Bri Rodriguez buckled her son Rocky into his car seat. “Little grumps,” she said, teasing the 1-year-old as he scrunched up his face, unhappy at having to be in the car.
Beside him, his 4-year-old brother, Ryker, sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but not until after he’d exhausted his dinosaur impersonation.
“RARRRR,” Ryker yelled in between sloppy bites of an apple as the family drove from a child care center in Oak Hill to their home in Del Valle, nearly 20 miles east.
Any parent could recognize the chaos that comes with juggling child care pickup for two kids. Add to that the fact that families in Austin have to balance distance, cost and quality, and experts say it’s an exceedingly stressful and unsustainable situation.
“Women, families deal with this issue kind of silently,” Austin Council Member Delia Garza said. “It’s just something that they have to do, and it's tough. And you have to go through it and then you come out at the end when they’re 5, and you don’t have to deal with it anymore and you move on.”
The federal government recommends a family spend no more than 7 percent of their annual income on child care, but according to the nonprofit Children at Risk, an average Austin family spends 25 percent of their income.
“As Austin is facing increasing challenges around affordability, access to high-quality affordable child care is becoming increasingly more challenging for families,” said Cathy McHorse, a vice president with the United Way for Greater Austin.
Surveyors with the University of Texas found the average cost of having a toddler in child care here last year was just over $700 a month. But McHorse said this is on the low-end.
In interviews with roughly a dozen parents, KUT found much higher costs. One dad said having two kids in child care cost his family $26,000 a year – half his salary. Another parent said her mortgage payment was only $100 more each month than what she spent on child care.
"Everybody's doing their best and patching it together," said Laurie Felker Jones, who founded JuiceBox Hero, a search engine for child care, preschool and afterschool programs. "But it's hard to win in a system that wasn't designed for, quite frankly, the way the world is now."
Rodriguez and her family lucked out when Ryker qualified for Head Start, a federally funded preschool program that costs the family nothing.
For Rocky, they found a child care center that costs the family $760 a month for three days a week. Rodriguez and her husband make roughly $60,000 a year and with two car payments, rent and some medical bills, paying for Rocky’s care was going to be tight. The family made some sacrifices.
First, they delayed buying a home. Then, they started donating plasma.
“We were donating plasma each two days a week,” Rodriguez said. “We would bring the kids, and we would drive down to Kyle and spend our evenings that way.”
The family no longer donates plasma, but Rodriguez has picked up a second job helping with a friend’s photo booth company on nights and weekends.
Council Member Garza began looking for child care when she was pregnant in early 2015, right around the time she took office.
“Wow,” she said when asked what her search for child care was like. “I didn’t know about waitlists. I really did not. So, when a family member now gets pregnant, [I ask,] 'Are you on a waitlist, because you know you have to do that, right?'”
Garza attributed council’s attention to child care, in part, on the fact Austin has had a majority-female council for the past couple years. Seven of the 11 local elected officials are women.
Two years ago, council members voted to convene local child care experts to come up with ways for the city to incentivize more affordable, high-quality options for parents.
The result was a list of 14 policy and funding recommendations. So far, the city has acted on some of them, including waiving the fee for annual inspections of child care centers that accept federal subsidies.
But Garza said as the other costs of living in Austin tick up – including housing and transportation – families need two incomes to stay afloat. With both parents out of the house, she said, there needs to be more public investment in child care – even including a city-run child care center.
“The city definitely needs to do something like that,” Garza said. “It’s political will, basically.”
Garza said city staff is working on making child care facilities a priority when city-owned property becomes available.
When Rodriguez went back to work after Rocky was born, a family friend took care of him. But when that friend decided to go back to school, Rodriguez had a month to find child care.
“It was very stressful. I probably called about 35 different day cares, posted on all the mommy networks,” she said. “[I] found a place that was able to work with us on budget, but ... it’s just kind of far out there, but we’ve just been dealing with it.”
As soon as they got Rocky into the Oak Hill child care center, Rodriguez started searching for another option, knowing she was not happy with the quality of the center and how far it was. After six months of searching, she finally found another option. It’s more expensive, but a little closer and they can drop off Rocky five days a week.
Larry Elsner, executive director of Open Door Preschools, said he understands how in demand his child care services are.
“We’ve literally had people get on our waiting list before they’ve conceived,” said Elsner, who oversees three schools that care for roughly 200 kids in Austin. Of the parents KUT spoke with, one woman said she got on a waitlist for child care when she was just 10 weeks pregnant. Nearly a year and a half later, she still hasn’t been offered a spot.
Elsner said most of the school's revenue comes from parents in the form of tuition, and roughly 80 percent of the school’s budget is spent on personnel costs, including pay for teachers. That means the cost of tuition is directly related to how much they can pay teachers.
He said the balancing act of being affordable for working families while paying staff a living wage was an issue long before he came to Open Door.
"And I believe [it] is, unfortunately, going to be the issue long after," he said.
In the report on child care delivered to council members last year, researchers found teachers and child care workers made anywhere from $8 to $16 an hour in a city that has determined a living wage hovers around $15 an hour.
Felker Jones said given all these considerations and challenges – cost, quality and availability – parents tell her it’s a miracle they find child care that works for them in Austin.
“[I hear] over and over this refrain where moms say, ‘I got lucky. I got lucky.’ So let me just break that down for a second," she said. "We don’t go to the airport and like, hope to get on a plane somewhere. This is our children. This is our career. These are our employees. And we’re depending on luck."
Rodriguez pulled into her driveway in Del Valle just before 5:45 p.m. The nearly 30-mile trip started at her office, stopped at two different child care centers and finally ended at home almost two hours later.
She put the family’s three dogs outside and started throwing together dinner from leftover chicken and roasted vegetables. Rocky stuffed his face, while Ryker was more reluctant to buy into the merits of eating. He jumped on the couch or talked to the dogs staring inside from the sliding-glass door.
When asked about whether she wants a third kid, Rodriguez said yes – in theory.
“I totally want a third,” she said. “The cost would double. So, we’d have to probably have someone live with us or change our lifestyle in order to financially afford it.”