Baby Bump? Try Budget Bummer!

I know several women who have recently given birth, and others who are expecting babies. I couldn’t be more delighted for them. In each case, they are mothers (already), and devoted ones at that.

Babies are always happy news. Giving life is an incredible experience, and parenting – filled with wonder. But the realities of raising children include financial aspects we often ignore – money issues that we assume we’ll somehow manage, telling ourselves “doesn’t everyone?”

And to some degree, we do indeed manage – however we can, as best we can – just as our parents did, and our grandparents before them. But let’s face facts. The world has changed. Its pace, its complexity, and certainly – our expectations.

Depending upon your age, daily life looks remarkably different than it did for your parents. Expectations have exploded when it comes to what some of us think we can (or should) provide to our children.

So what does this do to our family budgets? To the strain on our schedules that are already overloaded for many of us – between one or more jobs (or looking for work), seeking or sustaining a relationship (or marriage), and the responsibilities of parenting?

What about those $4.19 / gallon gas prices I slowed to see this morning, after dropping my son at school? What about my grimace as I grocery shopped, realizing that the cost for commodity food items is up again, as I deferred the Exxon station for one more day, even as the gauge nudges its indicator closer to Empty?

The Cost of Raising Children

If someone had told me the estimated cost of raising a child when I became a mother, I wouldn’t have believed it. When I was pregnant tin the 1990s – married and employed – I would have shrugged off the number, deemed it an exaggeration, and told myself (like you?) – “There are two of us, and we’ll manage.”

Ten years after marital meltdown, not only do I believe the figure ($222,360, not counting college, based on 2010 data), I’m convinced it’s an underestimation. I know the expenditures of the past decade; I’ve tracked them by categories. Moreover, I carry a running list of budget items in my ever-occupied analytical brain.

No, I don’t live a luxurious lifestyle. Yes, I am older, divorced, and have borne the lion’s share of the parenting duties and costs.

No, I’m not on the street. Yes, I do worry about it. (Probably like some of you. How many of us are one health issue or pink slip away?)

This week I’ve read a number of things on the web that have caught my eye, related to the issues I’m addressing here. For one, there was the article on What Women Over 50 Fear Most which appeared on the Huffington Post, and surprise surprise – it was about having enough money to survive. The flood of comments (from both men and women) certainly supports the fact that this is a common fear – not solely for women, nor those in middle age.

The reactions are interesting. Might I share a sampling of the assumptions?

  • Anyone out of work simply isn’t looking
  • Anyone out of work isn’t willing to take something they don’t want to do
  • The notions of overqualified and age discrimination are exaggerated
  • Those without retirement or savings are living above their means.

Among the counterpoints and arguments:

  • Unexpected illness will wipe out any savings at any time
  • Corporations have long known how to get around age discrimination
  • Divorce debt, lack of child support, and age compound the problem for women
  • Both men and women want to work

Yet overwhelmingly, the outpouring of responses indicates the same fears over finances: worry over insufficient funds for the basics, discouragement over trying to find work, knowledge that “retirement” will be impossible, aging into an unknown state of affairs.

Women, Work, Assumptions and Statistics

Some question the statistics provided by the federal government. I’m always skeptical of data, myself, so I understand being cautious when it comes to interpretations of trends and populations. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics is filled with fascinating tidbits. It’s weighty to get through, not easy to decipher, and you can draw your own conclusions. But I spent several hours pouring over tables and reports a few days ago. And over and over, in sector after sector, what I saw were numbers that give credence to our ongoing recessionary crisis.

Yes, men are out of work, and from every chart I looked at – women, disproportionately so – and even the BLS reports that women continue to earn (20 to 25%) less for comparable work.

Yes, you can read data many ways. No, I’m not a statistician.

So I invite you to peruse the BLS charts yourself. I’d love to hear your interpretation.

The bottom line may be – for you – that all of this is so much gibberish – figures neatly tracked and graphed, and not applicable to your life. So I would challenge you to put a face on the problem. Make it your neighbor, your child’s middle-aged babysitter, or the weary cashier at your local supermarket.

Make it your sister. Your mother.

Or yourself – in a few years.

No Babies, Big Boys

Last week I spoke to my older son and asked when he’d be home from college. He gave me the date, and I asked how long he would be staying. I thought the answer might be a week or two; when he responded by saying one month, what tumbled out of my mouth was something to the effect of: Oh God. I can’t afford to feed you.

Behind that unedited remark sits years of fear, awareness of my financial situation, and the reality that I’m looking at two teenage boys to feed – one for a month, and the other, until fall.

As soon as I said it, I felt terrible and tried to recover. But in the past few days I’ve done something more.

In place of the hand-drawn grids and lists that were taped to our fridge for months – those used to track due dates for college applications, financial aid and other forms, I have a new list for food expenditures. The columns are labeled simply: date, location, payment method (cash versus credit), amount, and comments.

Today? I had to shop for two teens, and I did so on credit. My elder son is due home shortly. Under “Comments” I jotted down the fact that I bought no fruit and no meat. I penned the amount and the credit card. I need my sons to see that the situation is real. I need them invested in my survival – with me.

My hope is that they will not absorb my worry, but rather, they will help any way they can as we tighten our belts even more.

Single Parent Guilt

Thankfully, my most difficult days of single parent guilt are behind me. I can look at my sons and know I did my best. I can look at them and see there will be scars. But generally speaking, they’re strong and decent young men. I will have launched them reasonably well, and the rest will be up to them.

But the guilt remains. And it’s not what you might expect.

It’s guilt that I wasn’t clever enough to fight (and win) in the family court system, that I wasn’t cagey enough to assure the rightful financial support they should have had. That I was in denial for so many years about my marriage, and worse – that I listened to those who said “Oh you’ll be fine” or “Just make yourself successful in spite of your ex,” and I would give myself another pep talk, and keep trying to do just that. Working harder, sleeping less, sacrificing my health too often, and falling farther behind.

Life isn’t a fairy tale. We persevere through the unexpected, especially when there are children, but we don’t necessarily secure the stable job that covers the bills and furnishes benefits, the miracle second spouse with money to burn, or a peaceful path without injury or illness.

I would also offer this: The lesson that it is acceptable for one parent to absolve himself of responsibility for shared children is a bad lesson. The lesson that it is acceptable to pick and choose those aspects of parental responsibility that “suit” is a bad lesson. These behaviors are dreadful for our sons and daughters, and detrimental to the fabric of our national consciousness.

Victims, Victors, Entitlement, Grassroots Efforts

I am not a victim; I am a survivor. But I have been the victim of damaging, dysfunctional social and institutional systems – along with millions of other men and women.

I am victorious in what I have accomplished. To me, that includes retaining my sense of who I am, continuing to develop skills, staying open and curious, and parenting well. My sons, I hope, will become good men.

Entitlement is a contemporary problem which requires thorough discussion – something for another day, except to suggest that it serves none of us when applied to material things.

  • Child support is not entitlement. It is parental responsibility.
  • A paying job is not entitlement. It is work that we expect to contribute in our prime and middle-age; we have earned the right to work, we want to work, our skills are needed. Regardless of sex.
  • Basic civil rights? Basic human rights? In a country like ours – with so much promise – education and health care are basic human rights in my book. But in practice? We know better. And isn’t it time we begin to change this picture?

At the very least, shouldn’t we speak our minds, write our minds, listen with open minds, and be sure to vote? Shouldn’t we look for grassroots opportunities to grow our businesses and hire more people, to help our neighbors with a measure of humility, to put a face on our challenges and admit that they are real?

© D A Wolf