The Wall Street Journal recently reported a decline – fairly steep by historical standards – in the number of women having babies in the US. From 2007 to 2010 (the figures for 2011 aren’t quite cooked yet) the number of births fell 8 percent overall, with births among immigrant women declining 14 percent and those among US born women down a smaller, but still significant, 6 percent. To blame? The recession and the rising average cost of raising a child. In other words, women aren’t having as many children because we don’t feel we can afford them.
Exactly how much does it cost to raise a child? There’s no doubt children are expensive. The Department of Labor’s most recent estimate of the cost to raise a child from cradle to college (not including tuition) is $234,900. Time magazine’s Brad Tuttle took a look at that figure and sneered that it was absurdly low. “Moms and dads out there should sit down before hearing that this figure is probably a gross underestimate of the costs of bringing up baby.” He points to numbers in the $900,000 to $1.1 million range as a more realistic cost of raising a baby from cradle to college. This takes into account money parents miss out on because of career “sacrifices” and investments they might have made otherwise.
Stories like both of these make me think of something my mother once said: If she and my father had waited until they could afford children to have them, my brothers and I would have never been born. Even back then (in the ’60s and early ’70s) the average cost was daunting, but they, and so many other people like them, swallowed hard and took the leap. What spurred them? Was it hubris? Confidence? Optimism? Some combination of them all?
I actually think there was something else going on. College was always on my parents’ radar – they both put themselves through, but I know they had aspirations of doing that for us. (They may have also thought they’d be able to do it inexpensively as my father was working as a college professor at the time.) What they didn’t think about was keeping up: With the Joneses, their friends, family, or anyone else. They decided they would do the best that they could within their means. As those means got more sizable through the years, they spent more, but they never broke through the boundaries and they made it work.
Today, the pressure to outfit your young one with the latest in designer strollers and adorable apparel starts well before birth. New parents are encouraged to purchase their way to safety (think baby-proofing), comfort (in both clothing and decor), and intelligence, unnaturally inflating the cost of raising a child. It’s time to step back from all of that.
Moving forward, I’m hoping for a time of fewer comparisons and more self-focus. Thinking about what we know deep down our children need rather than what marketers (or already co-opted other parents) tell us they need, has to be a better way to move forward. The thought of a couple not having the baby they’ve been dreaming about simply because they don’t think they can keep up is simply too depressing.
What do you think?