This week in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to talk about affordable child care with a group of incredible people who are doing everything they can to make work, well, work for families in the 21st century. The event was hosted by The Hill, SEIU, American Women, the Domestic Workers Legacy Fund and Make It Work Action. (You can watch it here.)

The best part about this conversation is that it included all the voices that must be at the table if we’re serious about moving today’s families–and today’s economy–forward: policy experts, policymakers, parents and providers.

Why am I so passionate about making quality child care affordable for parents? Here’s my story:

When I first moved to Iowa, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, and attended school full-time. I woke up before 6:00 a.m. and sometimes wouldn’t see my daughter again until 11:00 at night. It was a real struggle, and it broke my heart to see so little of my daughter, but I was doing it all with the vision of making a better life for my family. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in America?

In the beginning, because I qualified for some income-based assistance, child care expenses were a little under $200 every week (which is still high, but not compared to what child care costs look like nationwide). Then a 10-cent raise changed everything.

Yes. A single dime disqualified my daughter and me from the child care subsidies I’d been receiving and relying on to go to school while also working more than full-time. I picked up a third job just to make up the difference.

My story is not the exception. As my fellow Make It Work Ambassadors from Nevada so eloquently put it to the New York Times, “I have to work. It’s not an option.” So how can it be that the harder we all push to make ends meet, the less it pays off?

I hear stories like mine from parents all the time, and I hear them from our child care providers too. Take Tonia McMillian, for example.

Tonia shared the dais with me in Philadelphia this week. She’s a member of SEIU Local 99 in Los Angeles, and she’s fighting for a $15 an hour wage. She’s been a child care provider for more than 20 years, working 15 hours a day, five days a week. Last year she made $16,000.

She has no pension. She has no retirement plan.

Tonia’s not alone. My fellow ambassadors aren’t alone. And neither am I.

For so long, parents and providers have believed that our sacrificed sleep, our endless work days, our meager wages, all the time spent away from our children in order to improve their lot in life — that all these things were somehow a necessary burden to bear, or worse, a failure to find the mythical “work-life balance.”

We’ve been made to believe that juggling work and family is a problem to be solved on our own, or a mistake to correct with harder work and less reward.

The truth is, managing work and caring for loved ones in the 21st-century shouldn’t feel like a tightrope act. When so many working people in our nation are feeling the pinch, there is a deeper problem at play that deserves some deeper analysis–and affordable, quality child care that respects providers and pays a living wage must be a part of the solution.

You don’t have to take my word for it.

Heather Boushey, an economist and a co-panelist during our event in Philadelphia, literally wrote the book on the impact work and family policies are having on our economy.

Here’s what Heather said: “Most families don’t have the luxury or the desire to have a full-time stay at-home caregiver…But because we have not addressed that, our economy is suffering in really important ways. The U.S. now has lower labor supply, in no small part because we don’t have these policies in place. So when people say, ‘Oh, we can’t afford it,’ I think the economic evidence is that we can’t afford not to.”

As a parent, I am constantly balancing a checkbook. I am constantly making sacrifices to provide for my daughter. As we said over and over on last week’s panel, there is no more worthwhile investment than our children. They deserve a whole lot more than a few blocks, swings and toys. They deserve quality care that puts them on the path to a bright future, that lets parents provide without sacrificing so much, that pays providers a wage commensurate with the enormous responsibility of ensuring our children’s wellbeing. The return on this investment is worth every dime it takes to make affordable, quality child care available to every working family.

By: Rochean Wilder