(Note: This story originally aired in May 2017)
The average Alabama household spends almost 10 percent of its income on childcare. Some parents even tell us it's cheaper to quit work and stay at home, since daycare eats up an entire paycheck.
Alysa Eason is a single mom with two little girls. Her youngest, Liliana, is special needs.
"Lots of doctors," Eason said.
But it's not the medical bills Eason struggles to pay.
"You see that daycare bill, and it's the size of, it's bigger than one of my paychecks," she said.
Alysa Eason and her daughterEason is a shift manager at a fast food chain in Arab. Her daycare bill is $600 a month. With nowhere else to turn for help, Eason reached out to the Department of Human Resources and the state's subsidized daycare program.
"We got a letter stating that the programs that help with daycare and childcare costs is out of funding," she said.
Eason is not alone. Tonita Phipps, Director of the Madison County Department of Human Resources, told us it happens to far too many parents.
"Due to the limited funds, someone may be waiting 1-2 years to be able to qualify for the subsidized daycare," Phipps explained.
Which means most parents are left paying the full price out of pocket. A recent state survey showed Alabama parents spend an average of $108 a week in childcare costs for kids younger than five.
"A single parent with several children, a lot of times we find them not wanting to work. It's actually cheaper for them to stay home and raise their children," Phipps added.
Many working moms face the same dilemma.
"Do I work and we just don't make much because he's in childcare? Do I stop working for a few years?" new mom Melissa Bailey asked.
Bailey is a teacher who spent the last three months on unpaid maternity leave.
For Bailey, it wasn't just the cost of childcare that presented problems. It was the lack of availability at daycare centers.
"There's one in Hampton Cove that has a year waiting list, and we were laughing about that, thinking some people aren't even pregnant yet," Bailey said.
That's something a lot of parents told me. Good, affordable childcare is limited. To get it, they're willing to go to some pretty extreme lengths for their kids.
For instance, on a rainy February morning, parents lined up outside the Mayfair Child Development Center, hoping to secure a coveted spot in the daycare program.
"I've been here since 10 p.m. last night," Parent Jonathan McDowell said.
"So you spent the night in your car?"
"I did," he replied.
McDowell got spots for his two kids, ages three and five.
Jonathan McDowell registers at MCDCBut not every parent is so lucky.
"Everything was so very booked up, and not just we're full now, we'll call you if someone drops out....but hey, we're full and we have ten people on our waiting list," Kate Pittman said.
Pittman is a stay at home mom with three kids. When her oldest turned four, she wanted to enroll him in First Class: Alabama's Voluntary Pre-K program. But the free program is lottery-based, so she also enrolled him in private daycare just in case he didn't get a spot.
"And then we heard back mid-summer that he did in fact get in, so we lost all our enrollment fees and deposits," Pittman said.
She went through the same thing with her daughter and also plans to enroll her youngest son when he turns four. For now he's in daycare two days a week. Being a stay-at-home mom, Pittman felt guilty and struggled to justify the $180 monthly price tag for those two days. But at the same time, she said the price is worth her peace of mind.
"I have come to grips with the fact that I actually do need time away from my children to do adult tasks that small children undo very quickly," she said and laughed.
When it comes to the literal price tag for childcare, Eason shared this piece of advice for prospective parents.
"Start with a daycare fund until they're potty trained and in pre-k, then you can start with the college fund," she laughed and said.