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The Real Parent Trap: More Kids, More Money, More Problems

Photograph by Twenty20

My wife and I recently began thinking about having a second child. We couldn't be happier with how our son has turned out, and we'd love to give him a brother or sister, just as we'd love to have an opportunity to re-experience the joy of our first 18 months as Declan's parents.

A key factor, if not the key factor in this decision is money. We currently live in my in-laws' basement and neither my wife, a preschool teacher, nor myself, a freelance writer and author, make much money. My wife already works such long hours at the preschool she and her colleagues are getting off the ground that it cuts into the time she gets to spend with our son.

I hate that she isn't able to spend as much time with our son as she'd like, but I don't make enough money to be able to support us independently. I could work more hours and try to snag new gigs to help with the cost of a second child but that would, of course, involve spending less time with the family that is the whole damn reason for needing to work those extra hours in the first place.

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That's one of the strange traps of parenting. If you want to have a child, our society really makes you earn it, in a financial and emotional sense. You have to pony up an enormous amount of money to cover the endless expense of your little bundle of joy, and the incredible financial cost is compounded by equally steep physical and psychological costs.

That cost increases with each child, so parents find themselves on the crazy treadmill I described above, where they must work longer hours that take them away from the family they're working themselves into an early grave to provide for.

This isn't how it used to be. In theory, you're supposed to work for a company and get raises and promotions at a steady clip throughout your career, so that by the time that second or third child comes around, you are making substantially more money than you were when you first conceived and can handle that added cost without working yourself into a coma.

Being a parent isn't supposed to be easy. But being a parent shouldn't be impossible...

I work in pop culture media, however, where the opposite is true. In my field, age and experience do not provide security. In my world, the older you get, the more replaceable you become. You aren't looked upon as a paragon of experience and wisdom—you're seen as a creaky old dude secretly begging to be replaced by a 22-year-old for whom the concept of mortgages and babies and daycare costs are but a fuzzy abstraction somewhere off in the distance.

My wife and I are lucky. We have a lot of resources other people don't have. It's not ideal to live in your in-laws' basement, but it is awfully nice to have a nice, big basement and loving, involved grandparents to help out with our son. So even though money is still a huge factor in how many children we'll have, and how we'll raise them, the situation isn't as dire for us as it is for people without those kinds of resources.

A lot of poor parents are struggling to provide for their children financially, and not because they're lazy or or somehow lacking in moral fiber. Yet whenever someone suggests ways to help poor parents cover the enormous cost of parenting, it's derided in some quarters as socialism, as handouts destined to produce laziness and dependence. I would propose, however, that businesses and the government working together to make life easier and more manageable for parents shouldn't be considered socialism. It should be considered basic human decency.

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Being a parent isn't supposed to be easy. But being a parent shouldn't be impossible and the more help we're able to provide struggling parents, either in the form of paid parental leave or subsidized healthcare or not cutting way back on food stamp programs whose goal is literally to prevent poor children from starving, the better off we'll all be.

We've got to figure a way around this parenting trap that harms parents, children and society alike. We need to promote more of a work-life balance—particularly for financially stressed and overburdened parents—but that can be tough in a culture that puts such an extraordinary emphasis on work to the detriment of everything else.

But something's got to change, and change fast.

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