When I was a freshman in college, I was enrolled in a course that tried to highlight the inescapability of poverty in America. To do this, we, as students, were given case examples of different individuals facing poverty. Each case had a unique set of factors that made it harder or easier to be poor in America.
What stuck with me most from the discussion that day was the number of students whose response to impoverished parents was, “Well, they chose to have kids.”
They chose to have kids.
It was said as if having kids was both a luxury and of no value to society. And it was definitely said as if it was a clear choice, one of purposeful will, which is not true for all parents.
Now, as a parent, I have lost count of the number of times I have been told, in varying ways, “Well, you chose to have kids.”
I was once talking to a friend about how worn out I was from parenting. At the time, I was pregnant with my son and trying to keep up with my then-2-year-old daughter. I expressed how exhausted I was from the physical demands of pregnancy, the lack of sleep from a daughter who still had very early mornings, and the real struggle of balancing work and raising my child.
“Well, you chose to have kids!” my friend said to me.
I have to admit that I was initially shocked at the lack of support and clear desire to not hear about it, but I have found this is said to me often when expressing how challenging parenting is.
It comes up not just when I talk about how tired I am, but how hard it is to afford child care, how my husband and I have had to make very challenging personal and professional decisions to determine the best way to be present for our children and afford that presence in their lives.
When “Well, you chose to have kids!” is said to me in these moments, I feel both misunderstood and a bit of rage. It’s as if no one around me, other than my fellow parents perhaps, notices that it is becoming objectively harder to afford raising kids in America.
And, like all things, COVID-19 has made it worse. Blaming parents for whatever they face ignores the very real systemic challenges parents have to overcome. It also perpetuates the wrongful assumption that having children and supporting parents in raising those children is of no value to society.
But when you fail to support parents, you fail to support both the parents and their children from thriving. This lack of support underestimates the value of human lives, both inherently but also in their ability to contribute to society.
Who holds the capacity to make a lot of money that can then be contributed to charities, invested in research and development, and put back into the economy? Humans. Who invented every major product we use to make our lives easier ― from iPhones to cars to airplanes? Humans. Who invented all our current medical care and treatments, keeping you alive? Humans. You get the point.
But for humans to achieve these accomplishments and make these contributions to society, they have to be resourced with things like access to quality education and opportunities. Unfortunately, access to these things in the U.S. is synonymous with wealth.
Right now, as a society, we are fine letting only wealthier American children have access to these opportunities. The reality that wealth, rather than intelligence or abilities, drives success in the U.S. is so strong that one report found that “To succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart.”
In this study, less talented children from advantaged households performed and did better than more talented children in disadvantaged households. By allowing only wealthier children in America to thrive, we not only commit a huge injustice but we fail to acknowledge the potential held in the many children who aren’t from wealthy households.
An estimated 16% of children in the U.S. are living in families in poverty. That’s nearly 12 million kids. Almost 12 million humans whose potential may not be realized due to a lack of resources. That doesn’t even include the number of middle-class, working families who are struggling to afford child care.
It seems to be very American to require one’s citizens to be wealthy to have access to affordable child care and quality education. This is driven by the high cost of child care, lack of governmental assistance for such care, and the poorly performing public schools that make private school a real asset, and in many cases necessity, to children’s success. Compared to the rest of the world, American schools are “expensive, unequal, bad at math.” And our child care and parental leave policies fall behind most of the world.
When I am told, “Well, you chose to have kids,” I am enraged by the lack of insight that what is asked of me as an American parent is not fair. And to those parents living in poverty, it is impossible.
We are left to deal with no paid leave in many cases. We are left with unrealistically expensive child care, to which the solution is not cheaper child care but subsidized child care to ensure child care workers have fair and decent wages.
We are left to try to navigate and find access to decent education, which can only be found in America through two routes. First, by sending your child to private school, an estimated cost of $12,350 a year in the U.S. and much higher in major cities. Second, by renting or buying homes in well-performing school districts, which are also much more expensive and thus preclude many middle- and lower-class families.
Certainly, there will and should be a cost to choosing to have children. As parents, we will always be the ones to make the greatest sacrifices for our children. But when even middle- and upper-middle-class families struggle to afford child care, access to quality education, and home ownership to create stability and equity, it is a sign of a much larger societal failure to value and support parents in providing for those children.
So, yes, I chose to have kids. As have many of my fellow parents. But America asks more of its parents than most other developed countries. A recent UNICEF study found that America ranks last ― yes dead last ― among 41 countries for family-friendly policies.
The obvious solution is to improve our family-friendly policies in the U.S. But I think a good starting point is to stop viewing having children as a luxury and a problem to be dealt with by parents, and instead start acknowledging the value to society added by having and investing in those children.