Is Having Children a Luxury? (Part 1)

My friend wants to have a baby. A second baby, to be precise. Her daughter has hit toddlerhood, and she’s right at the stage where the early newborn memories have faded enough for her to think, “I could do this again.”

My friend is in a loving, stable relationship. She has a good job as a teacher. She has a supportive family and a lot of good friends. Her spouse is also employed, although without the benefits she has as a public school teacher. The whole family is covered by decent (for-this-country-and-this-economy) health insurance through her job.

Sounds like a recipe for second baby success, right? Except she’s not going to have a second child. Not because she doesn’t want to. Not because she physically cannot have another child.

She’s decided she’s not going to have a second child because she feels like her family can’t afford it.

And she’s not alone.

I’ve met other people who have opted for one-child families for many reasons. But the reason I hear more often than not? We could only afford one.

As someone who did have two children, I must say — I completely understand.

Don’t get me wrong. That first kid can be a financial wallop. But the second one, as as much as I love her, showed me how having children can take you to new financial lows in a short amount of time. Two kids means a lot less time, energy and money. It meant Mom couldn’t work like she had been working with just two little feet running around. Because Mom is more tired than she ever knew she could be.

My daughter also had medical issues in the beginning, and I was thankful for my husband’s health insurance every time we ended up in another specialist’s office. And I wondered, every time, how people without health insurance did it.

I understood, for the first time in my life, how having a family could limit your choices. And as my own middle-class family struggled, I thought more and more about the millions of other Americans, including many of my friends, who had both similar and much more serious problems.

I’ve thought about my experiences as a mother twice over, and I believe something has happened to American families over the past few decades. The core of the difficulties facing families today lie far beneath the superficial “mommy wars” about stay-at-home versus working mothers. Those are petty arguments, as far as I’m concerned. Ditto with the ridiculous political pundits in the media prattling on about the destruction of family values. They are just making noise. And the noise is distracting from the real issues.

The first issue is living is more expensive.

Let’s take a trip back in time to 1980. It was the beginning of a new decade. Reagan was elected president. Blondie and Devo were on the radio. And I was nine years old.

Here’s a breakdown of common costs circa 1980:

Cost of a first-class stamp: $0.15
Cost of a gallon of regular gas: $1.25
Cost of a dozen eggs: $0.91
Cost of a gallon of Milk: $2.16

My father worked for the federal government for 30 years. In 1980, he made about $40,000/year and supported a family of four on this income. He was able to do that because his 30-year traditional mortgage (with 20% down, and including taxes and insurance) was less than $500/month for a 2200 sq. ft. 4-bedroom home. His medical coverage was more extensive than many of today’s plans, and the general cost of living in our area was relatively low. We went to public schools. He owned two cars, both bought used (no payments). He had no credit card debt or student loans from his education. My mother also had no credit card debt or student loans. We were comfortable, but not rich.

Today, if the head of the household (male or female) made the same $40,000, most of those things would be out of reach. In my town, the rent for a three bedroom home runs between $1,200-1,500/month. A gallon of milk is around $3. A stamp is 42 cents. Gas is over $4/gallon. A dozen eggs is $2.19.

This comparison is hardly scientific, but you get the idea. The cost of living has increased.

Wages haven’t increased as fast as costs, so more people in the family need to work.

in 1982, my mother went back to work. I was 11, and my sister was 8 years old. She worked part time as a nurse while we were in school. She was home by the time we got off the school bus. During the summer, she found an elderly lady to watch us for the outrageous amount of $3/hour. But since she could make $12/hour, the math still worked in her favor.

My mother wasn’t the only one going back to work. Mothers all over the country were doing the same thing. That extra income helped churn along the economy and helped many afford things that suddenly were not quite as affordable as they once were.

Fast forward to 2012. I’ve had a job in one form or another since I was 15. Ditto with my husband.

Together, my husband and I make more than twice my father’s income in 1980, yet our mortgage is nearly three times the amount. Our health insurance is more expensive and covers less. Not to mention the cost of daycare, food and utilities for our family of four. We live simply. Yet so many families like mine need two incomes simply to make it.

And that leaves a lot of people with some difficult choices to make. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I ponder how different people make different choices.

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This entry was posted in It's My Life, Things You Won't Find in Parenting Books. Bookmark the permalink.

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