I have one child, a son, born when I was two months from turning 35—the age when expectant mothers are termed geriatric. My one son seemingly presents a problem for a surprising number of strangers and people I know well: “Only one?” they ask suspiciously as they look at me with narrowed eyes. “But isn’t he going to be lonely?” (As the most off-the-charts extrovert in our family, he is not.) See also: “But big families are fun!” (For whom? I long to retort.) “I think you’ll regret it later if you don’t have more.” (The reverse could also be true.) “Children are a blessing!”
They certainly are, and these past four-and-a-half years of raising my son has been a deeply beautiful and satisfying experience I could never have imagined for myself prior to his birth. But it has also been emotionally draining, physically painful, and filled with anxieties I didn’t know I had. What if he dies before me? What if I die when he’s young? What if he gets sick or something terrible happens to him? His daily well-being takes precedence over mine, not that I cater to him like the Lord of House Murphy-Gill. But if I am sick with a cold or the stomach flu, I still have to get out of bed and tend to his basic, day-to-day needs such as meals and bath time.
When well-meaning friends, family, and strangers question why I would deign to deprive my son of a sibling or two, they never ask about my own well-being or whether my family can afford another child. Because no matter how many articles I’d read on the cost of children prior to having a baby, I was wholly unprepared for just how thin my family’s budget could stretch. Even for a two-income household of three.
My husband and I have done everything “right.” We’ve saved for retirement, purchased an “affordable” home after years of saving by living in a low-rent one-bedroom apartment in an “undesirable” neighborhood, have never missed a payment on our hefty student loans—as a college education and then some was required to get the jobs that allow for two incomes. We give generously to our church, or, we did, until there was less room in the budget. We shop thrift stores and sales for home and clothing items, plan our meals and groceries, and rarely go on dates, because going out to an expensive dinner plus a babysitter (at $12/hour for four hours) would eat into our ability to pay for other important things such as new shoes for our swiftly growing kid.
At the comparatively affordable Catholic school where we send our son, tuition alone is $850 a month, or $8,500 a year. But that’s for 10 months and doesn’t include the before and aftercare needed by many parents whose jobs don’t coincide with an 8-to-3 schedule. And lest you think that there is financial assistance for low-income families with small children, consider this: If one of us were to quit our jobs, cutting our monthly income in half, we still would not qualify for enough financial aid to cover preschool.
Ask a well-meaning church lady for assistance with childcare, and she’s more likely to blink with confusion than ask when she should come over (the answer is school holidays, sick days, and the occasional Saturday night). Not only do they not have the time (or energy), retirees and those on the brink of stepping out of the work force aren’t interested in subsidizing childcare or public education through taxes. And then there are those who ask why any family should be using daycare. Isn’t it better for a parent to raise a child at home instead of a daycare? (On more than one occasion, this has actually been said to me because I have a full-time job outside of my also full-time domestic responsibilities.)
I don’t begrudge the families who make the choice to have one parent stay at home. But it wasn’t the right choice for my family or many others. The notion of a working father and stay-at-home mother is outdated, and frankly based on a sexist paradigm of what it means to be a family. One that is unfortunately heavily supported by many a church document.
This economic reality is the context in which any teaching and writing on family spirituality should take place. On the ground, in the concrete setting where a shortage of money and time are creating burnout for the American family. Where screentime, for families who can afford screens, offers a brief respite for a mother who needs an hour of quiet and solitude as she prepares dinner after a long day of work or caring for her children. Where putting in extra hours at work for months may come at the cost of family time but is a necessary sacrifice for the prospect of promotions and higher income.
From the church, families should receive support and wisdom—not prescriptions for how to live that only cause more guilt and burnout. If the church wants to support family life, it should turn its eye to how socioeconomics affects the internal dynamics of families. Insights into to many of the questions the church ought to wrestle with—Why do couples divorce under the strain of children? Why do they drift apart? Why do women want to be able to control their reproductive choices? And so on—are to be discovered when we consider economic realities.
The scolding tone so often directed at parents from church leadership (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly toward mothers) risks sounding tone deaf (it is) and thus being ignored or creating an even greater sense of falling short that families already experience. The insight I need, that families need, is that God is with us in our struggle to make it through every day. That making choices that ensure our own well-being, to offer ourselves as parents some self-care, aren’t selfish, but necessary if we’re to continue to care for our children and spouses.
If the church wants young people to have more children, it ought to address the mounting student debt crisis (there’s even some evidence it could also increase vocations to ordained ministry and religious life) as well as the cost of health care, child care, and housing. It ought to reflect on the financial model in this country that has allowed for those at the top of the heap to amass more than half the wealth of all Americans.
Can the church do more than instruct parents on how to pass the faith onto their kids? More than just encourage them to have children? More than just enact family leave policies?
I believe that it can. And that to survive and stay relevant to families, it must.
This article also appears in the March 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 3, pages 43–44).