You might be thinking about the price of diapers, health insurance, or preschool programs when trying to work out a rough answer. But don't forget the $230 silver ballet shoes that your five year old will grow out of in a few months, or the $56 baby blanket, or the $500 bassinet.
Our culture is obsessed with all things celebrity, and has long been over concerned with the reproductive goings-on of our favorite stars. Is she pregnant or isn't she? Did they use IVF? What was the birth like? How fast can she get her pre-baby body back? And then, after all that—what is the little one wearing?
Bravo's Pregnant in Heels (which is returning this spring!) takes much of this to a new, commodified level. Rosie Pope, maternity concierge (yes, that's a thing) is featured on the show, along with her $350 newborn care classes, her $200 maternity jeans (remember, you'll only need them a few months), and her $130 diaper "clutches." With its privileged, pretentious, and seemingly clueless parents-to-be, the show is pregnant with "'look at that rich bitch' voyeurism" and over-the-top consumption. Yes, Rosie's clients are millionaire mamas from Manhattan—but what they're doing is a reflection of the anxieties so many new mothers feel.
During graduate school, I worked briefly at a maternity center that offered childbirth classes, new moms groups, and (lots and lots) of retail. I saw so many expectant and new parents—successful professionals, accustomed to knowing what they were doing and doing it competently—come in feeling slightly hormonal, a little overwhelmed, and extremely tired. And they coped by buying stuff. They bought $1,200 strollers and $400 high chairs, and probably just hoped that somewhere along the way, one of those purchases would be the key to navigating this new challenge. In a culture were we glorify mothers without providing them much support, the American consumerist instinct to purchase more things becomes a critical milestone in prepping for parenthood.
All of this skews our sense of just who can afford children. Last December, financial guru Suze Orman lectured a middle-class family with both parents working full time, telling them they couldn't afford a second child. (The couple had originally wanted her advice on whether the mother could give up her job to become a stay-at-home mother once they had a second child, but she dismissed that altogether.) Suze estimated that a baby costs $700-$1000 dollars a month, with diapers as the only named expense. And, yes, babies are expensive, and they can be more expensive if they come with special needs. But is Orman really suggesting that a second child is out of the reach of this middle class family? There must be a way to make it work: what about hand-me-downs from the baby they already have, let alone friends and neighbors? What about buying things used, and buying only what's really needed? Families frequently have to cut back and make sacrifices in other part of their lifestyle to accommodate the children they want to have. But, really, what else is the money for if not helping you build the life you want?
On a larger scale, this focus on consumption and the expense of having children feeds the idea that poor people shouldn't have kids. But as we know, in this country, being poor now means you have a good chance of being poor for a good proportion of your life. Should poor people just never have children? While I understand that there are many people out there who happily chose to remain childless, becoming a parent is still an important, meaningful part of life for the many people who do pursue it. Are we comfortable saying that parenthood should be a class privilege? In a very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay from 2001, Christopher Jencks explores this idea more fully:
When the Clinton administration unveiled its proposals for revamping Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), it said the plan "signals that people should not have children until they are ready to support them." Yet for many poor women, that time will never come. Sad to say, there are neither enough good jobs nor enough good husbands to provide every American woman with enough money to support a family. Are we to assume that the losers in this lottery have no right to bear children at all? And, if not, are we really prepared to enforce this principle and all of its implications?
Many people, of course, are comfortable with enforcing just that principle. Rush Limbaugh has said that if you can't afford diapers and daycare, you shouldn't have children. Yes, it would be nice if all parents could afford the necessities for their children. But denying support to families that are already formed does nothing to help children, and relegating parenthood as solely a middle-class privilege does nothing to help individuals who will spend most of their lives in poverty.
Here we have two sides of a worthless coin: the consumerist inflation of costs associated with raising children, and the denial that—because so many families fall so short of affording these trappings of modern parenthood—they are worthy of parenting at all. Neither serves families well at all, and both lose sight of what American parents truly need to support their children.