For the past 30 years, I've kept a running list of names I'd give my children: Anika, Amalia, Madison, Montana, Alistair, Michael, Oliver, Rigel... I always thought I'd have children, and I've always loved being around them. I started babysitting at age 12, and by 13 was a volunteer gymnastics and swim instructor at the YMCA. By 15, I was an employee as well as a volunteer. There was nothing I'd rather do on New Year's Eve than host 50 kids under 10 for an overnight at the Y.
As an adult, I've taught in children's writing camps and public school classrooms, and I still love when my friends fill my home with their children. But just when I thought I was ready to have kids of my own, my relationship ended. The years passed quickly.
Most of my friends' children are now nearing double digits, and some are teens already. I now have a new partner, who is open to the idea of children, but we both realize that it might never happen. Not because I'm running out of time, which I am, but because we might be too poor to have them.
I didn't think I'd be poor any more than I thought I'd be childless. I was raised in a family that could easily afford two weeks of vacation a year. I went to college, and then to graduate school — twice — taking out loans and attending programs that awarded teaching assistantships. Everyone from my mother to Oprah told me that if I followed my passions and worked hard, the rest would follow.
It's probably the worst advice I've ever gotten. But by the time I realized it, I was in my early 30s, the bottom had fallen out of the academic job market, and freelance writing had gone from a viable professional choice to a hard scramble, at best. I'm a licensed merchant mariner, and for five years, I worked as a sailor and chef on boats in faraway places. But being at sea most of the year isn't conducive to a good relationship, and it's certainly not possible for a pregnant woman or new mom. I apply to half a dozen jobs per week — some that are a stretch and others for which I'm overqualified. It's been a year since I've gotten an interview, and that was for a seasonal position as a cook. My annual salary currently hovers around the poverty line.
Together, my partner (who has a PhD and works in his field) and I are able to just stay afloat in a rural area where the cost of living is low, but we have little saved for retirement and our lives are a delicate balance that can be thrown off by an unexpected bill or a medical emergency. We drive cars with 100,000 and 200,000 miles on them. We buy parts at junkyards and install them ourselves. We wrestle with a balance of cost, taste and health with every item in our grocery cart. Neither of us can fathom where we'd mine the $13,000 to $15,000 per year that, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it costs to raise a child.
I've heard the counterarguments:
"You're just too selfish."
"Lots of people with low incomes raise children."
"There's help out there."
"They're worth any sacrifice."
But that's just it. I don't believe they are. And I don't believe that sacrificing who I am would make me a better parent at all.
Even if I were wealthy, I'd raise my children with simple toys and simple pleasures. I'd buy their clothes at thrift stores and revel in hand-me-downs. I could expand our gardens and grow more food to store over winter, but it's more likely we'd sell the house and move aboard our boat, in part because it's a more economical way to live. But even the healthiest children cost money. And although I don't judge anyone who ends up needing financial assistance to raise their kids, I don't want to make that choice intentionally.
For the most part, my friends with children seem more stressed, less personally fulfilled, and less happy than they were before they had kids, and some of their marriages have suffered. Statistics reflect this anecdotal evidence. The exceptions are those who find most of their fulfillment in parenting and those who have the time and space, not to mention the money, to nourish their own identities away from the labels of Mom and Dad. But as my partner and I are well aware, those people are not us.
If I got pregnant tomorrow, we would have to make the choice whether to sacrifice the ways in which we nourish our identities for the sake of our child. We don't live near our families (nor can we afford to), and we can't afford babysitters. We wouldn't be able to continue to research the book we're writing or to plan for our low-cost retirement (in which we'll still need to work). The stress we already experience over our finances would be compounded by a further loss of income on my part, because the cost of childcare far outweighs what I make outside of the home. My partner is an oceanographer who is still sometimes away for long stretches of the year. With a child, I couldn't afford to join him for any of it.
I take responsibility for the choices I've made and the sacrifices to my own well-being I'm unwilling to make. Perhaps we're selfish. But I believe it's also ultimately what will make us better parents if the time comes. Experts say that if parents are happy, kids are happier, too. We recognize what strengthens our relationship and have identified what brings us fulfillment — and we want to ensure that we can continue to be fulfilled in other ways before we bring another person into our lives. I hope that happens before it's too late, but if it doesn't, I'll continue to find joy in the children I'm blessed to know in other ways and to admire the parents who make it work for their families at any cost.
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