When she was seven months old, my husband and I seriously considered enrolling our daughter, Beatrice, who has no hearing impairment, in baby sign language class. Oh, we did have some initial doubts: If Beatrice was busy learning how to fold and pleat her fingers into signing gestures, wouldn’t that take time and attention away from learning to speak? Wouldn’t being able to communicate through signs remove any incentive to talk? But our misgivings were brushed aside by the baby signing professionals and their acolytes. Signing is like crawling, they explained. Just as crawling gives your baby that taste of movement that motivates her to walk, signing inspires the voiceless communicator to learn how to verbalize. Not only do signing babies speak earlier, but research indicates they have higher IQ scores, by an average of twelve points, at age eight, they pointed out.
Baby signing—for babies who can hear perfectly well—had become so popular that we also felt prodded by a competitive impetus: Everyone else seemed to be signing their children up. Our friends Paul and Ericka had a daughter who signed; she waved and poked her chubby hands about whenever she wanted to speak her mind. A genius! Shouldn’t Beatrice have the same advantage? Any parent can understand why we were tempted. We all want to provide our children with every opportunity and are eager to get a sense of what’s going on inside our preverbal babies’ minds.
Still, the classes were expensive. Plus, it would take time away from work in order for me to commute to wherever it was that baby signers convened, surely not in my neighborhood, where most parents struggle to afford quality day care. As an alternative, we could allocate precious weekend time to the classes, allowing both my husband and me to attend, but even the thought of adding one more thing to our pittance of “time off” made me weary. Either way, on top of everything, we would have to teach the babysitter how to sign too, and when would we ever find the time to do that? Wouldn’t Beatrice get frustrated if her caretaker didn’t understand what she was trying to “say”?
On the other hand, there were incentives to get Beatrice started on language skills immediately. Getting into preschool in New York City is cutthroat, as it is increasingly around the country. Many applications include ample space in which to list the “classes” two-year-olds have attended before they’ve even enrolled in their first school. How could I forgo an activity that might provide the decisive advantage? I would kick myself ten times over for my neglect. If Beatrice proved to be an “accelerated learner,” we could potentially enroll her at a magnet public school later on, rather than a private school, either one a necessity since our neighborhood is bereft of good public schools. This would in turn free up money for our other children’s education, in case they didn’t get into a good public school.
If Beatrice didn’t “measure up,” the tuition for private nursery school alone would run up to $25,000 a year; if we had three kids, the price of education would eventually eat up a six-figure income each year. Suddenly, it seemed that if Beatrice didn’t baby-sign, we wouldn’t have enough money to afford three kids, something my husband and I, both products of large families, really want.
Or so my snowballing logic went. Like all parents, I am confronted every day with complex spending decisions for my children. And I can drive myself nuts trying to weigh the pros, cons, and costs of the overwhelming options. No matter what I do, someone else seems to be doing enviably more or improbably less, and either way, their child and family seem all the better for it.
But with the sign language conundrum, I had the benefit of finding an answer through my job as a journalist. While researching a story on cognitive development for Time magazine, I came upon a comprehensive review of studies on baby signing. Contrary to what I had been led to believe by the baby signers’ websites and brochures, the evidence is all over the place. Some studies even showed signing babies to be worse off than their non-gesturing counterparts. After an interview with one of the review’s authors, my husband and I decided to bypass the whole thing. (For the record, our daughter speaks just fine and, at age three, gesticulates in her own, invented ways.)
Making these kinds of decisions—choosing what not to do or buy for our baby—isn’t easy. Saying no runs counter to all our instincts as parents and to everything the parenting culture tells us. Aren’t we supposed to do everything we possibly can for our children? Doesn’t this frequently mean sparing no expense? Many parents already feel tremendous guilt for working long hours and spending less time than they would like with their children. Now add to that a layer of guilt for not spending as much money on them as we could. With every no, you can hear the judgments and recriminations, be they imagined or actual: What are you going to do with that money instead? Go out to dinner more often? Buy yourself more clothes? Sock money away in your retirement fund—before taking care of your own children? We are pressured to spend by the cautions of experts, the advice of parenting pros, and the endless and frightfully persuasive marketers proclaiming that certain goods, services, activities, and environments ensure a happier, smarter, healthier, and safer child. A more emotionally secure and socially successful child. A better baby.
at the time when we feel most disabled as decision makers—by experts, advertisements, product overload, our own niggling doubts—the need to make reasoned decisions is greater than ever. Raising kids today costs a fortune. Rather than plot family size based on any number of factors—one’s ideal conception of family, the kind of life one wants to lead, the disruption that pregnancy and child rearing might bring to one’s career, the terrifying thought of traveling to visit grandparents with a full brood in tow—often the decision about whether to have one child, or more, pivots on the question: Can we afford it?
This just seems wrong. How can money be what makes or breaks such a personal decision? “Why can’t we just have a kid the way our parents did in the seventies?” asked a friend I’ve known since my early twenties—I’ll call her Ava. She wasn’t referring to giving birth on a leftover hippie commune, nor did she especially hanker for a child outfitted in an orange velour ensemble and bowl haircut. She simply wanted to be able to afford having a baby, perhaps two, as so many of our parents did, almost unthinkingly, just a few decades ago. Whether or not to have kids and how many were choices that once could be made without poring over Quicken and breaking into a premature sweat about college costs. Sure, everyone has always complained that “kids are expensive,” but when people said it in the 1970s, they often meant that in a period of rapid inflation sugar cereals cost twice as much as cornflakes and store-bought Halloween costumes were overpriced. Many parents didn’t even worry about college tuition until their kids were in junior high, and the money needed to cover it today would barely pay for preschool, even adjusted for inflation.
Despite oil lines and inflation, raising a child in the 1970s was cheap. Even during the supposed heyday of family life, in 1958, parents spent about half what they spend now, the equivalent of $5,470 on goods and services ($800 in 1958 dollars) during a baby’s first year. The major cost creep can be dated to the 1980s, when the baby boomers entered parenthood, and prices continued to spiral upward during the 1990s as the boomers’ spending on their kids hit its peak. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which, of all government bureaucracies, is the one that tracks these things), the cost of raising a child born in 2006 from birth to the age of seventeen is $143,790 for parents in the lowest income group (households earning less than $44,500 a year) and $289,390 for parents with the highest incomes (those earning more than $74,900 and an average income of $112,200).
These numbers don’t even give a realistic sense of just how much children cost. Experts agree that though the government estimates try to account for housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, childcare, education, and miscellaneous goods and services, the Department of Agriculture lowballs these costs by a long shot. For example, the government expects parents in the wealthiest group to spend $2,850 on childcare and education during the first two years of a baby’s life,* while the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, a network of more than 805 childcare resource and referral centers, reports that the average cost of childcare for an infant—no matter how much the parents earn—ranges from $3,803 to $13,480 a year.
Costs spiral much, much higher in major urban areas. According to a 2006 report in USA Today, the cost of childcare is leading parents nationwide to make major lifestyle adjustments: relocating, changing jobs, and selling homes. One Boston couple, the husband a software support engineer, the wife in communications, had to move and buy a new house in an area where they could find day care for under $850 because the $1,500 to $2,000 monthly price tag where they had been living in Boston was unaffordable. “We went into shock,” the mother complained. “That’s like a second mortgage.” In many cities, nannies charge between $400 and $750 a week, depending on experience and skills (licensed drivers, for example, earn more), and they typically charge $50 a week for each additional offspring. In New York or San Francisco, it’s tough to find a caregiver who will accept less than $500 for a forty-hour week (which doesn’t allow much time for a parent’s commute or overtime). That means $26,000 a year—not $2,850. And that’s if you’re paying your help illegally. To hire someone on the books costs an additional $6,000 or more annually, once you count taxes, benefits, and insurance. When many of today’s parents were growing up, live-in help was within the reach of upper-middle-class families. Now such arrangements are exclusive to the truly wealthy, though substantially more families today require the income of two working parents and often need near-around-the-clock childcare and household maintenance to make such work arrangements possible.
In addition to what parents have to pay out of pocket, there are the amounts we are supposed to set aside in those savings accounts for college. Adding government figures for middle-income families to estimates from the College Board, it takes about $500,000 to raise a child from birth through college, assuming the child goes to a public university. If she gets into the Ivy League, parents can bank on a tab of $635,000—not factoring in inflation.
Most of us are already behind. A 2006 poll of 2,239 parents found that although 79 percent of parents who expected their child to attend college also expected to have to pay for some or all of it, more than half had barely gotten started: 26 percent had saved less than $5,000 and 32 percent had not saved anything, despite the fact that personal financial advisers suggest putting aside a minimum of $1,000 a month for each child, starting at birth. If you’ve got two kids and need to put aside $2,000 every month, you may as well own two homes.
This sounds bad enough, yet these numbers still don’t tell the full story.
For one thing, the cost of raising children is rising far faster than our earnings. Estimated household income rose 24 percent during the past ten years, while the cost of raising a child rose 66 percent. That leaves even couples who make decent salaries belaboring the decision to have children based on the bottom line. Again and again, couples in their midtwenties to their midthirties say they don’t feel they can afford to have kids until at least one of them is making a six-figure salary.
Prospective parents are wrestling with this conundrum from the tony streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. Recently married and well into her thirties, my friend Ava and her husband, Colin, wanted a baby, but their circumstances looked grim. Colin, a freelance writer, had no health benefits, and Ava had quit her job to pursue a more flexible, child-friendly self-employment. The little savings they had were earmarked for a down payment on a home, once the housing market cooled off. But having a baby seemed to require winning the Lotto or uncovering a lost millionaire aunt. This wasn’t a case of bemoaning the cost of a designer stroller. Ava and Colin—two college-educated professionals—actually thought that unless things changed, they would not be able to afford a family. Not a single child.
In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Terri Cullen publicly debated whether to have another child largely in terms of its financial impact: Since much of the baby gear used by her firstborn had been given away, Cullen was faced with the sticker shock of having to buy everything all over again. “With no shower for a second baby, we’d have to foot a bill that would amount to more than $5,000 ourselves.” Adding up the costs in childcare, education, baby food, and diapers, she realized:
All those new costs and years out of the workforce would cut into our ability to save—for retirement, college, an emergency, or otherwise. It’s a tradeoff [my husband] Gerry and I are reluctant to make. Ultimately, the arguments against another baby carried the day: I’d love to have one more child, but it doesn’t make sense for our family.
If a financial columnist at the Wall Street Journal can’t make it work, is it any wonder that two typical professionals in their thirties would be dismayed at the thought of supporting a child? Unnerved by the numbers but overcome with parental yearning, Ava and Colin went ahead with their procreation plan, and Ava got pregnant. Like so many other parents, they would just have to figure out how to afford it.
There were also the weighty, long-term problems to tackle. Would Ava’s salary cover the cost of childcare, let alone help provide for her family? Would they have to move farther away from their work opportunities in order to afford a house big enough for their family? Would they be able to take a vacation sometime in the next decade? Just how much would they have to give up in order to have a child? These questions of work arrangements, childcare, and housing are enough to send any parent into a state of despair. In a 2005 survey of 1,568 mothers by iVillage, 37 percent said they would need more than an additional $50,000 each year in order to significantly improve their quality of life with their children. When asked what they would change to become better mothers if time, money, and stress were not obstacles, 38 percent said they would quit work, work less, or become stay-at-home mothers. Eighteen percent wanted to spend less time doing housework and more time with their children.
Soon Ava and Colin were grappling with the other concerns and fears that consume modern parents, and the price tags spun well beyond their stomach-churning Quicken-induced nightmares. Why did everyone seem to have at least two strollers? Would it be feasible to purchase one model without compromising their baby’s comfort, mobility, and safety? Just how many toys—and what type—does a toddler need to hit all the expected milestones on time? Are more expensive car seats significantly safer? They dwelled on mundane questions like what brand of bottle to choose—wide nipple, glass, or clear plastic?—and whether pricey formula with supplemental docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) actually improves cognitive development. They debated the conceivable benefits of organic layettes.
Those scary government numbers do not take into account all the extras that many parents deem necessities after the appearance of that second strip on the self-pregnancy test. They don’t include, for example, the cost of maternity clothes; of new home purchases and moving expenses (extra space is often in order); of childbirth education and newborn care classes; of prenatal vitamins and extra fresh fruits and vegetables (organic, please!); of Glider breastfeeding armchairs; of “babymoon” vacations and bumblebee-themed baby showers. When the Wall Street Journal looked at the suspect government figures in an effort to make them somewhat more realistic, it added costs such as sporting equipment and tutoring (which is no longer just for the wealthy—the average income of a family seeking tutoring for a child is between $50,000 and $70,000) and came up with a total cost of raising a child to age seventeen that ranged from $800,000 to $1.6 million (in 2007 dollars).
A million dollars to raise a baby. “Having kids is a privilege,” financial planner Rich Chambers declared in a report on the rising costs. A privilege?! When I was growing up, children were not considered a luxury item. But in major American cities, having three or four children is practically an ostentatious display of good fortune, akin to owning a pied-à-terre in Paris and a country retreat to boot. “Three is the new two when it comes to having kids,” Amanda Uhry, founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors, told me. Her job: helping frazzled New York City parents get their kids into hypercompetitive preschools for a minimum fee of $10,000.
this parental money warp has distorted our entire approach to raising children. That million-dollar estimate doesn’t account for the uneasy combination of guilt and desire that has become the artisan-bread-and-butter of the parenting industry. It doesn’t factor in the thousands of potential saviors that loom before worried parents in baby gear catalogs or the enticing amusements heralded in parenting magazines, piled on shelves at baby emporiums, and charmingly displayed in specialty gift shops. It doesn’t calculate the pressure to buy something because everyone else’s child seems to have one.
Today, the “mom market” is said to be $1.7 trillion, with the toy industry for babies between birth and age two alone generating more than $700 million a year. “Parents will do anything to provide for their children. Marketers now know that this category has tremendous opportunity for growth,” said Jan Studin, publisher of Parents magazine.
The marketing pitch is usually predicated on fear—and it starts right away and relentlessly. Advertisements scare women senseless about all that can go wrong in pregnancy in order to sell supplements, classes, massage therapy, shopping therapy, and pillows, when a bath and a bar of chocolate would probably suffice. Parents are bludgeoned over the head with statistically warped safety warnings in order to sell childproofing gear, strollers, changing tables, helmets, restraining devices, and high chairs. We are inundated with information about early childhood development that trumpet the need for children’s cognitive stimulation in order to sell toys, DVDs, video games, computer programs, extracurricular activities, programmed family outings and vacations, and a host of products bleating “sensory overload!” in moving, shaking, music-making primary colors. Books, tutors, teachers, test prep companies, and admissions officers startle parents into action with scare stories about the merciless competition of school entry requirements and academic performance and the need for every child to find his ideal “learning environment,” in which he can meet and exceed his abilities—all to sell parents on sky-high tuition, tutoring fees, test-taking courses, test prep books, and consultant fees.
We are terrified of what might happen if we don’t do “something” (that is, everything) for our kids, and too often this translates into buying something or hiring someone. Not only am I all too aware of this as a parent, I know this from the inside, having worked in the parenting business myself. From 1994 to 1997, I edited and managed a book club at Scholastic for parents of children ages three to seven. I had the advantage of witnessing how companies market to parents, capitalizing on their hopes, worries, and fears. (It was an ironic position for a woman in her mid-twenties who had never even held a baby.) We sold parenting books, activity books, children’s nonfiction, educational toys, games, and “manipulatives”—all with the goal of helping parents “foster their child’s emotional, social and cognitive development.”
There are now more places to buy these products and services than ever. The 1990s saw the birth of the baby superstore retail category with chains like buybuy BABY (the store name, sadly, says it all), which has stores measuring up to sixty thousand square feet, selling over twenty thousand products. Babies “R” Us, founded in 1996 and merged with the Baby Superstore chain in 1997, has 218 stores nationwide, adding approximately eighteen stores per year. According to Alan Fields, coauthor of Baby Bargains, “The juvenile-products industry has tripled its size in terms of dollars . . . You can see that when you walk into a baby store. It overwhelms and frustrates new parents.” Business owners have a rather rosier take: “Having a kid is very overwhelming,” says Jeffrey Feinstein, the owner of buybuy BABY. “When you can walk into one store and there’s so many items that can help you with a problem or help make the job of parenthood easier—one, you don’t feel alone, and two, you’re happy to have a selection of items to try and see which one works for you, because all babies are different and all parents have different preferences.”
Still . . . twenty thousand baby products in one store alone?
in this book, i will explain how the act of rearing children has been turned into big business, requiring thousands of dollars where hundreds once sufficed and filling our playrooms, storage bins, and hallway closets with products our own parents never dreamed would exist. I will seek answers to questions such as: When did child rearing become “parenting,” anyway, which sounds exactly like what it is—an industry? How has the professionalization of parenting led to an avalanche of products and services targeted to parents? Which goods and expert opinions are worthwhile? How can a parent figure that out when we are understandably susceptible to messages telling us that we should, ought to, really must consider, absolutely cannot forget to, better not avoid, truly must remember to buy, sign up for, enroll in, take advantage of this or that?
This book is not about how anxious parents are—though a pervasive sense of economic insecurity and foreboding certainly underlies our readiness to succumb to excess expenditures for our kids. It’s not about how difficult raising kids is—though the difficulties parents experience can motivate our purchases. It’s not about whether moms should or should not work—though our lifestyle choices do affect consumer decisions. And it’s not about how little social and institutional support parents get nowadays—though our lack of support may lead us to buy products and services to compensate for that absence.
Most important, this book is not about making parents feel even more guilt-ridden and frantic than they already do. I do not claim to be the perfect parent. I have no doubt that years from now, I will berate myself over my own parental misbehavior, and one day, I am sure my children will do it for me. But as a journalist reporting extensively on childhood and family issues, I’ve uncovered facts that I would not have otherwise known about raising children. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of experts—psychologists, neuroscientists, pediatricians, educators—and to learn from their research.
To get an understanding of what’s worth spending money on and what’s exploitative, unnecessary, or harmful, I interviewed the entrepreneurs, managers, product developers, and marketers behind the parenting products. I talked to parent coaches, private tutors, prenatal yoga instructors, learning center instructors and owners, product managers for toy companies, founders of luxury baby goods lines, and advertising executives. I also talked to hundreds of parents. They overwhelmingly complained that not only are they strapped for time, which means they can’t sort through the various marketing claims and read all the child development research; they’re strapped for money.
Many people who get into the parenting biz are parents themselves, moms-turned-entrepreneurs (mompreneurs) or smart, dedicated professionals who see a need and set out to fulfill it. I have spoken to start-up founders, consultants, and CEOs who are earnestly trying to make the lives of fellow parents easier and to enrich the lives of their children. I have no intention of demonizing all the businesses that serve parents’ needs. Some of the products and services they provide are extraordinarily helpful. Unfortunately, however, many others aren’t. We’ve been told that a whole range of products and services are necessary components of our child’s life and our family’s well-being. We assume that various services will give our children a leg up or support them in ways we couldn’t do ourselves. Often, we’re quite wrong.
Still, I continued to shop for my children even when I was diaper-pail-deep in my research for this book. Besides the ridiculous and misleading products I uncovered, products to condemn and services to scoff at, I kept finding magnificent things for babies—practical, time-saving, intriguing—or just too adorable to resist. I marveled at some of the innovations that we take for granted, but that previous generations somehow managed without. Where would we be—dare we even think about it—without the sippy cup?
There are serious reasons behind the price of parenthood that have nothing to do with marketing—the rising cost of living, the lack of affordable childcare and health care, the punishing increases in college tuition—circumstances parents can do little to alleviate. There’s also been a massive increase in marketing directed to children, a phenomenon that can distract parents from the ability to see the ways in which businesses target us directly. Rather than be controlled and consumed by the marketing pitch, we can cut down on spending without shortchanging our kids. Sometimes, spending a lot on children isn’t just unnecessary; it’s counterproductive.
Every parent I know is struggling to figure out how to afford a family without succumbing to the spiral of consumption that characterizes modern parenthood. While we can’t just have kids the way our parents did in the 1970s, at least not in financial terms, as my friend Ava hoped, we don’t have to go broke for our children either. As I learned in the research for this book, it simply requires taking an informed approach to the mammoth power of the parenting industry, and, as Dr. Spock once advised, many expert exhortations ago, learning to trust ourselves.
Copyright © 2008 by Pamela Paul. All rights reserved.