To baby or not to baby: The millennial question

Content warning: This post discusses the decision to have (or not have) a biological child. It also touches on childhood emotional abuse and infertility.

baby stuff

Why aren’t millennials having babies?

Trick question — they are having babies! Obviously. Most of my friends are around my age and have kids. However, millennials aren’t having as many children, and they’re having children later in life, which is apparently some sort of crisis. (PS. It’s not).

Teen pregnancy is down (yay comprehensive sex education). People are delaying marriage and children because kids are expensive and we can barely afford healthcare and rent. And some people, despite the pearl clutching from the elder generations, choose not to have kids at all (and doctors won’t sterilize them because “what if you change your mind or your future husband wants kids?”)

This post is the first in an ongoing series about the decisions millennials are making to become parents or to remain child free.

I’m 30 and childless… for now

When I was about five, I happily announced to my dad that I knew where babies came from. I believed that each little girl had a seed inside her body that would grow into a baby as soon as she got married. I exclaimed, “I have a little baby inside me!” and my dad, very concerned with my understanding of human biology, corrected me. Probably so I wouldn’t shout to people in the grocery store that I had a baby inside me. This is fair, I’ve heard stories of kids shouting in the grocery store.

My whole life, I have wanted to become a parent. But I was waiting for the right time.

As my (first) wedding approached, my dad started hinting about grandkids, and I told him we wouldn’t have kids for a couple years at least. We were both broke, had no health insurance, and were patchworking together a livable income from multiple part-time jobs. Dad said, “I give it six months til you’re knocked up.”

Divorced that husband. No kids.

As my (second) wedding approached, my husband and I were already trying. This was it, I was ready. I was timing my ovulation and tracking my periods and knew when I was fertile. We tried for eighteen months. Nada. MAYBE one chemical pregnancy, because I was sure I’d seen a faint line on one of my hundred tests before I chucked it into the garbage can. My dad continued to ask me, “When are you going to start dropping grandbabies?” every time I saw him, and did not take the hint when I said “We’re working on it.” At one point, he told my husband “Get on her!” like I was his prized mare waiting to be bred. It felt disgusting.

During my second marriage, I was doing a lot of processing of my childhood emotional abuse and neglect. I unpacked that part of the reason I had waited until later in my twenties to start a family was because on an emotional level, I was terrified of my kids feeling the same way I did about my childhood. I wanted to make sure I could take care of them the way I wish I had been taken care of. My mother was shaming, cold, and perfectionistic in a way that left me feeling broken and alone, desperate for any love and attention I could get. It was easy to take advantage of me, and I’d do anything to keep a partner happy if it meant they’d love me in return.

As my second marriage came to a close, I remember asking my husband if we could table babymaking while we sorted out our issues and got on more solid ground. And his response was that if I wasn’t sure I wanted to have a baby with him right now, why was he about to finally go in for sperm count testing? Basically, he made a threat that if kids were off the table, however briefly, then him going to the doctor was also off the table. So if I thought I’d ever want kids with him and wanted him to get tested, I had better be up for kids right that second.

Divorced that husband. No kids.

To baby or not to baby, that is the question.

Now that I’m out of an abusive marriage, living a life I actually love, spending time with people who actually build me up and support me instead of tear me down, and no longer believing that a baby is a must-have for a happy life, I am confused. I know I would make a great parent, but I no longer feel that just because I’d be good at it, I’m obligated to do it.

I honestly don’t know if I want to be a mom anymore. I spent so long feeling called to parenthood that the absence of “the call” feels strange.

At a time in my life when I’m finally paying attention to my needs instead of the needs of others, am I equipped to bring a child into the world and balance my needs with theirs?

At a time in my life when the most I have to do for a weekend away is leave some extra kibble for the cat and water the plants before I go, am I ready to give up the freedom of only being responsible for me?

At a time in the world’s history when everything is a shit show, do I feel good about having a child and leaving them an even more damaged planet to live on?

At a time in my life when I’m sorting through what I really, actually, authentically want for myself, is a baby part of that or is a baby part of the social narrative I’ve been hearing since I thought babies were seeds that grew when you got married?

There is so much to unpack. There is so much to think about.

And, despite the fact that at 30 and society tells me my ovaries will soon dry up and leave me barren, there’s actually a lot of time to unpack and make the best right decision for me. Not the only right decision — I feel like I’d rock parenthood as much as I’d rock a childfree life — but the best right decision for me.

 

 

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Do we need to have more babies?

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, published a piece earlier this month stating that our decreased birth rates are a serious issue.  He mentions the current economic recession, the housing bust, decreased fertility rates among immigrant populations, and a cultural shift placing less importance on children as part of a successful marriage as factors contributing to the decline in birth rates.

He then states:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

He further states, in a follow-up post:

Is replacement-level fertility really so much to ask, morally speaking, of people graced with wealth and entertainments and diversions beyond the dreams of any previous generation? If conspicuous consumption is morally dubious when it substitutes for sacrifices on behalf of strangers, as most good progressives seem to think, why isn’t it morally dubious when it substitutes for the more intimate form of sacrifice that made all of our lives possible in the first place?

The article, written by Jeff Fecke, that first alerted me to Douthat’s column does a great job discussing the advances in maternal and infant health since the 15th century.  It also discusses the fact that women are finally in charge of their own reproductive decisions and can decide when – or if  – they want to have children.  And if they choose not to have children, they can succeed in life just the same.  Women are no longer expected to serve as a wife and mother as the end game, which is great.  I love being able to have a career and decide when I am ready (or as ready as possible) to have children.  And I hope to be able to stay home and raise them when I do, which is also my prerogative as a Modern Feminist Woman.  Or whatever.

Fecke says, better than I could:

There are enough kids to keep humanity going, and that means that kids have become, at some level, a luxury item. People don’t buy luxury items when they can’t meet basic needs. As the economy recovers, more children will be born; indeed, there will likely be something of a baby boomlet, as pent-up demand for children is realized.

That said, there are still other factors limiting the number of children born. We as a society have done poorly with work/life balance. America requires no paid maternity or paternity leave, and the corporate culture frowns on people who prioritize family over work. Child care is prohibitively expensive in much of the country; in Minneapolis, full-time day care for a three-year-old averages $640 a week, or more than $33,000 a year. The median household income in the state is $57,000 per year. Needless to say, if you’re a parent working full-time, and you don’t structure your work schedule so you have days off, you are hoping to break even — and if you’re not really netting any income, you’re left choosing between staying home — which is great, but doesn’t advance your career — or working, despite not bringing in any net income — which keeps your career going, but denies you time with your kids, and doesn’t help your bottom-line. The alternative is to simply choose not to have kids, or to limit the kids you have.

If you want people to have more children, you have to make it easier for them to care for their children. In countries like France and Sweden, where the social safety net is robust, paid  parental leave is required, and day care is subsidized, birth rates are higher than the western average. This is not rocket science; if a couple that is on the fence about having kids knows that they’ll get time to stay home with the children, and be able to afford child care when they go back to work, then they’re much more likely to decide in favor.

Quality vs. quantity

In response to Douthat’s call for increased birth rates, I really don’t see the necessity.  I think lower birth rates are a good thing right now.  Our planet cannot handle all the people living here, and growth does not necessarily spell success.  Perhaps the luxury to delay or avoid having children is a blessing, not a curse.

The matter of procreating and increasing, maintaining, or decreasing our population over a few generations is a matter of quality over quantity.  If we have the ability to provide a better life for our children, even if it means fewer children, they will lead better quality lives and provide better quality lives for children of their own.  We are not in a cultural situation where we need to rapidly boost the population.  We are fine with a little population decline (and maybe after a couple generations like this, everyone will be able to find a job!)

Children are expensive.  They require care, food, clothing, housing, healthcare, education, and more.  If you put the kids in daycare, that takes up a big portion of your income.  If you stay home with them, that limits your income (depending on whether or not you can work from home) and might not be possible for a single parent.  More children means less money per person to spend on food and clothing, so the quality of the food and clothing you buy may decrease so that you can afford to buy enough for everyone. More children means you need more space, so you may have to buy or rent a larger home to accommodate a growing family.  More children means less money for healthcare, leading to higher stress levels as parents worry about needing to pay for children’s medical bills. More children means less to spend per child on educational costs, so without a lot of student loans and/or scholarships, they may not be able to attend their preferred college.  More children very likely means more hours at work, which means less time you can spend with your family, which was the whole reason you had kids!

Bringing it back to minimalism

Children are not possessions, but they are (often) premeditated additions to your life.  If you wanted to truly live as simply as humanly possible, you could go live alone in a cabin in the woods.  That may not be personally fulfilling for you, however, and it’s always important to remember that minimalism is about having what you need for your life, without excess.  If you want to have children and a family is a non-negotiable part of your life plan, then of course you should have children.  But how many?  How many children is enough for a minimalist?  Once again, the answer is “however many you want.”  Some people have one child and that is just right for them.  Others have six children  and that works for them.  If you want children, that’s great! If you don’t, that’s also great!  Do what makes you happy and what works for your life and your situation.

I hope to have one or two children, for personal sanity reasons, environmentalist reasons, and financial reasons.  My personal vision for my children is to be able to:

  • Cook and feed them nutritious foods
  • Stay home to raise them, at least for the first five years of their lives
  • Homeschool them or be able to afford to send them to a Montessori school or similar (just a dream; they may end up in public school… I turned out okay!)
  • Help pay their tuition to a good college
  • Clothe them with quality clothing and shoes
  • Take care of their health
  • Teach them, by example, how to be a good parent and a competent person (like my mom did for me, even though it took me 20 years to realize she was not my enemy)

This is not to say that people who can’t do the things I listed are bad parents or are decreasing the quality of life of their children.  However, some children in this country (and all over the world) are suffering as a result of simply being one of too many mouths to feed.  If people waited and planned and budgeted their time and finances before starting a family, they would be in a better position to provide for their kids.

Priorities and sacrifices

Consider unplanned pregnancies in teenagers and women in their early twenties.  These women are often not established in a career or a position with the benefits of paid maternity leave. They may not have health insurance.  They may still live with their parents. As a teenaged or early-20s parent, these women often don’t have the resources it takes to provide a quality life for their children, especially if they are single.

I am so intimidated by the costs of raising a child that I am taking as much time as I dare before I start a family, even though it is something I want very much.  That said, I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for single parents and young parents that make it work to provide the best possible life for their children.  My mother was a single parent for most of our lives and she totally rocked it, even if she did have to work three jobs sometimes to provide for us.  My best friend, who is my age, is fortunate to be able to stay home and raise her two children while her fiance works to provide for their family.  People can make it work, and when it does work, it’s awesome.

The problem exists when it doesn’t work.  Spend ten minutes watching TV shows like Teen Mom to see that some people are not really equipped to handle raising a child, because they are not ready to make sacrifices.  A key aspect of parenthood is sacrifice and prioritization.  If you want to travel, or party, or date a bunch of people, it’s best to prioritize your future children and do all of those things before you start having kids, especially if you are not willing to sacrifice those desires for the benefit of the child.  Kids change everything, and they need your attention and support from day one.

Some women find out the news that they will be mothers and commit to learning how to give their children the best life they possibly can.  Others don’t, and it’s tragic — and avoidable. With incomplete (or absent) sex education, limited access to contraception, and the current assault on reproductive choice, a lot of young people find themselves with children they are not equipped to raise, emotionally, financially, or otherwise.

The decision to have a child (or two, or more, or none at all) is each person’s or each couple’s decision to make.  We are no longer responsible for having as many babies as possible, because our population is saturated.  We have more people than jobs in most places, and more people than homes in some as well.  If our population takes a hit over a couple generations, I think that’s actually a good thing.  In fact, the more we put off having children — the more we take advantage of that luxury and decadence of being able to wait — the better off our children will be, because we’re not prioritizing careers or our own lives over theirs, we are actually prioritizing them by waiting until we have the resources to give them the best life possible.

Careers and cookies

I wrote before about quitting, and how it can be a freeing and incredible experience.  It’s very tempting to leave behind the daily grind and step outside the box, whether that box is a job, a relationship, a location, a booked calendar, or anything else.  It’s freeing to quit and do something that brings us more passion.

The reason this is relevant to me today is because I recently found myself on a call with a freelance client, for whom I write posts for several blogs and content for several websites.  And during this call, we talked about my ability to pick up some more hours of writing.  Because, according to the words that tumbled forth from my mouth, “I’d like to be writing full time.”

OH WOULD I?

Yes.  Yes I would.

We talked about hours and about my timeline (I imagine I would be at my current full-time place of employment for at least another year, but who knows?) and about my goals.

I had a real conversation about a very real career change.

When I have conversations about writing, picking up more hours, getting increased responsibilities, or even brainstorming new things to write about, I feel charged with energy.  I love to write.  I never thought I would be a writer.  But I never thought I would be a purchaser for a chemical manufacturer, an administrative assistant for a real estate company, or a career counselor either, and I have done all of those things.

I try not to get too caught up in goals, but this doesn’t feel like a goal.  This feels like a need.  At the very least, this is a strong desire that I think will bring me joy and passion and satisfaction.

Some of the articles I write for this client are about work-at-home parents, and the more I research and write about the topic, the more interested I am in becoming one of these work-at-home parents. I have recently been thinking very hard about my parenting desires (though, admittedly, children are not on my immediate to-do list) and I have realized that, by the time I have children, I would like to have enough income from my freelance work that I don’t have to return to the workforce outside the home.

I’d also like to point your attention to the two fortunes wrapped into one cookie that I opened recently when I treated myself to Chinese food for dinner:

Seriously.

Current events: Car free with six kids

I’m signed up for regular email updates from Care2.com, and this post came with a recent email blast, containing a brief story about Emily Finch, a mother of six who does not own a car and instead transports her family via bicycle.

Around the summer of 2009…Emily said, “I started looking at my life… I was living in a giant house and had a nine-person Suburban. I remember thinking, there’s no reason I can’t walk or bike around town. “I was really depressed before,” she shared, “But I was so happy after I got the bike. I just loved it.”

I find this incredible!  For the foreseeable future, there is no way I could get along without my car.  I commute 30 miles to work and 30 miles home five days a week.  My mom lives 25 miles from me.  I visit my sister who lives 85 miles away.

I could cut back around town — I do drive to the grocery store, and sometimes on date nights we just drive around and look at scenery and explore new areas.  We could take a walk instead.  I could probably bike to the store and back if I really tried.  My boss lives close to me so, in theory, we could carpool to work a couple days a week.

At least if I am driving, I have a small, fuel-efficient car.  It’s no hybrid, but it gets about 36 miles per gallon, and it’s a “Low Emissions Vehicle” and is not the most guilty of cars on the road (I see you, Hummer drivers, I see you).

How do you cut back on car use? Do you even have a car?  What do you think of Ms. Finch, who takes her kids around town on a giant bike?