It's a struggle for balance in the mad dance of jobs and child care, homework and Little League.

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MARY FLETT is fretting. She’s several minutes late. At home, the baby-sitter waits. Her mind is piling up with tasks. She’s stuck in traffic and can’t step on the gas. Her older boy has a baseball game. The younger one, homework to do.

She works and mothers and often wonders: How did she get here, in this place, where days and money just evaporate?

Her life. It sounds like one of those whirligig songs she sings to her Renton elementary students. There’s the crescendo as her 9-year-old hits a run during Little League — then the inevitable dip when her 7-year-old throws a fit over dinner. Up the music goes when she gets her paycheck for substitute teaching — and down it falls after subtracting one-third for child care. The beat settles into a steady, quiet cadence at night, after lesson planning, after her husband’s gone to bed and her two boys are finally asleep.

Flett jokes that most parents could sing the soundtrack to her life because in it resides the truth about modern American families. It is about the struggles of running a nuclear household with two working parents. It is about Jedi-masterminding good child care in a fend-for-yourself system.

Mostly, it is about the staggering costs of having kids; costs that devour time, money and career choices like no other; costs, like housing and child care, which sprinted skyward over the past 30 years while average incomes flatlined.

Parents always say that kids are worth it. We say the emotional returns far exceed the squeeze. We say it, of course, because we believe it. But we also say it because we are afraid not to.

So, thank goodness for Mary Flett. Because she will not pretend. She will not be afraid. She will sit down with you at her kitchen table in Southeast Bellevue, which is papered with her boys’ schoolwork, and in between bites of cereal for dinner, she will look you in the eye and say, Yes, this is hard. She’ll talk about the mad choreography of child care. She’ll talk about the debt she and her husband took on after their kids were born and she worked part-time.

She will say it all with a laugh, because she laughs a lot, and because it’s funny, isn’t it, how we make the biggest economic decision of our lives during a misty-eyed moment, a moment that pulls at our hearts more than our logic and whispers: Let’s have a baby.

FIRST, THE numbers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tracking the costs of raising children since 1960.

Its most recent report says that a middle-income family who had a baby in 2011 can expect to spend $295,560, adjusted for inflation, to raise that baby until age 18. (This does not include a single cent for college.)

The biggest chunk of that, 30 percent, will cover just the roof over the child’s head. Child care and food take the second-largest bite. In fact, child care and school-related expenses ballooned more than tenfold over the past 50 years, outpacing even that of kids’ health care.

Washingtonians pony up even more. Our state is the 11th least-affordable when it comes to child care. Parents here shell out an average $11,450 a year for an infant enrolled full time at a day-care center, according to the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies.

Just think: Tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates at the University of Washington cost $10,575 this past school year.

“It’s sticker shock,” says Deeann Puffert, CEO of Child Care Resources of Seattle. “Young families, who are nowhere near the peak of their earning power, are being asked to shoulder the cost of child care, which is the equivalent of going to the UW for a year.”

And guess what? Even if you’re willing to pay, the wait to get into a high-quality center can take years.

Americans are heeding these flashing lights. The country’s birthrate is now the lowest it’s been since 1909, when national data became available. Since 2007, the number of births has dropped nearly 10 percent, dovetailing with the recession. Here’s where it gets interesting. Our teen birthrate is at a historic low, but the number of women having two or more children after 35 is on the rise. Nuclear families remain dominant, but single-parent households have grown dramatically in the past few decades.

So we’re older and (ostensibly) wiser when we have kids. But we’re doing it in increasing isolation, often separated from partners and extended family, in a country that offers little to no child-care support. A baby is nothing if not a vast canyon of need. Likewise, parents burn out; marriages crash..

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor of psychology who wrote the 2006 book “Stumbling on Happiness,” found that marital satisfaction plunged after the birth of the first child.

In a later essay about fatherhood for Time Magazine, he wrote that couples’ happiness increases “only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”

Such findings, Gilbert admits, are “hard to swallow because they fly in the face of our most compelling intuitions. We love our children! . . . We feel confident that we are happy with our kids, about our kids, for our kids and because of our kids — so why is our personal experience at odds with the scientific data?”

ON A LATE-April evening, Flett jumps out of her car, breathless, and apologizes to Tiffani, the sitter, for running behind. Traffic on Interstate 405, she explains. Commute from hell.

Flett glances at the clock — 4:08 p.m. — and thanks Tiffani, whom she also calls her “fairy godmother” because finally here was someone who could pick her boys up from school at 2:30 p.m. and watch them until she got home. Plus, the woman does housework! Flett pauses with wonder at her kitchen sink.

“Oh my gosh. Tiffani. She — I can’t believe this — she did all the dishes. We’ve been trying to get these out of the sink and into the dishwasher for days. And, look, she did it.”

What time is it again? Yikes, 4:30. Flett runs the math: find clean baseball pants for 9-year-old Jeremiah in the next 10 minutes; get 7-year-old Alexander a book to read in the next five and remember to bring snacks to tonight’s Little League game. Will she have time for dinner?

Deduction: negative. She pours herself a bowl of Quaker Whole Hearts and starts crunching.

Flett is 42 and teaches in the Renton School District. After Jeremiah was born in 2002, she gave up her contract to stay home for a year because counting her salary against the cost of infant care amounted to a net loss. Her husband was in social work at the time, and the family of three was “eking along.”

Soon, though, Flett’s fear of leaving a hole on her résumé set in. Plus, she liked work; she missed it. After Jeremiah turned 1, she sought out a group of moms at her church for baby-sitting trades to get free child care while she substitute taught in Seattle for a daily rate and no benefits.

Thus began a game of musical child care.

“I’d put out the email and see what I could get. If I couldn’t get any takers, or I could only get someone for half of the time, then I’d try to make arrangements with Grandma and be like, ‘You want time with the grandkids?’ “

Sometimes, a generous friend would do it for free. She’d calculate the “free” care as offsetting the cost of the days she had to pay someone.

These arrangements, spotty as they were, helped the family manage until Alexander was born in 2005. At that point, Flett continued subbing part-time, but two kids did not make for an even child-care trade. So she ended up paying older church members $8 an hour to watch her boys — a rate, she realizes, was well below market.

She’d also leave the children with her dad, who might, say, be engrossed in a Mariners game, and think to herself, “Just don’t let them die. Just don’t let them die.”

After the boys started grade school, and Flett returned full-time, the challenge became finding care for the late-afternoon hours. Again, she relied on a patchwork of friends. But it got confusing.

“I would call Jeremiah’s teacher and say, ‘OK, he’s going home with Vera today. Just remind him.’ He’d get on the bus, and the teacher would run out and say, ‘No! You’re going home with Vera today!’ My kids didn’t know if they were coming or going.”

Then, last year, Tiffani appeared. She had kids herself. She was smart and reliable. She could do it all — did Flett mention the housework? — for between $1,000 and $1,500 a month. Flett’s years of service in public school were finally paying off. She was salaried and bringing home $3,500 a month. The cost still hurt, but she and her husband, who now worked as a consultant, could afford it. Plus, they could deduct the expense on their taxes.

“If there was some catastrophe and I lost my fairy godmother, I don’t know what I’d do,” Flett says. “I’ve always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if our country were to incorporate on-site child care for employees at schools? Or at companies?’ It’s kind of where capitalism fails us.”

The clock ticks past 5 p.m.. Time to head out. Flett coughs; her throat feels scratchy. Must be coming down with something, she says.

She piles the kids in the minivan, jumps behind the wheel and keeps going.

AS MUCH as women have advanced in the workforce, many, like Flett, still find themselves faced with path-altering decisions when it comes to having a baby.

Ann Flickinger knows all about this. Flickinger, a stay-at-home mom who lives on Beacon Hill, was once a systems coordinator at a hazardous-waste company. She worked full-time and was in charge of troubleshooting databases.

“It was interesting work,” says Flickinger, 34. “I had my fingers in creative projects.”

She’d earned a reputation, she said, as “the go-to person for computer issues.” It was a demanding job, one that required her to put out fires at a moment’s notice. Then she and her husband decided to have a baby. After her daughter, Ellie, was born in May 2011, her role was downgraded and she accepted that — albeit reluctantly.

The reality was that she could no longer be available 24-7. But she loved her job, so after three months of maternity leave, she tried working part-time from home.

Emphasis on the word “tried.” Flickinger wanted to avoid sky-high child-care costs — and as a new mom, she couldn’t bear being separated from her daughter — so she crammed her work hours in during the baby’s naps. She’d put Ellie down in her crib when the baby wasn’t quite ready. An hour later, she’d hear cries and think, Please go back to sleep.

“It was frustrating for her and for me,” she says.

The frantic juggling continued until a decision was made for her. In December, she got a call from her boss’s boss saying the company had lost a contract and had to lay off some employees. She was one of them.

Susan Brown sees these situations play out every day. As co-founder of Kids Co., a string of nonprofit child-care centers in King County, Brown came up with the idea in 1989 to offer subsidized care for working families when, she said, “I was young enough to think I could change the world.”

She has — for many. The centers cater to working families on tight budgets and offer reduced rates for licensed preschool, before/after-school care, and summer day camp. Kids Co. also gives out $400,000 a year in scholarships funded in part through donations. Brown said it’s a herculean task to find good child care in our country because society still operates under “that old thinking where there should be a mom at home.”

Chipping away at this pushed Brown to make Kids Co. a success. She was in her mid-20s when she started the company. A few years later, she had two children but she and her husband couldn’t afford child care.

They relied on her mother, she says, who drove from Oak Harbor every Sunday to help during the week.

It was tough. And exhausting. Along the way, Brown discovered a humbling truth.

“There’s this idea that because it’s so natural to have children, that to raise them and teach them is equally as natural,” she says. “But it’s not. It’s learned.

“And it’s hard, hard work.”

SO WHY do we do it?

With all the research and studies and data out there stating that kids make you poorer, more stressed, more likely to hate your spouse and generally less happy, why, oh why, would any sane person consciously choose to propagate the species?

Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, says we can’t help ourselves; it’s embedded in our DNA. “So,” he writes, “we toil and sweat, lose sleep and hair, play nurse, housekeeper, chauffeur and cook, and we do all that because nature just won’t have it any other way.”

Flett laughs. Maybe we’re all just crazy, she says. Who knows?

Here’s what she does know: that every night after 9 p.m., after her boys have fallen asleep, she gets to tiptoe into their rooms and wait as her heart fills with something too big to be called anything. She gets to lean into Jeremiah, then Alexander, and tell them “I love you,” and through closed eyes, Alexander will smile and murmur “love-you-too-Mom” and sink back to his dreams.

It is her why. Most days, it is enough.

Sonia Krishnan is a Pacific NW staff writer. Contact her at 206-515-5546 or John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer. News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.