I Cannot Afford You.
This morning, my daughter walked into the kitchen where I was preparing a crockpot dinner, and laid herself down on the floor. She smiled up at me and said “Lookit me, Daddy!” and proceeded to swoosh her arms and legs across the kitchen floor, up and down, up and down. “I’m a kitchen snow angel!”
I then had one of those flash-forward moments that parents often have, and I caught a potent and imaginary glimpse of the woman she may one day become. Our children often give us little glimpses like this; impressions of the human corner they are carving for themselves in some future version of our world. I looked at her, basking in the glow of this imaginary image, and began to trace the timeline backwards, backtracking through moments and milestones until she was just my little girl again, playing snow angel in the crumbs on my kitchen floor. All of the love and responsibilities that lead up to that picture flooded through me. I smiled, looked down at her, expecting the typical wave of adoration and hope to overtake me. But on this particular morning, the thought that bubbled up in my mind was not “I am so excited for you,” but … “I cannot afford you.”
Raising children is equal parts confounding love and ferocious, debilitating terror. Some days that terror takes the form of understandable anxiety regarding the realities of living in what all too often feels like a broken world, and sometimes the terror comes from simply understanding that no matter what you do for your child there is a very good chance it will simply never be enough. At the top of the list of latter issues lies the ugly reality of the financial burden of raising families in our current economic culture. I recently came across a gutbomb of a New York Times article stating that it costs nearly 2 million dollars to raise a child in our current social and economic climate. 2 million ($2,000,000) American dollars. Per child. I now wish I did not have that number in my head. But I do.
Regardless of whether or not this number is stretched over the course of a lifetime or not, my family and I do not and never will have this kind of money. Neither will most of the like-minded young families that I have come to know. I don’t know many corporate execs or bankers, or lawyers, but I do know a score of social workers, artists, educators and advocates, all of whom contribute an enormous amount to the health and vibrancy of our society. And we have families. And the truth is, we’re barely getting by.
How in the world do we make this work?
How do you make it work?
Here’s the reality: our lives are a result of our choices. My family and I did not stumble headlong into our current life. Our life, our family, exists in the way that it does because of a series of long-considered decisions that we made well in advance. My family is a part of a thoughtful plan that is unfolding as we speak. We made the decision to wait to start a family until we had healthy roots planted in a stable community and one or the other of us had enough stability in our career paths to be able to raise children within at least mildly responsible economic parameters. We even saved a bit of money before the child arrived. Rather than try to juggle two full-time careers and full-time daycare, we made the decision to have one of us stay at home and raise our child, and the other remain the workplace. For us, the developmental and spiritual benefits of having an active, devoted parent at home with our young children far outweighed the negligible difference an additional career would make in the financial health of our family after figuring in the cost of full-time daycare. Our family was a planned one, our decisions were based on a logical projection of career trajectory, economic sustainability and lifestyle hopes for our young family. Yet, despite all of this pre-planning, education and career stability we, like so many other families we know, cannot seem to get ahead.
I can tell you what that 2 million dollar figure looks like to my family and to nearly every young family I know. It looks like utter lunacy.
That number seems to indicate that anyone inside our economic bracket has no business raising families.
Almost all of the families I know who have kids similar in age to my own are facing the same challenges. We all have family budgets, many of us have long ago dropped luxuries like cable television, dining out and family vacations from our budgets. Most of the families I know try to use credit cards only in cases of real urgency, and many of the parents I know have not had regular date nights in a very long time or, like … ever. It is true that many of the families we know work in arts or non-profits or education, but all of us are doing the best we can and it seems like not matter how much we cut back, no matter how hard we try, it will never be enough.
Something is amiss. In this country, there is an awful lot of lip-service given to the idea of “family values.” How does a family have time to develop its values when so many parents are feel the need to work in every spare moment of their lives just to pay for the basic necessities of responsible living? How does a country even have a conversation about family values, when basic modern family necessities such as health care, healthy food, education, housing and transportation are so exorbitantly expensive, that many families often have to choose which one of these necessities to do without?
College savings? Dear God. Where do we even begin? Many of us are still trying to figure out how to manage our own educational debt. How in the world can we ever begin to subsidize our children’s?
I write this post because something feels out-of-sorts. Parenting is largely about sacrifice; the things we give up in order to provide for the arrival of new life and the generations that will ultimately steer the world when we are gone. I understand this. But when I look at my children, and my children’s friends and the astonishingly selfless and hard-working parents that all of them have, and I see that they are sacrificing all they can just to make ends meet, I get a knot in my stomach. By all standards, we are doing the right things. We are doing all we can. Why does it feel like it will never be enough?
How do you do it?