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Women Don’t Need To Make A Lot Of Money To Start A Family

granparents with baby
Image CreditMike Schmid/Flickr

Another day, another blue check wondering why things Americans used to take for granted seem to be out of reach, even as they promote the very changes in cultural norms and values that have led to rising costs for families and fewer babies being born. Writer for The Atlantic Olga Khazan recently tweeted in wonder, “how women are supposed to have kids before they’re 35 if they make $40,000 before they’re 35 and childcare is $40,000.”

Conservatives have a very simple answer to this question: be married to someone with a steady income. Finding such a spouse is not always easy, of course, yet her follow-up tweet skirts around the obvious truth that if you stay home with your children you don’t have to pay the equivalent of a full-time income at $20 an hour.

Khazan says staying home to “save money” (notice she did not say “to nurture your children”) “just seems like a high-stakes decision to make when you’re like 32.” Staying home to raise your own children at 32 is a “high stakes” decision, according to the blue check Atlantic writer, while delaying family formation later and later while a woman’s fertility dwindles is what? Empowerment? “The norm?”

New Norms

Norms around family formation have certainly changed in a way that makes having children more difficult. The average age of marriage in 2019 was 30 for men and 28 for women, compared to about 20 and 22 in 1960, leaving less time for women to have more than one or two kids after marriage, the most stable financial environment for child-rearing. Not only has the annual marriage rate hit a new low of 6.1 marriages per 1,000, but the proportion of first-time mothers who are married has declined from 63 percent in 1990 to just 24 percent, while 35 percent of mothers with at least a bachelor’s degree don’t start having babies till they are 30, far more than mothers with lower education attainment.

These trends aren’t the result of chance, but significant cultural shifts. Feminists led more women into higher education and the workforce and to see careers, not marriage and children, as a priority. Birth control and abortion allowed many to stay child-free until their careers were “established” (ever a goal of millennials these days, to not have children or even marry until careers are “established”). Now that this career, this “baby” of sorts, is thriving, women worry that having actual babies will be burdensome both financially and to their careers. If she puts her baby in someone else’s full-time care, the financial burden will be heavy. If she stays home with her babies for the first few years of their lives or drastically cuts back on work for their sakes, it will cost her in career progress and earnings. While a stay-at-home husband might be the dream for some women, many men don’t want that occupation.

Left’s Advice Is Careerism, Dollar Chasing

While childcare expenses can be a real strain on some families in situations in which it would be difficult to have one parent stay home with the kids, the prescription from the left is, as usual, more of the problem. Instead of encouraging families to move closer to relatives or kin-like friends who can pitch in with childcare and to cut back unnecessary household expenses, or providing guidance for one parent to off-ramp or pull back in their careers so the kids can be nurtured, it’s more of the same careerist, dollar-chasing attitudes that have made children seem out of reach to so many American men and women.

For Khazan, it seems the go-to answer is make more money or, as the tagline in the article she offers in her thread states, “increased public investment in child care.” The latter prescription of government subsidies will only make the service in question more expensive (take higher education, for example), or wages lower so employers can afford to pay out “generous” parental leave policies. It will simply reinforce the same model of full-time working mothers that necessitates such large expenditures on childcare in the first place. As to the former, “leaning” into a career might give a woman more financial security to pay for childcare, but it also means waiting even longer to have kids as she puts off the financial burden or even the healthy precursor of settling down with a spouse.

Missing Out on What Really Matters

A woman’s fertility doesn’t always cooperate with a career timeline, either, and begins to decrease significantly in her 30s. Such a strategy will almost certainly result in fewer children than she wished for, all while doing it later in life, when pregnancy health risks are higher and the overall energy required for the intensity of early parenting diminishes. She also gets to spend less time with her precious children as she outsources their rearing to hired help, which has its own set of risks, including behavioral problems. According to results from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care, “about 26 percent of children who spend more than 45 hours per week in day care go on to have serious behavior problems at kindergarten age,” and 17 percent in those who went to day care 10 to 30 hours a week, compared to 10 percent in those who spent less than 10 hours in child care.

A Better Way

Conservatives, on the other hand, point to an old and proven approach: get married and have one parent (usually the mother) stay home and the other be the primary bread winner. It requires little to no paid childcare and allows children to be reared by their own parents, the people who know and love them best. If you’re married to someone with decent earning potential and a good work ethic, you can have babies in your twenties, and if you are blessed enough to find the love of your life early enough, even your early twenties. It’s even easier if you position yourself near grandparents or other family who can’t wait to scoop up your chubby babies and watch them for an evening or a couple days so you can spend much-needed quality time with your spouse, with no financial transactions required.

Half a century ago, marrying young and starting a family soon after would have been normal and considered healthy. Unsurprisingly, this course allowed for bigger families, something that is quite unaffordable for parents working full-time. Rather than encouraging women to chase more and more money to pay for a full-time “job” that mothers and fathers naturally fill best with some help from “the village,” we should encourage them to prioritize finding a solid better half and setting themselves up for mom to have flexible and less demanding work arrangements (if any) so she can stay home with her babies most of the time. This isn’t “regressive” or “anti-woman,” it’s common sense and provides a stable, nurturing environment for children. We can’t expect common sense from America’s blue-check elites, but we can practice and preach it ourselves. Marriages and babies are blessings, and if we can encourage more of them, we’ve done much to change the culture for good.