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With rising child-care cost, many parents are paying to work

And more help like this is necessary because now, for parents in this pickle, quitting a job to stay home with children -- especially in this economy -- is a shortsighted solution.

"If you're leaving the workforce to take care of your kids, that financial calculus may make sense in the immediate year or two," said Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the D.C.-based Center for American Progress and one of the authors of the study. "But looking at the long-term economic health of a family, that can be devastating."

When you step off a work path, you lose seniority, experience, benefits -- workforce capital that is difficult to regain once the kids are in school (assuming they go to a free public school, of course).

Boushey calls taking time off to care for kids a "lifetime pay penalty" for some parents.

That's what Julia Christian, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, wants to avoid. She, too, doesn't make enough to cover the cost of day care for her daughter.

"I think there are more people in this boat than people are aware of," Christian said. "It's really sad.

"The next logical question, of course, is, why work?" Christian said. "When it's not for a paycheck, you have to start talking about sense of self and professional accomplishment and seniority and pride. That's a hard argument to win."

According to the National Women's Law Center, the percentage of women in the American workforce has increased by 35 percent since 1980. And the typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week at work in 2006 than it did in 1979, according to Boushey's report.

The availability and affordability of child care, however, is not rising at the same rate.

Most of us don't have 9-to-5 jobs. Affordable child care is often a 9-to-5 solution.

And when you work longer than the day care center is open, your child-care options are suddenly frighteningly narrow and complicated. For many of us, it's a high-wire juggling act that feels held together with tape and spit: babysitters, aftercare, school, preschool, nanny.

And most of us really can't afford all that.

So we call it an investment, paying to work for a couple of years, digging into savings and cutting to the bone before the kids are in school.

And once that happens, it'll be nice to finally stop eating ramen.

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