Elizabeth and I have been trading writing prompts, and this is her latest for me: “Kids are too expensive. You can only afford two.” Respond.
First, I want to clarify that I’m not a parent, and I’m not in a position to even think about being a parent. So these thoughts and opinions are necessarily born of inexperience. I’m not commenting on any specific situation or family dynamic except my own upbringing. And I’m definitely NOT judging folks who choose not to have children or who choose to raise their children in a specific environment. These are only my thoughts (and thank you?, Elizabeth, for giving me a topic that makes these stipulations necessary).
I’m the oldest of five. I’m the oldest of five raised in a typical suburban household in the Metro Seattle area. I’m the oldest of five kids raised in a one-income household. I’m the oldest child of a tribe, a clan, or perhaps just a very well-loved and close-knit family. I’m well aware that families of five are rare these days. You don’t have to tell me…I’m probably the only one who remembers the looks my mom got (and they weren’t friendly), the snide remarks, the ‘amazement’ that wasn’t complimentary. Now that we’re older and seem to have turned out well, I tell people how my mom had five children age 7 and under at one point, and they can only comment that she was very brave.
But the fact was we lived in a very normal house in a very normal neighborhood, surrounded by families with 2.5 kids and unaccustomed to anything out of the ordinary. Later on we met families with eight, or even ten children. How did my parents (and those other families) do it, when so many people these days have trouble imagining supporting more than two kids? I think the answer comes in two parts: they made important sacrifices, and that once those were implemented, three or four children weren’t necessarily less expensive than five.
Things that DO make children expensive: diapers, brand-name clothing (brand-name anything, really), shoes (kids grow out of them so fast!), sports and hobbies, eating out, traveling and vacations. Probably there are plenty more that I missed. But maybe you can see where I’m going? My parents made sacrifices that reduced the costs associated with feeding, clothing, entertaining and providing a roof over our heads. Thankfully they didn’t skimp on diapers.
Examples! My parents didn’t buy me new clothing, and found me discount shoes. Thrift stores, hand-me-downs, and gifts were our friends. If I wanted new clothes, I had to buy them for myself. It was a tough policy, maybe, but it taught me responsibility and self-reliance. And not to be too proud to find a bargain or reuse and recycle. The whole family played the same sports until high school. This cut down on equipment, training and traveling costs for competitions, and made it possible for us all to get together in the evenings. We RARELY ate out. No delivery pizza or drive-through fast food when you could shop for bulk food and make it at home!
For family vacations we camped and visited historic locations (preferably without an entrance fee). If we flew, we were extremely careful about expenses. We played board games and cards and used the library liberally rather than go to the movies or the arcade or to play mini-golf. My dad built us tree forts with spare plywood in lieu of buying a swing set. We played kick-the-can and flashlight tag instead of video games and laser tag. We visited local parks, volunteered at church, went hiking, belonged to the local pool. If we wanted a car, we paid for it, for the insurance, and for the gas.
And my parents didn’t pay for college. You heard that right. We knew growing up that my mom and dad had made a lot of sacrifices. That they’d given us a pretty normal life on one income. We also knew that they expected us to be resourceful, and find our own way to pay for school. It’s not that they didn’t value education, because they definitely did. I was homeschooled for six years because my mom didn’t feel like the local public school was doing a decent job, and then I went to a private high school. And my other siblings were homeschooled and privately schooled as well, for varying amounts of time. It’s just that there were different expectations. If you want to go out of state, you find some place to give you a scholarship or you take out loans. Four of us went to a great college in Pennsylvania. The youngest is getting his AA at a local tech school in a trade, and will make bank when he’s done.
If you go over the things I’ve mentioned, it sounds frugal, sure. But it’s also not un-imaginable. I think sometimes the money argument against more children is a lack of creativity, or an unwillingness to realize that you CAN raise children on less than you imagine. Is it always fun? No. Is it easy to cut those costs? No. Is it hard to say ‘no’ to a child? Yes. Is it doable? Yes. I know so because I’m the child of just such an upbringing. I’m a big advocate of larger families, if the parents are capable. I’m not talking Jon and Kate Plus 8 here. I’m talking about parents who stay together (yes, forever!) and are committed to raising their children with a certain philosophy. Siblings who are best friends, who can’t imagine growing up any other way, who as adults still can make a party happen just by getting out a Monopoly game board. And if you’re willing to raise two or three children that way, then another couple are going to add to the joy, not the burden. Because it is joy.
The siblings, Christmas 2008
My sister suggested that I end by examining the ‘what if’ scenario. What if my parents had stopped after having two healthy kids? They certainly wouldn’t have been quite so stretched for funds. Maybe they could have helped us pay for college. Maybe we’d still be best friends. But we’d probably be a bit spoiled and a lot brattier, because instead of two girls and three boys, my parents would only have two girls. No Peter (training to be a fireman), no Lincoln (thinking about heading to seminary), and no rambunctious Joey. There’d be a whole different dynamic to our family. There wouldn’t be anyone who looks exactly like my Grandpa Hal, no slow-talking, sweet-natured giant, and no teddy bear of a boy-man who is so enthusiastic about life that you can't help but be caught up with him. There wouldn’t be three tall, deep-voiced, athletic and hilarious boys complaining about their bossy (and wild) older sisters. We’d be missing part of ourselves, even if we didn’t know it. I can't tell you how glad and grateful I am that my parents decided to have a big family, even though it was late in life and necessitated sacrifice. I truly believe that adding five well-adjusted, loving and decent people to the planet's population qualifies my parents for instant hero status.