A friend sent me the link to the recent NYTimes article “Opting Out of Parenthood, with Finances in Mind” by Nadia Taha, probably because she knew it would get me all riled up. She was right.
Here’s Taha’s premise: Children cost an unfathomable amount of money (her absurd estimate is close to 2 million per kid). If you want financial security and a comfortable retirement, your best option is to not have kids: she writes, “…it seems obvious that the single decision that can best help us achieve them [homeownership, significant emergency and retirement fund, etc] is one that many newly married, affluent young adults don’t usually consider: Don’t have children.”
People are always contemplating the costs and benefits of major financial decisions like homeownership or retirement, why treat parenthood differently? Taha asks. Well, because it is different. Having children isn’t a decision like whether to rent or buy a home. It’s a desire fundamental not only to humanity but to every living being. Creating new life is what living creatures do.
We’ll come back to the absolute absurdity of the numbers Taha comes up with to estimate the cost of raising kids, but for now I want to discuss the mindset that honestly breaks my heart: confusing happiness with wealth. The idea that it is (in Taha’s words) “prudent” to reject a basic human love and desire in order to protect your bottom line. Now, I’m not advocating financial irresponsibility. If we were in grave financial circumstances and could not afford to feed and clothe our little ones, we would avoid pregnancy through NFP until we were able to afford to care for another baby. But Taha’s idea of what it takes financially to raise a child is beyond unreasonable.
The Greek philosophers debated about eudaimonia. You can translate it “happiness” but a better word for it might be “thriving.” What makes us thrive as humans? What makes us truly happy? Isn’t that the question we’re all trying to answer every day of our lives? Sadly, for Taha, the answer is material wealth. Money is the answer, not human affection, not sacrifice, not family. Taha’s article also highlights what seems to be an epidemic in our culture: a misunderstanding of the difference between material goods and what children really need in order to flourish.
Taha quotes the annual report by the Agriculture Department on how much American parents spend on their children. Taha explains that the report claims, “a middle-income couple spent $12,290 to $14,320 a year on a child, depending on the child’s age and where they lived. Couples in our income bracket who live in the urban Northeast spent $22,760 to $27,720 per child.” These are real numbers. Taha’s right. Americans spend a lot on their kids. I’ve had so many conversations with pregnant friends who ask…does it really cost that much? The answer is no. It doesn’t have to. And your kids won’t be deprived if you don’t spend that kind of money. Please read Katie Kimball’s fantastic post on this exact topic as she breaks down how people spend money on their kids and how she estimates that her family spent approx. $1,000 on baby-related expenses the year her baby was born. If we spent as much as the average middle-income couple on each of our kids, that would almost wipe out our entire household income. It doesn’t have to cost that much.
Taha’s heartbreaking attitude about wealth being superior to human affection really comes to light when she discusses elder care. When asked about the prospect of aging with no children, Taha replies, “I don’t believe in bringing people into the world for personal gain, and even if I did, swapping the supposed promise of elder care for the certain need for us to provide child care is not worth it. I’ve learned from firsthand experience that the professional support that comes from good long-term care and health insurance policies is superior to what family can offer. When I was the primary caregiver for my father as he was dying of pancreatic cancer, it was painfully clear to me that regardless of how much I loved him and how hard I tried to care for him, a qualified professional would have done a better job. Besides, children are not an insurance policy for eldercare. Health care providers will tell you that hospitals and nursing homes serve many parents and grandparents who don’t have regular visitors.” (Emphasis mine.)
These claims were really shocking to me. First of all, who are these people Taha refers to who have children for “personal gain”? Raising children is a sacrifice. Caring for aging parents is also a sacrifice. It’s the life cycle of a family. No, you don’t get any sort of legal guarantee that your children will care for you as you age. But because of her obsession with material wealth, Taha seems unable to comprehend the need of each human soul to be loved, cared for, and enjoy the company of those who love them. Sure, you will likely need to pay for the services provided by medical staff to care for you as you age. But when most of us think about being cared for as we age, we’re not talking about someone to give us our meds each day and change our bedpan or provide us with necessary surgeries or medical procedures. Yes, these are necessities and medical staff will be part of our future as most of us age. But that’s not what we’re talking about. The worry is that you will have no one to care for you. Not take care of your basic health needs but to care about you. Medical professionals can help to extend one’s life, but family makes that life worth living. To provide you with the love and respect each person needs to age with dignity, there is no substitute for having a family member to advocate for your welfare. And there is no substitute for love and affection.
When my mother’s parents were in failing health and needing more care, my mother and her siblings worked tirelessly to make sure they were provided with everything they needed. Even being in an expensive elder care facility, my grandmother would not always receive the kind of care my mother wanted for her. During my grandmother’s last months, my mother spent almost all of her time hours away from my dad and her home so that she could be close to my grandmother and ensure that she got the care she needed. She would wash and brush my grandmother’s hair. Put lip balm on her dry lips. Talk to her and love on her. Were those things medically necessary? Maybe not. But they were essential nonetheless. You cannot buy love. You cannot buy family.
And honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine a worse fate than aging in a nursing home with no visitors. No one’s denying that it happens, but is that not a terrifying idea? My husband’s grandmother just passed away after spending 3 years in an assisted living facility. Because she had a devoted daughter and son-in-law in town, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, she had visitors almost daily. And when visiting her you could tell that seeing her grandchildren and great-grandbabies brought her such joy. Can you imagine how lonely the twilight of your life would be without any companionship?
As I read this article, I feel so sad for Taha’s obsession with money that overshadows the value of human relationships and affection. But when she starts making statements about what kind of money is necessary to give your children “the best” I start to feel insulted.
She writes, “It must be difficult to accept that no matter how you set aside your own interests, you cannot afford the very best of everything for your child.” She also claims, “If we were to have a child and do what most other parents around us do in trying to give a new life the very best start possible, we would probably spend over $1.7 million in today’s dollars.” (Emphasis mine.)
So if I don’t have that kind of money, I can’t give my children the very best start? What exactly does the very best start mean? Having the most expensive nursery? Being able to afford every Mommy and Me class out there? I can’t afford that, but I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything in my power to give my kids the best start imaginable.
The idea of having the kind of finances necessary to spend almost 2 million dollars on raising each of our kids is laughable. As in, my husband and I actually laughed out loud at that number. No, my kids will never have the newest video games, clothes, or room for a pony, but by Jove, that doesn’t mean that I can’t give my children the very best. I just disagree that “the best” means the most expensive. Our children will have the very best of us. They will have our time, love, and attention. They will have affectionate parents, fully engaged with their care and education. They will not be given a brand new car on their 16th birthdays. Hey, we didn’t get a car on our 16th birthdays either. And we don’t see that as a bad thing.
“I may never feel financially at ease enough to comfortably afford children of my own,” Taha writes. Well, dear me. If a couple making more than three times what we make can’t afford one child, we must be insane to be expecting our third!
She also confesses, “Some people have a profound emotional desire to have children. But I don’t.” OK, thank you for being honest. It’s one thing if you don’t want children. It’s another to claim that you simply can’t afford them and that those of us who don’t plan to spend 2 million on each new addition to our family aren’t providing our children with what they deserve. Maybe Taha is worried about being judged for not wanting kids. I have friends who have made the decision not to have children. I respect their choice, even if I don’t understand it. They have their reasons, some of which I know and some of which I do not. I don’t think they are selfish for their decision. And I appreciate that none of them are pretending that the issue is that they don’t have an extra 2 million in their bank account.
In a few months we will be welcoming a third baby to our home. Our third in less than 5 years. Our household of soon-to-be five shares one car, one laptop, one bathroom, and a lot of love. Our kids aren’t hungry for food or attention. They have enough hand-me-down clothes that they don’t have to worry about getting them muddy when they have imaginary archaeological digs in the backyard. They don’t have every new toy that comes out, but they are filled with imagination and resourcefulness. Our home is full of laughter, affection, and joy. This is the best start I can imagine for any child. And I’m grateful for the privilege to make sacrifices to be a mother to these amazing little people. Taha’s right about one thing. The cost of having children is huge. It’s your whole heart. And it couldn’t be more worth it.
Image by Simply Inspired Mama
(linked up with The Parent ‘ Hood at FriedOkra)