How America’s Social System Pits the Needs of Children Against the Needs of Parents and the Elderly
I am of an age where people start to ask me that question. I turned 30 at the beginning of this year and my husband will be 31 in July. We have both finished our educations, including two Master degrees for me, we both have stable jobs in our chosen careers, and employers that provide us with work life balance and excellent benefits. If nothing changes in the next couple of years, we will be in a great situation to start a family. I have made other big decisions in my life–where to get my degree, what profession I should pursue, to whom and when I should get married. But never have I been so ambivalent about a single decision as I have been about the decision of whether to have children.
The reasons for my husband and I to have children are compelling. We are both immigrants and only children. Lei came to the United States when he was twenty-two years old. His only immediate relative is his mother, who still lives in China; his father divorced and remarried when he was a child. My parents and I immigrated to the United States from China when I was nine years old. We also have no family in the United States except for one cousin, who lives in Connecticut. Unlike other couples who decide to be childless, we do not have the luxury of nieces and nephews to dote on or to carry on the family legacy. When we are old and our parents have passed away, we will literally have no family–no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles, no nephews and nieces, not even cousins that we can call on in times of need or gather with for holidays and celebrations. When I remind myself of this the only reasonable course of action seems to have as many children as possible.
But from an environmental standpoint, multiplying is the last thing the human race needs today. The human population has exploded from 1 billion at the beginning of the last century to 7 billion today. By 2050 the number is expected to rise to 9 billion. We have devoured so much of our natural resources, from arable land to fresh water, that there is a serious question of whether there will be enough for everyone in the near future. Our wastes are so abundant that the planet does not have the capacity to absorb it all. Our energy use is causing global warming, which threatens to turn our planet into an alien wasteland. In addition to the questionable judgment of contributing to the problem, there is the concern of whether today’s offspring will even be able to survive on future planet Earth.
To magnify the injury caused by one more addition to the human race, our child will be an American. Americans consume the most natural resources per capita in the world. Eight Indians would not do as much damage as one American kid. As much as we can instill environmental values and behaviors in our children, they will still eat food grown thousands of miles away, consume factory farmed meat, wear clothes and use electronics made in China, drive cars that release greenhouse gas emissions, and consume energy produced from dirty power plants. Our lifestyles are locked into a system of high energy consumption and waste. We take far more than is our share and in the process is slowly killing everyone else on the planet.
If we adopt that might solve the ethical dilemma by not producing a child of our own. But it does nothing to ameliorate the financial and personal costs of children. Salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living in America and there are more demands on our income than ever before. To enroll a child in a good school, you have to pay large premiums to buy a house in the right neighborhood, and pay extra for their summer camps, tutors, and enrichment activities. Gone are the days when children are allowed to wander freely outdoors all day. Now they have to be entertained indoors or in structured activities, charged by the hour. Gone are the days when children brought notebooks and pencil boxes to school. Now they need to have new cell phones, tablets, and laptops every few years. There are monthly fees for everything. There is also the cost of college, which has become just ridiculous. Parents today will probably still be paying off their student loans by the time their children go to college. Researchers estimate the cost to raise a child today to be $1 million. That is assuming you have normal offspring. God help you if your child has health issues or special needs.
Another huge cost we must plan for is the cost of retirement today. Employer retirement benefits have all but disappeared for our generation. Instead of pensions, we get measly 401K accounts that we have to contribute to ourselves. There is no guarantee that there will still be Social Security when we are retirement age. I also happen to be an East Asian woman, the most long living humans known to man. Both my grandmothers lived into their late nineties. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t drive a car. Insurance companies love me. Honestly, if I saved every extra penny during my working years I may not be able to retire by 65 and have enough to live on for 30 years.
Then there is the opportunity cost, mostly to the mother. First of all, there is the cost to her health. Pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing are incredibly demanding physically. And with the lack of social networks in America, the work of raising children falls entirely on the parent’s shoulders. I really like my sleep and get terrible migraines when I’m stressed physically.I have also invested a lot of time and money in my education in order to have the career I have today, which is just getting started. Stepping out, even for a few years, would cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.
Even more than my job, my career as a writer is incredibly important to me. Writing adds meaning and joy to my life and is the primary legacy by which I intend to be remembered. To sustain it I not only need a job that pays the bills, I also need time to experience, reflect, and write. To produce poetry one needs to cultivate a state of mind. Being a full time professional already doesn’t leave me a lot of time for writing, I can only imagine that having a child would take it away all together.
Finally, I have been considering the impact I want to have in the world and the legacy that I want to leave. While raising a human being to be a productive and moral member of society is a great contribution, I feel that that is not guaranteed and not the most efficient use of one’s resources to make a difference. Children can grow up to fulfill their parent’s expectations or they can wildly disappoint them. They can grow up to do something you find admirable, or they can grow up to be mediocre and do something that you find of no value at all. It seems that one could do a lot more good by contributing directly to one’s cause rather than raising children who may have entirely different ideas of what they want to do with the gift of life and education provided by you. If I have enough means at the end of my life, I would like to establish a poetry prize and help young writers, or a scholarship for environmental studies. I can’t say that I would choose a child over the opportunity to leave a legacy that would keep giving in perpetuity.
But despite all these goals and considerations, the need for family, nurturing, and companionship in old age are real. We tend to assume that a spouse will take care of us and provide companionship when we are in old age. But this is a dangerous assumption, especially for women, who typically outlive their husbands. Through all of human history, widows have been the most wretched beings on earth, and after all the progress we have made in human rights, widows all over the world still end up desperate and alone. The situation is much less bad for men, who tend to die before their spouses and are able to remarry easily if they outlive their spouse. There is also the reality that as many people end up divorced as those that end up married. I know that no matter how much good I do, how much I am loved by friends and associates, if I don’t have children, I will be alone in my old age. When I am finally so old that I can’t get out of the house, there will be no one to take care of me. America is not kind to singles, and it is even less kind to the elderly.
My reason for sharing this is not to have people pity my lack of family or financial means, but because I believe that there are many in my generation who feel the same way when faced with this all important decision. The choice to have a child is not an individual one, it is complicated by all the forces of society, its support networks, or lack thereof. If people like myself, who are able bodied, college educated, employed, and solidly middle class feel that they have to choose between children and security in old age, then what about the rest of America who have even fewer means than I? What does it mean for us collectively when young people today are faced with the likelihood that having children means sacrificing their own retirement and security in old age? Are not raising children and providing for the elderly the highest priorities for any society? What does it mean that as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the majority of people in this country will not be able to do one without sacrificing the other in the coming decades?
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, and similar recent articles point out the societal barriers that prevent women from being able to have full careers and full family lives at the same time. The consequence is that society suffers from losing the talents of these women. But presumably if one does climb to the highest positions in society, one also has the means to hire nannies and personal help to balance some of those demands. However, middle class families do not have such options. I would venture to say that today it is impossible for both middle class men and women to have their basic needs met (including retirement) without huge sacrifices to family and personal life. In America today, a career is a necessity. Women can no longer afford not to work and families can no longer depend on one breadwinner. When families have to worry about mortgages, healthcare, and retirement, those needs take precedence over providing the best care for children.
It seems to me that society would do much better to have domestic partnerships of more than two people, so in case something happens to one person, the other two can still help out each other. In practically all non-Western societies, people have lived in non-nuclear family arrangements precisely for the purpose of taking care of both the elderly and the children. In traditional Chinese society, multigenerational families are the norm. Grandparents, parents, siblings, and grandchildren all lived in the same household, providing companionship and mutual aid to each other. (I grew up in a multigenerational household where there were ten adults.) In ancient Jewish law, the brother of the deceased husband was obligated to marry his widow so that she would not be left alone. In tribal societies, couples traded partners to the effect that everyone felt a stronger bond to the community and parents felt responsibility for all the children of the tribe. Western society, and American society in particular, cherish the virtues of the individual and the nuclear family. but we do not have enough safety nets to enable us to survive as individuals outside of the nuclear family into old age. It seems to me that we need to abandon the nuclear family as the dominant social unit and form more multigenerational households, polyamorous families, cohousing units, or other nontraditional family units, or we need to provide much better social safety nets that provide both companionship and financial security for the elderly. The former is on the rise precisely because the latter isn’t.
What is also very much needed is a strategy to reduce the cost of living for all Americans. This seems to me something that can be accomplished by socializing more services. Wouldn’t we all save money by paying slightly higher taxes for great public transportation but not have to buy gas and maintain three cars per household? Wouldn’t we all benefit if women could access low cost high quality childcare that would enable them to work, save for retirement, and contribute to society while raising families? If we didn’t have to worry about retirement, would that not allow parents to spend more money today to raise children and contribute to society? Many of these initiatives are already in place in Scandinavian countries, where citizens pay high taxes but do not have to worry about the cost of housing, transportation, healthcare, childcare, and retirement.
Meeting everyone’s basic needs seems to me the hallmark of an advanced society. America may have low taxes and lots of gadgets, but we do not have basic safety nets that make it possible for those who do not have family safety nets to ensure sustainability. The choice to have children is not a choice when it is pitted against our own needs for financial security and the need to take care of our aging parents. The choice between companionship or financial security in old age, between taking care of the children or the elderly, are not choices that we should have to make as individuals or as a country.