In my mid-thirties, after a pregnancy I wasn’t expecting turned into a miscarriage I wasn’t expecting, my partner and I decided we would really start trying to have a baby. There’s nothing like a pregnancy to spark the necessary, “where do we see this relationship going” conversation. We decided we did want children together someday; “someday” quickly turned into “now” when a second miscarriage followed the first and we realized it might take my body some time to successfully host a child.
The fear that we may be unable to have kids trumped the fact that we were not financially ready for them. We began trying for children with a complete lack of concern that neither of us had “real” jobs, health insurance that someone else paid for, or financial stability. I was a bartender at the time, he was a musician; we began tucking a little money into savings so I could afford not to work when the time came. A few years after that first miscarriage, we had a son.
I took a small break from work after he was born, but our financial situation necessitated that I get back behind the bar pretty quickly. It was then that I began writing to supplement our income. A career as a bartender had given me a natural knack for storytelling and I quickly found some paying gigs. My partner and I traded off working nights and tried to make our schedules as flexible as possible so we could be there for our child. We joined the ranks of the hip, metropolitan families in our increasingly expensive neighborhood in Brooklyn. My partner grew up in the neighborhood and I’d lived there for over a decade, but after our child was born, we started to question whether city living was something we could maintain on our modest incomes. A couple years later, I sat on our toilet seat in the third-floor walk-up apartment we were already beginning to outgrow with our one child, and stared at a positive pregnancy test I never expected to come after all those years we struggled to have our first. We were adding another child to our already shaky financial situation.
On paper, we probably look really different than the average American parents: a musician who makes his money performing anywhere he can in New York City and a writer who makes her money selling her words. Our Bohemian lifestyle must certainly have had some questioning why we would decide to expand our family, since we clearly couldn’t afford it. But our financial status isn’t much different than the average American who is now living paycheck to paycheck. Our situation is far more common than the situation of the other parents in our increasingly “wealthy” old neighborhood in Brooklyn. We’re the rule, not the exception.
While our combined income lands us square in what the census calls the “middle class,” there’s never “extra” money. When I look at the money coming into our household every month and the money that has to go out – I’m dumbfounded. We don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. We don’t own a house or new cars. We rarely treat ourselves to anything material that isn’t a necessity. We’re two working adults with two children in daycare. That’s it.
When I’ve written about this in the past, there is a retort that inevitably comes up in the comment section: “Don’t have kids you can’t afford.” Was I wrong for bringing children into the world that I couldn’t “afford?” Should not being financially ready have stopped me from following my instinct to have kids?
The idea that people need to be financially secure to procreate is an interesting one, considering so many Americans aren’t. Our middle class is faring worse than it ever has, and the prices of what most believe to be childrearing “necessities” keep inflating. Census stats show the median household income in 2012 was no higher than it was 25 years ago — and those numbers haven’t changed much in the last three years, either. But that hasn’t stopped the prices of child-rearing necessities from soaring.
A 2012 Bloomberg report showed college prices increased 1120 percent over three decades, medical expensed increased 601 percent and the price of food increased 244 percent. According to the census, childcare expenses have nearly doubled in the last quarter century, from a weekly average of $84 for families with working mothers, to a weekly average of $184. Those living below the poverty line have it worse than those of us trying to maintain middle-class status: they spend roughly four times the percentage of their income on childcare as other families; a whopping 30 percent.
It used to be we just wanted our children to do better than we did. With a rising cost of living amongst stagnant wages, that wish is now a pipe dream. So where do we go from here? Do we just decide that only the wealthy have our collective blessing to raise kids? When someone utters the phrase, “Don’t have kids you can’t afford,” do they realize they are speaking to a very large percentage of the population?
Blindly expecting people to financially “keep up” when the reality is stagnant wages and a soaring cost of living is silly. So is expecting people to abandon their dreams of raising a family. I would never advise a couple who is in the situation that we’re in not to have kids because they can’t “afford” them. We need more families with a vested interest in things changing. We need to take an honest look at what’s happening to the middle class in this country. If a middle class income isn’t enough to pay for the basic necessities of childrearing – then what? I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do know what I tell my friends who feel like they can’t afford to have the children they want:
“Have them anyway.”