Go Ahead, Have Another Kid

Ignore helicopter-parenting philosophers. You have time for a bigger family, and your kids will appreciate it.

My colleague at Iron Ladies slmgoldberg just wrote an op-ed responding to Joy Pullman’s piece in the Federalist last week, which encouraged families to follow the Chip and Joanna Gaines’ example in having more babies.

Now, I re-tweeted Pullman’s article the day it posted because I was 100% in agreement with it. I think much of the disagreement from my fellow Iron Lady stems from misunderstanding her arguments as well as taking certain cultural assumptions about parenthood as correct.

Let‘s start with how Goldberg framed Pullman as arguing “‘more people should’ have 5+ kids.” This is not quite right. Her general plea to her readers is not that they have 5+ kids, but that they “add” children to their family, and that we should be “cultivating our own families as much as we are able.” Of course many, perhaps most, couples are not in a position where having five or more children is feasible or even desirable. Pullman knows that.

Nevertheless, Goldberg challenges the argument that more children is “the right answer.” She writes,

I’ve heard more than one mother of 4+ children woefully remark that they simply can’t spend the amount of time they’d like to with each child. They are grateful that older siblings inevitably step in to essentially help raise younger ones. But they’re still nagged by the feeling that they ought to be doing at least some of that work themselves. The principle stands just as true for today’s working mothers of one or two. Any human being can only be stretched so far. So is more necessarily the right answer?

I can speak to this point from a place of experience: I grew up with four siblings myself, and never felt the neglect that Goldberg speaks of. Granted, my mother was technically “stay at home” and she home-schooled us, but she also kept the books for my dad’s business, which took up quite a bit of time. Past elementary school, I did my schoolwork largely independently, and my older siblings, while fine babysitters, were in no way viewed as “helping raise” us. I understand that extremely large families (say, 8 or 10 kids), this can be the case. But five kids, like the Gaines have, is not extremely large.

I’ll add that I was the middle child. During my elementary and middle school years, some people would ask me, “Do you feel like you slip through the cracks because you’re the middle child?” To be honest, I had no idea what they were talking about. “No?” was my befuddled reply, as I continued hacking trails through the forest in the backyard. Maybe if I were a more attention-seeking child, it would have been different. Yet I can’t help but think children now days “need” more attention because they are getting it. In other words, it’s not that they actually require this level of parental attention to develop into good adults and have healthy, loving relationships with their parents — it’s that they’ve come to expect it.

I’m starting to see this already with my own daughter, who’s not quite 15 months old. As it turns out, when I stop checking in on her and calling her name every minute, she’s content to roam about the house, investigating, babbling and throwing her toys around. By herself. It’s usually when I demand her attention that she becomes needy.

It’s true, there will be times where one kid feels they’re not getting enough attention because another kid is more needy at that time. We all went through phases where we needed our parents more or less. That’s just the way it is. But it’s also such a blessing to have siblings. I’d rather have a few months where I felt a bit ignored and have siblings for a lifetime than all the individual attention I could get as an only child, or with only one sibling.

Goldberg maintains that the “overriding economic factor” holding parents back from more kids isn’t money, but time:

“Pullman is right that most couples limit the number of children they have for economic reasons. But, while she focuses a great deal on money she fails to observe the overriding factor in the economic scenario: time. When we as a culture chose to monetize human capital in terms of time, we effectively devalued time spent not producing income. The problem isn’t “bigger houses, pet amenities or social-signaling vacations,” as Pullman would like us to believe. The problem is that earning the kind of capital it takes to either buy into a ridiculous timeshare or feed a large number of mouths takes an incredible amount of time.

It’s not money, you see. It’s not the overwhelming cultural force that tells you you need to pour every waking minute into hovering over our children, driving them to and from various “enrichment” activities, or keeping the second income so you can have a five bedroom house for your four person family, a vacation to Hawaii or Disneyland every year, and toy-filled Christmases. Rather, parents just don’t have enough time for another child.

Never mind that the cost of children, and even some time involved, diminishes with each addition (think hand-me-downs, few additional costs for baby gear, buying in bulk, and generally optimizing with scale — the “cheaper by the dozen” principle). Goldberg says here that time is money. If you assume you need a certain level of money to qualify as a “good parent” who can give your kids “a good childhood,” a “head start,” and “everything they need,” including iPads and purebred puppies and a car at 16, of course more of your time will be dedicated to income (I’m hyperbolizing here, but not by much). Naturally, that leaves less time to actually spend with your kids.

And that brings me to my second objection to Goldberg’s argument about parents not having enough time: the truth is that we make time for the things and the people that are important to us. Barring extremely adverse circumstances, such as an sick relative or the breadwinner’s loss of a job, mothers of four who complain they hardly have 15 minutes to spend one on one with each kid are really admitting they are bad at prioritizing quality time with their children.

Humans are by nature extremely bad at time management — even worse than they are at money management. How much time is she spending on her phone? How many after-school activities are her kids enrolled in? How much homework are her children’s teachers assigning, and is it necessary? How much is her family spending on eating out, on the mortgage, on the car loan, on the cable and phone bills? Could they cut down on commuting costs by moving closer to work? Is the second income really necessary, or can the hours spent working be reduced?

This is my extremely unpopular opinion as someone with personal experience in slashing expenses, buying a small house close to work, buying an older car in cash, and generally doing all the things my husband and I advocate other people do: Poor asset management is probably the biggest pressure on middle class families who’d like to have more kids, but can’t seem to make it work.

So while Goldberg is absolutely right that we need to question the culture that puts a monetary value on time, she’s needlessly pitting this against the idea that couples should be having more babies. As Pullman noted, the U.S. replacement rate is at a perilous 1.8. To maintain minimum population growth, it needs to be at 2.1. I don’t reiterate this as if it is a convincing reason for couples to start having more babies — your immediate circumstances are far more important, and a culture that values helicopter parenting over 1 to maybe 3 children is far more persuasive. But a replacement rate of 1.8 should give us serious pause to stop and examine why we aren’t having more children as well as outline some of the benefits to ourselves and our communities by having more babies (including challenging ourselves to improve on our faults). This is the argument that Pullman laid out (quite well) in her article — I would encourage you all to read it in full.