniture, laughing and laughing and laughing and demanding her attention as she tries to load the dishwasher, sweep the floor and get to work.

This is her daily life, said the 48-year-old single mom. Her phone rings in her pocket, and she has to decide whether it's a good idea to answer the call from a client who needs her accounting services to be up and running -- now. Or should she just admit that today, amid this pandemonium, she is not going to account for anything other than Bodhi until she has some help.

"He will scream if I'm on the phone: 'Mama, no! Mama, no, no!'" Johnston said.

She doesn't answer her client, because help isn't coming. Could the client fire her? Others have. But her child comes first.

This drama plays out again and again, during COVID quarantines, snow days and holidays.

"If it wasn't for my child, I would probably have stepped out in front of the bus by now," she said. "I would never do that, because I love him, he needs me, and I'm all that he has."

Sylvia and Bodhi Johnston get ready for a day in Denver. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

A few years ago, Johnston crunched the numbers and set out to fulfill a life goal: having the first of two planned kids.

She would undergo a costly two-donor impregnation, birth the baby, and still have enough money to fund three months of maternity leave, hire a nanny, and return to running her business out of her apartment before having another child in April 2022.

She analyzed the expenses and the risks, and her plans were sound -- and even included wiggle room if things went wrong.

But not this wrong.

There were medical complications. A pandemic. And a childcare system on the fritz, with unreliable nannies and erratic early education centers, where parents are stuck on pricy waitlists that can last months longer than a child's eligibility for a program.

If parents are lucky enough to finally get their kids into a center, paying tuition feels like shouldering a second mortgage. At the same time, early childcare teachers are paid poorly and fleeing the field.

All that obliterated Johnston's plans.

"I'm a single mom by choice," she said.

She spent tens of thousands trying to get pregnant. She calls Bodhi, "my dream ... my eighty-thousand-dollar man."

Despite all the expenses and medical support, she still had a rough pregnancy. While she was carrying Bodhi, she suffered for two months with a viral inner-ear infection that kept her from work.

"What that meant was, as a self-employed person, the money I had saved for maternity leave went right out the window," she said. "So instead of having three months off with my baby, I had six weeks."

On December 28, 2019, "I had a crash C-section," she said. And Bodhi was born.

Sylvia Johnston feeds last bits of breakfast to her son, Bohdi. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Six weeks to heal and bond with her infant felt like an insult -- but also an inevitability in the United States, a country less supportive of new parents than its European peers.

Long before having a child, Johnston had attended a wedding at the 15th-century Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano, Italy, where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes tied the knot. There she met a pregnant Swedish woman and asked about what sort of social services were available for new parents.

Not only does Sweden offer universal healthcare, but parents have 480 days of paid parental leave. A single parent would receive them all, and two parents could split them up as they see fit. After children turn one, they are guaranteed a spot in a low-tuition childcare center. Critics argue the generous paid time off is largely used by women, taking them out of the workforce. But proponents, including Johnston, say the system ensures kids are adequately cared for with minimum stress.

"From birth until school age, they've created a seamless system, so that those parents can enjoy their kids," Johnston said. "And they don't have to grow up to be a bunch of stressed-out road-raging serial killers.

"Their children are wonderful, calm, intelligent, educated children," she added. "So they're doing something right with the system."

Bodhi Johnston is ready to roll as his mother, Sylvia, prepares to take him out for the day. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Recovering from a C-section, Johnston's first few months as a parent were challenging.

One of her main clients was breathing down her neck, threatening to fire her if she didn't cut her maternity leave short. So she started working part time a few weeks after he was born.

Johnston was not eager to send Bodhi to a childcare center. She feared the kind of care he would receive after reading horror stories in the press.

When her maternity leave was up and she could get back to earning money, she would hire a nanny who would watch Bodhi out of the same small apartment where she worked. The caretaker could help with light housework, and she'd be able to keep an eye on him in those crucial early years.

Johnston hired her first nanny in February 2020, and her life was getting back on track, even through early March, when COVID-19 arrived in Colorado and the city and state went on lockdown.

For those first few weeks of the pandemic, the nanny kept working, and Johnston was able to continue running her business with the support.

But the nanny didn't last for long.

"By April 11, she had quit, because, you know, there were all the COVID warnings, and she was afraid of getting infected riding up in the elevator in my building," Johnston said. "In rapid succession, I went through three more nannies. And it was a terrible situation: A, because of the pandemic, but B, because I work from home.

"So a lot of my single mom friends said, 'You just got to put him in daycare. It's going to change your life. It's going to be so much better,'" Johnston recalled. "So when my final last flaky nanny up and quit and left me high and dry in the middle of a workweek -- and when I don't work, I don't get paid -- I started making phone calls to find a daycare."

She went on Nextdoor, and her neighbors pointed her to the Montessori Academy of Colorado. She took a tour and was blown away by the quality of education and described the center as "the gold standard for daycare."

Yet when she called to get Bodhi a spot, the center told her the wait would likely be around six months -- probably. Instead of a conventional waitlist, the program used a "wait pool," and would be admitting infants based on gender and other criteria to ensure a balanced classroom. Still, she signed up. (Nearly two years later, Bodhi, who is no longer an infant, still hasn't been admitted.)

For more immediate care, she called two other places and was disappointed to learn their waitlists were between one and two years. The only open program she could find had terrible ratings, she said, and "their main goal is to keep your child alive."

Sylvia Johnston puts shoes on her son, Bodhi, before they head out into Denver for the day. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Then she lucked out -- mostly. Her son was admitted to a soon-to-open program inside a church and not too far from her home. The program would be a loving environment for her son, and so she happily enrolled him there while waiting for the Montessori center to open up a spot.

Sure, it was pricy, but she had time to do her job and could afford it. Things were looking up -- until they weren't. Like so many babies in their first weeks at a childcare center, Bodhi caught a bug.

"My son had never been sick prior to that," she said. "No throwing up. No fever other than after a vaccine -- like not sick a day in his life. And this was when he was 10 months old. Within him being there for a month, he got sick, upper respiratory infection, sent home."

She scrambled to care for him while trying to work out of her apartment, and he eventually got better. But this illness wasn't a one-time thing, and COVID regulations meant that whenever Bodhi showed the slightest symptom, the school sent him home.

"Every single time he had a drop of snot out of his nose, they're like, 'You need to come and get him,'" Johnston said. "And I would say, 'But...but I have a meeting. I have a client. I have to work.' 'Sorry. You know, we're just following state guidelines.'"

Other mothers were in the same bind.

"I could see them crying at the doors of the daycare," she remembered of mothers who had to decide whether to risk losing their jobs or failing to care for their children. "Crying, because they have to choose. They have to basically drop everything and take care of the child.

"That was the first inclination of the worst, which was to come," she said.

COVID-related quarantines at Bodhi's childcare center started in late 2020 and early 2021. Every time her phone rang, she worried another one was in effect.

Sylvia and Bodhi Johnston play with a car wash sprayer in the garage of their apartment building, a daily tradition, before heading out for the day. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"You'd get alarming emails through the childcare app," she said. "It's an app they use called Brightwheel. And it says, 'Please read an email that was just sent to you about your child's potential exposure to COVID.'"

She'd rush to open her email and find bad news that upended her schedule.

"It's an email that basically says, 'Someone tested positive that was in contact with your child. And we've done contract tracing, and you need to come and get your kid. And you now need to quarantine and be quarantined either for two weeks, it used to be, or you can get tested after three or four days, and then come back with your negative test,'" Johnston said. "Three or four times that happened to us."

Parents would tell her how lucky she was that she could work from home. But there isn't much work getting done when a kid as energetic as Bodhi is in the room.

As she tells it, her child's dynamism comes from his sperm donor, who had reportedly bred a mob of energetic children.

"He was a college track and field All-American," Johnston said. "And Bodhi has 32 donor siblings, and we're on a Facebook group together. And all the kids are the happiest, smartest, most energetic kids you'll ever meet."

She watches videos of the children swinging on ropes into lakes and climbing poles. Bodhi enjoys similar high-energy antics in their small apartment -- while she's trying to do her job.

"When I'm at the computer, he likes to put my spare set of glasses on and pretend that he's working too," Johnston said. "So he's smashing away at my keyboard. He sent somebody a Slack message the other day. He wants to be engaged, or he'll be jumping off the top of the couch onto the floor."

Bodhi Johnston trots through his home in Denver's Speer neighborhood. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

When he's sick, many clients don't have the patience for her to leave early or cancel meetings.

Every quarantine disrupted her work and forced her to miss deadlines. After Bodhi was born, longtime clients began quitting.

In September, she filed for bankruptcy. Her accounting business is now struggling. Borrowing money is no longer a possibility, paying $2,180 for her apartment and $400 a week for childcare is a stretch, and she fears how her ongoing stress is taxing her son's development.

She might need to move back home to Michigan with her family.

"The slide to the bottom is quick when you're living in Denver and rents and housing prices are what they are," she said. "It's devastating."

It wasn't just COVID-19 closures shutting down the childcare center.

"In between that, you have a daycare who cancels every time there's snow on the ground," she said.

Canceling was a necessity, according to the center, because many teachers lived far from the area.

Though Denver's childcare workers are tasked with raising the city's youngest residents through the most crucial years of brain development, years in which a human can easily die if uncared for, their pay is often near minimum wage, which is $15.87 in the city and $12.56 across the state.

In Denver, the median cost of a home is $575,000, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors, and the median cost of one-bedroom rent is $1,483, according to Apartment List. Most of the housing early childhood educators in central Denver can afford is far away from the city center and even in the suburbs.

But it isn't just the workers who can't do their jobs when the weather is bad. Cancelations mean parents can't work either -- especially single moms like Johnston.

"Their staff all live out by the airport, so they have to cancel because the staff can't get there," Johnston said. "Or they want to protect the staff, so they start 90 minutes late. And every time they do that, we have to, as parents, drop everything, and go. And you have 45 minutes to get your kid when they call you -- 45 minutes! And there are no refunds. So you're paying $400 a week, whether you use it or not."

When there were quarantines and cancelations, she would need to pay for additional childcare -- if she could find it. Emergency babysitters cost as much as $28 an hour.

In her first year, "I spent $20,000 on child care with the Child Enrichment Center," she said. "And I spent another $10,000 on backup care so that I could work."

Sylvia Johnston cleans up at home before taking her son, Bodhi, out for the day. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Even with the extra childcare, closures forced Johnston to cancel meetings and miss deadlines. A client she had worked with for years began to make fun of her son's childcare center's COVID-19 closures and described her son's hand, foot and mouth disease as "hoof and mouth disease."

"He's just become a jerk," Johnston said.

Eventually, he fired her. In Bodhi's first two years, she has lost half of her business, as clients couldn't stick with her through the childcare center's frequent closures.

Missing work to take care of her kid means she doesn't get paid. "You know who did?" she said. "The daycare director, the daycare teachers and the church."

She's particularly frustrated since so many childcare centers received emergency funding during the pandemic yet failed to deliver the services that would have kept parents like her employed. Her take: Childcare centers should have reimbursed families money for closures so they could afford additional help.

Over the past two years, many childcare facilities, including hers, cut back the hours they offered services. She couldn't figure out why the hours needed to change or how that would keep anybody safe.

"Are you guys in there disinfecting and cleaning?" Johnston asked. "Do you have rubber gloves?"

Their answer? "No," she said. "They were just going home. I would see my daycare teacher with her effing purse over her shoulder, going home. Probably to happy hour. I don't know. Things like that would have me writhing in bed."

Johnston's breaking point happened in February 2021, after her child had been home several days, vomiting with a stomach virus. The day he was better and supposed to return to school, the childcare center instructor emailed that the school would be closed for several days because of a blizzard.

Johnston, who had been out driving, responded that there was no reason the schools should be closed because the roads were fine.

"You are destroying lives here," she remembered writing.

The remains of breakfast at Sylvia and Bodhi Johnston's home. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"I got a very polite Christian message back over email that basically said, 'like it or lump it,'" she said. "They said, 'We'll be happy to let you out of your contract if you'd like,' knowing that there are six and 12-month waitlists all around the area. So they have us by the short and curlies. It is completely their way or the highway. You don't complain."

If kids are sick, she said, desperate parents hide it and hope for the best, praying they can get through a full day of work. If there are conflicts in the classroom, parents don't raise a stink, because they have no other options.

"You try to just shut your mouth, drop your kid off, hope for the best and leave," she said. "It's pretty much destroyed my dream to be a mom. I dreamed of being a mama since I was five years old. And I feel like they have been a big part of destroying that experience for me and my son."

Johnston imagines there are public reforms that would make the system work better for parents and childcare centers alike.

Looking to how many European countries, like Sweden, support new parents and the youngest children would be one option. Whatever the case, Johnston wants to see more government funding for childcare and more state grants for childcare centers. She also said daycares should share those funds with families.

Johnston noted that the federal and state governments have not had clear enough guidelines for when childcare centers should close over COVID or for other reasons. She fears some centers may be abusing closure policies and taking parents' money without providing services.

She would also like to see centers refund tuition when they close.

Sylvia and Bodhi Johnston play in a ball pit in Bodhi's room. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"They need to put a state mandate in place that if you are closing for illness or snow closures or whatever, that you have to offer the families a 25% or 50% refund," Johnston said. "That alone will cut out a lot of these daycares from abusing those closures. Because if they have something to lose, they're going to evaluate much more carefully whether or not they need to close."

Without additional public funding, reimbursements would be virtually impossible for childcare centers. They operate on thin profit margins, said childcare center director Pam Melot.

Johnston said solutions are available, but she does not see much in the way of political will to help parents in her situation. The one consolation she has is that she's in good company.

"I know I'm not alone," she said. "Everybody feels like they're getting kicked repeatedly. And you can only get kicked down so many times before you're just not able to get back up again."

Like many, her best protection is not the childcare center she pays for or the government. It's family, who has been able to help her financially. If she didn't have that, she's not sure what she would do. But even her family has been strained financially by her childcare situation.

"Thank God I have a family that loves me," she said. "But my parents are tapped. My mom's 71. My step dad's going to retire soon. So they're not always going to be in the position to help me or bail me out. But it's a constant stress on them too. My mom's cashed out her entire life savings for me and my brother to help us get through hard times -- and especially in the last few years.

"But you know, I guess I'm luckier than most," she said. "At least I have a trade that I can apply, you know. I'm educated, and I'm a hard worker, and accountants are in demand. So I'm going to keep plugging away and looking for opportunities, and hopefully something will pop.

"But I won't be having a baby in April," she said. "You know, maybe the fall. But I'm pushing 50, so, you know, I don't even know how much longer -- I think 52 is the last I can do. So this might end my family."

Explore the series

Multi-year waitlists, tuition as expensive as a second mortgage: Denver is in a childcare crisis

This early-childhood educator couldn't afford childcare for her six-year-old. Why keep teaching?

Here's what being 'super, super, super lucky' looks like in Denver's childcare crisis

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