President Obama called child care a “national economic priority” during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Pool photo by Mandel Ngan/via AP)

An editor said she was losing about $200 a month.

An analyst said she just barely broke even.

“Yes! That’s me. I’m losing money going to work today. But I’m late! Can we talk later?” said another woman rushing to the office after dropping her kids off at a day-care center in Greenbelt, Md.

The fourth mom I talked to was so underwater, the family simply couldn’t afford for her to work. So she quit her job as a fraud investigator for a financial institution because child care would have consumed so much of her paycheck.

This is the absurd reality so many middle-class families face, and it's especially devastating for working mothers. That's why about 15 minutes into Tuesday's State of the Union speech, women across the country — Republicans, Democrats, independents and apolitical sideliners — whooped and hollered when President Obama acknowledged the child-care crisis.

“It’s time,” he said, “we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

Yessss, we all said.

“I applauded. I cheered,” said Erin Hackney, 35, the fraud investigator who quit her job to stay home with her kids, now ages 9 and 6, in Burke, Va. “Because women and the value of the work that women do is constantly undervalued in our society.”

She loved her job. And she was good at it. And she hated leaving.

So, what’s wrong with a little time off to be with the kids? Scrimp and save a little, make do, detractors say. Raise your kids and once they’re in school, go back to work.

It’s just two or three years off, said my family members who wanted me to quit working.

But it’s never that simple. The mommy-track penalty ends up with huge, long-term costs. Two years off usually means a complete career rebuild. One year away from some highly skilled jobs is like a 10-year hiatus.

When Hackney considered returning to work as a fraud investigator last year, she said technology had changed so much that she didn’t have a chance. So she’s now working as a teacher’s assistant at her kids’ school.

“And there, we have a couple women who are pregnant, and they’re facing this down and they don’t know what to do. They’re doing the numbers — salary, child care, hours — and it just doesn’t work,” she said.

And we’re not even talking about the country’s more than 10 million single moms, who don’t have the option of staying at home.

At that Greenbelt day-care center, analyst Sarah Tater, 35, dropped off her 2-year-old and headed to the office.“We are just above water,” she said. “But because I have one. If I had two, then that would be the tipping point.”

When she heard that child care made the State of the Union address, she said, “Thank goodness. The nation really needs to catch up to places like Finland or Germany, where child care is important and a priority.”

Over in Rockville, Diane Ferguson, 47, was racing to pick her kids up from after-school care.

She’s breaking even now. But in the days when both kids were at an in-home day care, she was spending more than $450 a week on child care. And the family was underwater.

Once the kids made it to preschool, the family began to break even.

“I’m self-employed,” said Ferguson, who runs her own company editing government reports and proposals. “Even though we were upside down for a while, when you’re in business for yourself, you can’t just drop everything.”

The state of American child care?

It’s a mess, a mishmash of pricey day-care centers with waiting lists a mile long, in-home day-care operations that are either homey, sketchy or both, and insanely expensive nannies and au pairs who are totally out of reach for most people. It’s friends and family picking up the slack, and quiet prayers while racing down the highway shoulder to pass the traffic jam and make the pickup deadline.

Meanwhile, study after study shows that these are some of the most crucial developmental years for children, and we either make it financially impossible for parents to stay with them or we pay caregivers less than we pay janitors to nurture our country’s future.

I thought I would have a hard time finding women like me, who existed in that absurd, upside-down world of paying to go to work. But with every stop I made at a high-quality day care, with every phone call or e-mail conversation I had, I found women in the same situation I was.

“But please don’t put my name in. I don’t want people to know,” one woman told me.

We need America to know how absurd this is.

We also need to know that America can do this — and has done it before. I love that Obama mentioned the wartime nursery schools where Rosie the Riveter dropped off her kids so she could go rivet.

“During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national-security priority — so this country provided universal child care,” Obama said.

Check out some of the footage of women in shipyard coveralls and pin curls dropping their children off at these day-care centers. It was considered a patriotic duty to put your kids there, and the curriculums at 2,500 centers were educational, inspiring and nurturing. Kids got snacks and hot meals, and some even brought mom home a roast chicken wrapped in foil so she could rest up in the evening after a hard day at the factory. All in the name of war.

It’s time that we put this much care, importance and universal consideration — men and women — into caring for our children.

But now, it has to be in the name of our future.

Twitter: @petulad

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