We couldn’t afford to have kids

We couldn’t afford to have kids
shironosov/Getty Images

I was 27 and broke when we had kids. They were twins, so we became a family of four right out of the gate. We didn’t really know anybody where we lived, and we were about 600 miles from the nearest family member. Our parents flew out to help us for the first couple of weeks, but we were mostly on our own after that.

I wasn’t making much money at my job, we had nothing in savings, and we were pretty far in the red because of medical bills and my wife’s student loan debt. It didn’t help matters that we weren’t good at managing the money we did have, although it felt kind of irrelevant because we never had it in our possession for long enough to waste it. We weren’t impoverished, things could have been worse, but they also could have been much better.

The average income for a family of four is around $70,000 a year. I was earning slightly more than half of that, which was still more than double what I had been making before my wife and I picked up and moved to Kentucky for the incredible opportunity to continue being pretty broke. It was definitely an improvement, however. For the first couple of months of marriage, my income of $56 a day placed us right at the federal poverty line for a family of two, although a little beyond it thanks to my wife’s part-time job in retail. Fortunately, I was soon given a massive raise that skyrocketed us to a whole $8,000 above Legally Poor. We had reached the summits of the lower-middle class. We were practically rich, as far as we were concerned.

Despite our incredible wealth, it’s clear that we were not in what our society would consider the “ideal” position to get married or have kids. We weren’t ready. We couldn’t afford it. And yet we did get married and we did have kids. Two of them, in fact. And here we are. All of us (five of us now). Still breathing, somehow.

My generation has been stuck in neutral for years, not wanting to get married, not wanting to have kids, refusing to move out of mom’s house and be adults, always insisting that we aren’t “ready.” We don’t have the money. We don’t have time. We don’t have an entire checklist full of things that we’ve decided we must have in order to be functioning grown ups. We’re waiting. We’ve been waiting forever. Waiting for a voice to come from the sky telling us, “Now’s the time. Go forth.” Waiting, especially, to “afford it,” as if growth and maturity are pricey consumer products you purchase at Target.

Of course, various institutions have actually come up with price tags for adulthood and parenthood. Depending on where you look, you’ll be told that the entry level fee to be a mommy or daddy ranges anywhere from $13,000 to $15,000  a year per child. Over the course of a kid’s entire young life, the media claims we’ll have to cough up a quarter of a million dollars for one kid. By these estimates, my wife and I needed $30,000 to have our twins in just the first year alone, which would have been almost my entire income at the time. Now that we have three kids, assuming that the Kid Cost Index will go up with inflation, we’re looking at a bill that may approach $1,000,000 over the next decade and a half, supposedly. If we have a couple more, we’ll need to hit the lottery or consider shipping a few of them down to the Amazon to be raised by orangutans (a cheaper option than traditional daycare, and my oldest son would be thrilled).

This is all patently ridiculous, obviously. If you’re spending $15,000 on a toddler, you’re either rich or insane. If you’re spending $250,000 to get your child to the age of 18, I can only assume you bought him his own house, a butler, and you’re serving him caviar smoothies in a silver chalice sippy cup. But if you’re aren’t crazy or Bill Gates, then you need not worry about these astronomical financial estimates. They’re nonsense, trust me. Yet they’re the kind of nonsense that utterly terrifies my peers and convinces them that they can’t have kids, let alone get married, until they’ve got six figures in savings. The problem is that they probably won’t ever have that kind of money in the bank, and if they do it won’t be until they’re AARP eligible. They’re waiting around for a “stability” hardly anybody attains when they’re in their 20s and early 30s, which, incidentally, are the ages where women are actually fertile.

This all raises the question: did God get it wrong when He set up our biological clocks, or do we have it wrong in how we approach marriage, parenthood, and adulthood? My money — what little is left after I’ve paid for my children’s diamond encrusted diapers — is on the latter explanation.

We’ve got it all backward. We think we should get through young adulthood, establish ourselves, build a life of some sort, and finally begin the process of finding spouses and becoming parents once we’re safely ensconced in the protective cocoon of middle age. It was never meant to be that way, though. We’re supposed to be going to our kids’ little league games and complaining about whoever keeps touching thermostat when we’re 37, not just then starting to pay our own cellphone bill. I know there are exceptions to this rule — please don’t yell at me about the exceptions, I get it, I know — but they are just that: exceptions. Or they ought to be. There should be a few people who haven’t gotten married or had kids by 30, not millions.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need a lot to start a family. You don’t really need anything, honestly. A roof over your head helps. Health insurance is good. A car would be nice. But a bunch of money in savings? A cushy job? A house that’s already paid off? Why in the world do you need any of that right away? You’ll get there, maybe, but not anytime soon. And, if you start a family now, the whole fun and adventure of getting there is that you’ll do it as a family.

It’s kind of a sad idea that a man would “make a life for himself” all alone and then inject a wife and kids into this thing that’s already been constructed without them. This strategy leads to its own problems, too. The man will often begin to resent his family because they’re intruding. This is not their life, it’s his. He can’t look to his wife and kids and say, “They were with me when I had nothing. We were together from the beginning. We climbed to this point together.” Rather, he says, “I built this on my own. I did all of this myself. I climbed without them. This is mine. They don’t know anything about it, the freeloaders.” And I think this is probably one of the reasons why people who get married in their 30s have higher rates of divorce. Walking the bumpiest parts of the road together, struggling, sacrificing, suffering, going without — this is what brings a family together. It’s an edifying experience if you have the right heart about it.

I remember my first five years on Earth spent in a tiny three-bedroom townhouse that I shared with my parents and four siblings. I slept in a room with two of my sisters. Eventually, we moved into a bigger (but not that much bigger) house, and we became a little more comfortable as my Dad worked his way up through the ranks at his job, but we were never rich. By modern standards, my parents couldn’t afford to have even one kid by the time they had three, and they could never afford to have the six kids they eventually produced. Yet they managed to raise us all, send four of us through college (I declined the invitation), and now they have six adult children who are all established in life, and 15 grandchildren. They couldn’t afford it, but here we are.

We had to make sacrifices. Not huge ones, in the grand scheme, but sacrifices. We didn’t go on exotic vacations. We only had one TV. We didn’t have our own bedrooms. We wore secondhand clothes. We almost never went to restaurants. We got our Super Nintendo when everyone else was playing Nintendo 64. We ate off-brand cereal. You know, the hard knock life. I think when most people say they can’t “afford” to have a family, what they mean is that they don’t want to live like I lived as a kid. What my generation has decided it “needs” is to live a luxurious, fashionable, Instagramable life. And it’s too bad for them. They’re missing out. I thank God for my unfashionable childhood. I wouldn’t trade our humble family vacations in our Astro passenger van with duct tape on the door for a thousand swanky trips to Disney World. The sacrifice and simplicity “builds character,” my Dad used to say, and you know something? He was right.

If you’re waiting until you can “afford” the next step in life, you’ll be stuck at the bottom of the staircase forever. And if you’re waiting until you’re “ready,” you’ll be in still worse shape. I’m not even sure what people mean when they say they aren’t “ready” to get married or have kids. It’s like saying you aren’t ready for the sun to rise. I know we all may feel like that sometimes, but we get out of bed and put on our shoes anyway. You can’t know exactly what the day will hold for you, but you embrace it fearlessly because that’s what it means to be alive.

Adulthood works the same way. You can never be prepared or “ready” for marriage and parenthood because you have no concept of what those things mean until you’re knee deep in it. I learn more every day, and frequently, I encounter challenges that I’m not “ready” to encounter, but I deal with them. We weren’t “ready” for our newest baby to be in and out of the hospital four times in the span of a week shortly after he was born, but he was, and we adjusted. And we weren’t “ready” for him to cry for five months straight — and we’ve had two infants at once so we thought we had it figured out — but we handled it. And I wasn’t ready for all the times I’ve been puked on and covered in various unseemly fluids, but it happened, God help me.

Look, I know there are extreme cases of dirt poor single mothers and those kinds of situations. I’m not talking about those cases. And I’m certainly not advocating that those women run out and have more kids. I’ve made it pretty clear that the process of starting a family needs to be founded upon the sacrament of marriage. What I’m talking about are the more common scenarios where people in their mid-20s or older are capable of moving on to these next and natural stages of adult life but are paralyzed by some phantom notion of “affordability.” I’m talking about people who harbor the faulty but common belief that marriage and parenthood should be the culmination of young adulthood, rather than the cornerstone of it. I’m talking about people who are waiting to be “ready,” and thus will be waiting for all eternity.

The truth is that nobody is ready, all right? Nobody is prepared. Nobody has any idea what they’re getting themselves into. Most people can’t afford it. Most people aren’t in the ideal position. We’re all in the same boat. You’re no different. But we do it anyway, relying always on the grace of God and our love for each other, because it’s what we’re meant to do, and, believe it or not, it’s worth it.

Buy Matt’s book here.

Contact Matt for speaking engagements or other inquiries here. 

90 Comments