Quality, affordable child care. It was the first item on President Obama's shopping list in his State of the Union address. If the future is going to be about helping the struggling middle class, he said, quality, affordable child care for working parents is the linchpin.

"In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have — it's a must-have," the president said.

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Rebekah and Ben of Minneapolis, he said in the speech, spend more on child care for sons Jack and Henry than they pay on their mortgage and almost as much as a year at the University of Minnesota would cost.

As if the dollar figures are not enough of a nightmare for working parents, let alone single parents, there is always the grainy video of a day care worker kicking a sleeping toddler, as was the case in Florida last week, to keep them awake at night.

I look around this newsroom at the next generation of reporters, many of whom are starting families, and I hear them gasp at the ruinous costs of child care.

I sense their concern about the future of careers so successfully launched. I hear them debate the purpose of working at all, since their paychecks barely cover child care. Having a second or third child seems like financial suicide.

Suddenly it is 30 years ago and I am facing all of these vexing decisions again, trying to decide what was best for me and my family.

I would say to these young families that child care is not the mother's bill to pay. It is a family expense, like mortgage and the utilities. Her paycheck doesn't have to cover the costs of sitters or day care to make her job worth it. Likewise, he is not less of a man because he can't cover all the bills. Single-earner marriages are as scarce as hen's teeth these days.

Part time or flex time can be the best time, I would say to them. It is likely one parent's job is going to look more important or be more demanding than the other's. One of you needs flexibility in the event of a sick child or some other domestic calamity. Life with young children can be relentless; think about building some air into the system.

Try not to leave the workforce, would be my advice. It is so difficult to return. Job descriptions change, skills atrophy, opportunities go to someone else. Even a couple of years out of the game will have career-long ramifications, financial and otherwise.

I returned to work part time after my second child was born while my husband continued to work full time. And if you look at our Social Security reports, side-by-side, year by year, you can see exactly what it cost me.

But during those years, I was still contributing to that Social Security account. Now retirement looms, and I know exactly how important those dollars were. The 60-year-old me is grateful to the 30-year-old me.

The president's proposal is modest. Raise the child care tax credit from $1,000 per child to $3,000 per child. It is little enough when the average cost of caring for an infant in some areas is as high as $16,000 a year and more than $12,000 for a four-year-old.

Those costs are most certainly driving somesecond earners — and let's face it, they are women — from the workforce.

Conservatives point to national surveys that show 70 percent of responders would prefer that it be a parent at home with young children, suggesting that we are not only ambivalent about working motherhood, we don't trust any child care but our own.

Into this complex, emotional and hideously expensive debate wades our divided government. A president who makes heroes of a working mom and dad and Republicans who think he is creating a victim class of parents in order to justify government over-reach.

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Working parents, I would not expect for any help from Washington

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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