My husband and I have chosen to have four kids. As a child, long before I was familiar with the concepts of money, global warming, population booms and control, starvation, government, I wanted four children. I loved babies and children and knew that I wanted to be the mother of more children than my parents chose to have. They had two kids… my older sister, who was planned for and tried for for eight years, and myself, the “surprise” second baby. My parents were not wealthy when I was a child. They were middle class – perhaps even lower middle class when they started off as newlyweds in 1973 at the ages of 19 and 18. They wanted more, but they were extremely frugal and, while we never went hungry or had to share bedrooms, we didn’t have every luxury that I’m now certain my mother desired. My mother grew up very poor with many siblings (most of whom had different fathers than her), the sixth child of an abusive, alcoholic father and a firm and cold survivor of a mother. Her family’s history stretched back into the poor country of West Virginia, and it’s obvious to me now that this history embarrassed and angered her. My father wasn’t wealthy either, but his family was considerably better-off than my mother’s. As they refer to it, she came from “the wrong side of the tracks”, while his family must have been on the “right side”. His family history grew out of the deep southern slave plantations. There’s even a county in Georgia that bears my last name. They spread northward at some point, but as recently as my father’s generation (who was born in Savannah), lived in the deep south.
My father doesn’t seem to have the same obsession with wealth that my mother has. She clearly resents her past and having to go to bed hungry some nights, despite her mother’s desperate attempts to keep their large family afloat. My father had the opportunity to attend college in the 70’s, which my mother never had. Being somewhat of a rebel (he protested the issue of his high school instating uniforms with signs and marches on the lawn after he had already graduated), my father refused to attend college, married my mother several days after she was legally of marrying age, and they struck out on their own with “$100 to our name”. They honeymooned at my dad’s cousin’s home and lived a frugal and limited life. Back in those days, seniority did a lot for a man at his company, however. He landed a job at a major company in his very early 20’s and as the years went by, saw his salary increase steadily. He is proud of this “accomplishment”. In his mind, he worked very hard for his money. The only kudos I’m willing to give is my parents’ stingy spending. I don’t feel that what my father did really constitutes hard work. After all, my ancestors before him were slaving away in coal mines for 80 hours a week just to make enough to buy several days’ worth of food for their children. My dad drove a truck. Kind of puts things into perspective. My sister was born in 1981 and my parents bought their first home (compliments of a predatory loan for low-income citizens from Countrywide) in 1983, two months before I was born. Our home was not lavish, but it was more than we needed. We had our own bedrooms, two bathrooms (one that was never used), a large kitchen, fenced-in yard, even a “living room” which was hideously rust-colored but was never – I repeat, never – used. Clearly, we could have made do with less. We didn’t have name brand clothing in those early years. But we didn’t eat generic food, that’s for sure. One thing my mother was absolutely strict about was that we bought lots of expensive groceries. I assume this stems from her lack of food growing up. My parents would never accept government assistance, and didn’t really need it, for that matter. They chose to give birth in a hospital, chose to formula feed my sister and I rather than breastfeed (and then complained about the cost of formula). They chose to hurry us off to the doctor every time we had a cold, to give us unnecessary antibiotics with each cough or earache.
By the time I was in middle school, the Reagan-era capitalism had done great things for my parents. My dad’s salary had multiplied many times over, though he was still doing the exact same job. For some reason, they decided that our average home wasn’t enough and purchased a luxurious home up the road with more space than we needed, high-quality manufacturing, and five acres of land (of which we used precisely none, despite several tiny gardens every few years). Suddenly, we had name-brand everything, beautiful travertine flooring, a jacuzzi tub, three bathrooms, a garage bigger than all of our vehicles combined. Life was good. We wanted for nothing, and my parents drove it into our heads that our lives would be just as easy. Never did we think that 2011 would bring what it has. Never did they think that either. They sent us off into the world (well, I ran off into the world at 18; my sister required more pushing) with the confidence that we would make plenty of money (with a little seniority, of course) and the American dream would just get grander.
The story takes a bleak turn here. My fiercely-Republican parents moved to a suburb of Detroit around 2003 when my dad – finally! – got promoted to a supervisor at the company he had devoted his life to. They bought an expensive home with too much space, as is their style. They built their lives around their megachurch (which looks more like the Mall of America than a church, complete with Starbucks and gift shops). And then, the car industry failed. Their suburb is largely composed of auto workers, and suddenly, there were vacant homes everywhere. The value of their once-expensive home crashed. They lost much of their 401(k) to stock market misfortunes. My dad’s company downsized, changed their format, and most of his employees lost their jobs. The salary increases they had become so accustomed to stopped abruptly. They are still well-off. They can still afford gas-guzzling SUVs and $500 steak cookouts. But there’s this ever-so-slight change that occurred when they realized that the Reagan consumerism they were so in love with was failing.
My sister happened to become pregnant by a much-older, married man who had a well-established career, leaving her married to a potentially financially stable man (who made some very poor decisions and only has his outrageous salary to thank for their security). I, on the other hand, married a starving artist. He is college educated with a degree in fine art that cost him over $100,000. He is smart and funny and amazing. And poor. I was under no false pretenses. I have never been wealthy either. I worked three jobs at a time before having my first child, and always struggled to get by as the economy slowly but surely cracked and fell away under us. But we weren’t going to let the abstract concept of money keep us from having the family we wanted. In our experience, kids aren’t as “expensive” as everyone says. We utilized Medicaid – the system we had both been paying into our entire lives – to afford our outrageous medical bills when we had our first three children. We use cloth diapers and breastfeed. Our kids wear hand-me-downs. We buy generic food, and turn off the lights and air conditioning when we want our electric bill to be lower. We’ve never owned a home. We rent, and we admittedly have bad credit.
My family looks at us as though we’re freaks. Four kids? They barely even mention the subject, unless it’s to insult us. Our house isn’t even close to their standards. We have one car that is eleven years old and doesn’t run perfectly. My husband makes very little salary at his job, because there are “caps” on how much his company – and all companies these days – are willing to pay when there is higher demand for jobs than jobs available. And yet, we still chose to get pregnant again! They can’t wrap their brains around it. The only real increase in expense for us with the addition of each child has been groceries. So we began growing some of our own food. We experiment with commune-style living with our close friends who have a very large home. We try to be more self-sustaining and practical with our money.
This past Saturday was a family gathering. I haven’t spoken much with my family over the past year or two. They are very disapproving of our lifestyle, our beliefs, our opinions, our politics, you name it. It’s usually best for us to just go our separate ways. But my daughters wanted to spend time with their same-age cousins (the daughters of my sister), so we decided to take a little trip and spend the weekend with my family at my sister’s home. Despite my brother-in-law having filed bankruptcy several years ago, they live in a luxurious suburb in a four-bedroom house (for four people), with all the amenities. Their home has much more space than they can ever use (as you can tell by the “guest bedrooms” and enormous, empty basement. They just bought themselves another car – a two-seater truck that won’t even fit their children. Now that their daughters are of school age, my sister has quit working. I don’t understand. They criticize us for having four kids, yet we spend so much less than they do, add so much less pollution and carbon to the environment, are so much more environmentally and monetarily-conscious than they are. We openly talk to our children about the concepts of money and politics and how to live with just what you need and not far beyond as so many people do. Yet we are the villains for supposedly contributing to this “population problem”?
I was watching a documentary called ‘The Age of Stupid’ tonight and got to thinking. So many children die in foreign countries – from famine, war, politics. Millions of people die. Yet Americans are going around pointing fingers at each other for having more than 1.4 children. And I began thinking that if we “run out of room”, as they all assume we will, we could just send them to build their luxury homes in third-world countries. It isn’t space in the world we’re running out of. It’s resources. They point fingers assuming that all of my four children are going to be mass consuming on the same scale as they are! It was never population that was the issue. It’s our rampant American consumerism. My children aren’t making us poor. They aren’t out soaking up billions of dollars in fossil fuels or GMO foods. We are practical with our money and our children are learning to live within their means. We don’t have a single line of credit, a single credit card, a single bank account. We use cash and don’t spend more than we make. When my daughter whines that she wants something completely unnecessary, I explain to her why she can’t have it, why she doesn’t need it, and the wheels turning behind that item being marketed to her. We don’t have cable, we don’t expose our children to commercial advertisements. None of them have ever set foot in a mall. We buy what we need, with very few exceptions.
So I’d like to issue a challenge to those of you who look down with disgust at people who have large families. Consider the resources you’re using. Consider your family, your home, your vehicles, your spending. I can almost guarantee that we are living far more within our means than you are (seeing as almost no Americans do live within their means). Consider these things and then tell me my four children are a burden to the world,joyriding around in your Cadillac Escalade while you consume your fast food on your way to the mall.