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Baby on board? Or baby overboard?

In praise of large families and beautiful burdens.

Recently, while at a local snow park, I saw a luxury SUV with a decal of a baby and the proclamation, “Huge Financial Burden on Board”.  While the child exiting the vehicle appeared well-loved and cared for, I had to wonder about the mindset of an adult who announces to the world her negative feelings about her own offspring’s impact on her finances. Clearly, she believed the message was a clever and ironic—and socially acceptable—reference to the ubiquitous “Baby On Board” signs of the Eighties. And certainly, with all the horrors perpetrated against children on a daily basis in our society, placing a snarky sticker on the back of your car is a pretty tame action.

But the message got me thinking: what happens when a child realizes the meaning of such a sticker? Will he see the humor in it? Will she feel guilty for being such a burden to her parents? Will he feel privileged that they crunched the numbers and grudgingly decided that having a child was barely worth more to them than whatever else they might have spent their money on? Will she wonder if any of her siblings were aborted to pay for him?

I have zero knowledge, of course, about this particular family’s circumstances, but when such personal matters are placed on a public placard, it’s hard to overlook certain trains of thought.

There are many valid and pressing reasons—financial, physical or psychological—that a couple may choose to limit their family, and I don’t intend to address those here. My concern is about the reasons for having few children (or none at all) that have been loudly trumpeted in our society for many decades now. Whether we want them to or not, certain tropes have become a part of our subconscious landscape. Once women in the workplace became more common, a propaganda war against children seemed to ramp up, as corporations decided that double-income households should spend a bigger portion of that income on status-conferring possessions rather than on the next generation. Society as a whole were apparently infected by the upper-middle class model, trying to match the trust-fund life of enrolling their child in exclusive private schools, clothing him in designer brands, showering her with expensive toys, then sending said child to a prestigious college or university. And all while  dining out regularly and vacationing at popular destinations numerous times a year.

This pattern sets an almost impossible standard for families who wish to survive on one normal income or welcome more than one or two children into their lives. The pervasive Neverland-mirror of social media exacerbates this situation by shoving comparisons at us and constantly stirring envy, even if we make conscious efforts to avoid it. In this environment, how can the average family expect to thrive if they have more than 1.9 kids?

What are the actual numbers on the cost of raising a child in the United States? Given how easily data can be manipulated or shaded by biases, the truth can be difficult to find. However, a recent article in Forbes, drawing on numbers from the USDA, estimates the average price tag of raising a child to age 18 is $284,570.00—not including college expenses. That is a truly daunting figure. However, there is an interesting aside in the article: “The higher a family’s income, the more it spends on a child, specifically education and miscellaneous expenses. The standard of living a child enjoys increases exponentially the greater the income of the parents.” The unacknowledged message here is that resources which could have sustained two or more children in a family, were instead concentrated on one—which suggests there are likely quite a few people who know how to live within their means and provide for larger numbers of children, but they choose not to. And those who support more on smaller resources don’t get much positive publicity.

The implication that more can be done with less also calls to mind anecdotal evidence that appeared in the news a few years ago regarding the consequences of China’s former “One Child Policy”.  The term “Little Emperor Syndrome” appeared in the early 2000s to describe the sense of entitlement, among other psychological issues, beginning to appear in a generation of spoiled only-children. And the phenomenon was not unique to China. A 2009 article in Daily Mail sounded the alarm regarding unprecedented numbers of only children, and wondered what the cultural implications might be. Would these children grow up self-centered and unable to work in groups, having had no opportunity to navigate the sometimes rough-and-tumble, sometimes complex and nuanced culture of a larger family?

Recently, some experts weighed in on the issue and a number of them assured us that the data indicates there will be no harm to speak of; that is, the benefits of an (intentional) single-child household more than balance out the negatives. But to argue that the upcoming generations of only-children will be well-adjusted seems overly optimistic to me, given the rampant self-absorption and mindless cruelty one sees among young people on social media and the sense of entitlement so openly on display on college campuses.

Despite this, the blatantly consumerist message of the aforementioned SUV decal seems quaintly outdated and old-fashioned. Another worldview is being pushed through the culture, one that loudly rejects shameless materialism. But it also brands kids—and even pets—as beings who consume more than their fair share of resources and that contribute to the destruction of earth itself.  In large swathes of American society, the pendulum of crass consumerism has swung past the mid-point and is fast approaching the zealotry of “moderation-to-save-the-planet”, which is coincidentally not unmixed with a heavy dose of politics. “Having kids is terrible for the environment, and that’s why I’m not having any,” is a typical headline inspired by dire predictions of overpopulation and rapidly depleting resources.

The irony of ending future generations in order to save future generations is not lost on many of these advocates; in fact, the contradiction is flaunted as a perverse form of self-sacrifice, and often served up with an unmistakable air of intentional fatalism. But these are the same hoary scare tactics that were popular fifty years ago—never mind that researchers now have five decades more of data to study and can convincingly argue for the opposite conclusion, as David Harsanyi does: “Have lots of children, it’s good for the planet.”

These conflicting narratives—materialism and environmentalism—demand that modern couples choose very different paths: either be enticed and trapped by a consumerist lifestyle or else be shamed into reducing their planetary impact by reducing their family. It’s clear that the losers in both scenarios are the same: children. For they are regarded as unwelcome and burdensome in both world views, and the resultant mindsets doubtless contribute to the plunging birthrates in Western nations.

But looking beyond the hype and the clickbait coming from all sides, it is possible to spot some genuine positive societal trends. For instance, moderation is an important habit and it’s wonderful to see that over the last decade or so a genuine spirit of frugality has arisen—especially among many younger people. This is a reaction not just to fears for the planet, but also a response to the oppressive influence of general wastefulness pushed by large corporate interests, as well as against economic fluctuations and instability.

In this age of the almighty stock market, impersonal banking systems, and the daunting digital economy, many people rebel by seeking simplicity, resiliency, and sustainability. They are looking to history and taking inspiration from America’s Pioneer past, the Depression era, and WWII generations. Youtube is thick with videos that teach people how to knit, sew or even ‘upcycle’—a catchy term for taking old clothing items and sewing them into completely new and different garments.  The ‘lost’ arts of hand-crafts, carpentry, gardening, or food preservation, as well as many other skills, are no longer lost. They are becoming more mainstream, becoming an important part of the lives of many people on all points of the political spectrum.

I propose that when it comes to ‘reducing, reusing and recycling’, not many groups can touch the skills of good stewardship honed in large families. Mothers quickly learn how to reduce food wastage, mend, and to buy durable clothes and shoes to be passed from child to child, or shared with the community. Fathers teach kids how to repair bicycles or small engines. Most thrift stores offer a surprising array of high-end clothing and cookware, for a fraction of the cost of the department stores. And yard sale treasure hunts can result in unexpected finds that sometimes border on the providential. In addition to allowing folks the chance to find older items that are actually superior to their new counterparts, these experiences can be more fun than visiting a new retail store, providing lessons on how to recognize quality craftsmanship, or how to refurbish an item that has potential and is worth preserving rather than being tossed into a landfill.

Education and career paths are other areas in which ingenuity and creativity can flourish, if parents are willing to think outside the usual boxes. Kids who learn how things actually work, how to read recipes or patterns, how to use tools, to sew and construct items from scratch, who know how to preserve and repair things, are on their way to learning marketable skills. As the economy continues to reshape itself in answer to forces both predictable and unexpected, skills such as these will become more in demand, and may even provide ample opportunities for those on the alert and ready to take chances. These may not be the most glamorous jobs—but glamour is both overrated and unsustainable.

During the pandemic, homeschooling rates have necessarily skyrocketed. As bricks-and-mortar institutions slowly begin to re-open around the country, a significant number of families are choosing to continue their children’s education at home, and not just via online public schools—they wish to become true do-it-yourselfers. Unfortunately, these newcomers to the homeschool scene are often confused about where to begin and can become overwhelmed by their options, believing they must commit to an expensive suite of curricula. They don’t realize how many inexpensive or even free resources are available to homeschoolers these days. If you are an experienced homeschooler reading this, consider putting your expertise at the service of a newbie family by connecting through a local support group. And if you’re a newbie, don’t hesitate to join a group and ask for guidance.

I think it’s well past time for families who have ever felt defensive or embarrassed under the disdainful, disapproving eyes of judgmental strangers, and of our hostile society at large, to stand up for themselves and be more outspoken about the valuable contributions children—singly or in groups—can make to the economy and the culture. We need to let all children know they are welcomed, without counting the cost. Because, rather than being “Future Financial Burdens,” they are simply the future itself.


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About S. Kirk Pierzchala 2 Articles
S. Kirk Pierzchala is a homeschooling mother and Lay Dominican based in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of the emerging Beyond Cascadia speculative fiction series, and shares short fiction, poetry and random thoughts at www.skirkpierzchala.com.

15 Comments

  1. Children are a huge financial burden if you choose for them to be one. That goes for pets also.
    Perhaps one day our culture will take the impending population implosion seriously.

  2. Excellent article. I would add that, a la “cats in the cradle”, the “huge financial burden on board” may not turn out to be the baby. By contracepting and aborting children, we are eliminating the guardians of our dotage.

    • Thank you! And you also raise a very good point: how much of the upcoming generation, having been taught that life is disposable when it becomes burdensome, will resist more coordinated efforts to institutionalize widespread euthanasia?

      • Yes. And an increasingly elderly & vulnerable population will not be balanced out by younger folks entering the workforce, contributing to Social Security/Medicare. Healthcare resources will become more finite & with the oldest section of the population consuming the largest share there’s an economic incentive to shorten those lives & conserve resources.
        It’s a sad scenario. We should be thanking & encouraging families for any hope of our future.

  3. Wages MUST be adjusted to accommodate the size of a family. Pope Pius XI wrote (Quadragesimo Anno):

    “It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.”

    The only way that this might be guaranteed to occur in the USA – outside of action by a legislature – is with a lawsuit. One could plead in equity for a wage proportionate to one’s needs.

    • There should be a change to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, such that employers may be permitted to discriminate *in favor* of sole breadwinners. Then mom can come home to school her children, care for granny, deprive big gov of the tax on her income, and buttress her husband’s value to the employer as more *reliable* because he has backup at home. The only thing left is to make sure the diocesan annulment mills don’t sack her marriage, which must be strong to allow all this to happen. To sack the annulment mills, we must annul the oxymoronic homosexual priesthoods, vanguard of the sexual revolution in the Church. *Then*, with truth about eugenics now being preached from the pulpit, perhaps finally the 100 million aborted women and men in the country will come to confession and reconcile. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

  4. Thank you for a wonderful and timely article. I had to laugh at the familiar “average price tag of raising a child to age 18 … $284,570.00,” a ridiculous number that shows the meaningless of such “studies.” When all nine of our children were living at home, my annual income barely topped $50,000 per year. Over the years, with the “environmentally conscious” I often used this author’s example about about our large family consuming far less than small families and wealthy individuals. We were the ultimate “recyclers.”

    • Yup, those annual price tags of raising a child are always pretty funny. My eight children were raised on an extremely modest income.
      I used to sew their clothes & using scraps leftover from the larger dresses, I made each of my four daughters 2 new dresses for slightly over $2.00 per dress. And of course there’s no end of clothes “recycling.”

      • I LOVE this! Since we had only one daughter, my wife did not do a lot of sewing for girl’s items, much to her disappointment, because she is an expert seamstress. But now, she has all the paying customers she can possibly handle making alterations to wedding and prom gowns. And she teaches sewing classes for homeschool moms and daughters. Our five-bedroom house has been turned into a four-room dress shop.

        • What a wonderful story Timothy. Thank you so much for sharing that.
          It’s such a shame that sewing doesn’t seem to be offered in high schools anymore. Do they even have Home Ec. classes?
          It seems like a life skill that every girl should learn. Possibly some boys as well since there’s still a few tailors around.
          God bless you & your family!
          🙂

          • My wife learned expert sewing and gourmet cooking from her Czech mother. I really hit the jackpot when I married! My wife insisted that all eight of our sons learn basic cooking and at least sewing repairs as well. One of my sons – who is now a professional classical guitarist – loved knitting when he was little, and he was good at it! Like all the domestic arts and the fine arts, cooking, sewing, and knitting help kids learn concentration, following directions, attention to detail, perseverance, pride in completing a task, etc. God bless you and your family too!

  5. Thank you for your insights. I mention another factor: we have lost the notion of child-rearing as a primary purpose of marriage, and reduced marriage to companionship dependent on the continued benefit it brings to each person judging that benefit on their own terms. We need to work at challenging the young to live for something bigger than themselves.

  6. There are things going on here in Texas that are not getting reported to the rest of the world. About a million non-citizen migrants have flooded into Texas in 2 months to join the thousands that came in last year. There are several Catholic churches and convents near the border taking them in…many unescorted children. My friend who donates toilet paper and paper towels regularily to one such convent told me the sad story of children from around the world being housed and fed at this one anonymous convent. So many kids, he said, not just from Latin America but also from Africa, Southeast-South Asia and the Middle-East. I said how could their parents do this – send them in all alone? He said because they love all their children and are willing to send their smartest and most ambitious children on the journey in hopes of them making it in this country so they can rescue the rest of the family. These are impoverished families with many children along with grandparents and other relatives desperate to have the most promising of their children make the journey in order for them to live the kind of life of plenty that we take for granted here in the U.S. My friend arrived at the convent at dinner where several shifts took turns eating crammed together on picnic benches to eat macaroni and cheese and milk. Then the under-eight year old kids were lining up 10 at a time naked at a convent wall so they could be hosed off with water by the nuns. After that the girls then the boys also bathed by with garden hoses. This was their daily bath before they went to their beds crammed in with other kids. My friend said he was embarrassed to be an American much less a Christian. He told me “You got to wonder sometimes where is God?” And I told him “It makes me wonder why was I so blessed to be born in a land of peace and plenty?” By the end of the summer we will be 8 billion people on this planet with maybe 50% living in poor countries as described above with an even poorer 10% not able to even eat a decent meal every day – and Americans have the nerve to complain about not being able to buy new BMW because of having one kid? Holy Mary Mother of Sorrows pray for us.

    • Thank you for sharing that. It doesn’t sound like the children are being mistreated in the situations you describe but hopefully they weren’t hosed off outside in cold weather.
      You know outside of the virus epidemic’s recent effect on things, world poverty has actually been improving. There’s a good book about that, not a Catholic book but still worthwhile: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling
      I’d really recommend it. And outside of Sub Saharan Africa few regions of the globe are having many children these days. What we face in the future is more of a population implosion.
      God bless!

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