Love in the Time of Layoff: Can You Afford the Stork?

by Victoria Grantham on May 21, 2009 in Culture

babies silhouettes 250“The economy’s so bad we had to lay off one of our kids,” comedian Jonathan Katz recently joked.

Pretty funny. And absurd. But what about laying off the stork? Now there’s an idea…

During the Depression, the birth rate plummeted and there are several indicators —a recent uptick in vasectomies, a spike in condom sales, and buzz about pregnancy postponement on mommy blogs, health, and news sites – that this recession’s also affecting family planning.

The reality is kids cost a lot. We’re talking six figures. The Department of Agriculture estimates that families making $46,000 to $77,000 annually will spend more than $200,000 on children through high school. And that’s bare-bones—it doesn’t include college tuition. The Wall Street Journal estimates families earning $118,000 a year will spend $800,000 (on the low end!) through age 17. Of course, some prospective parents also need to factor in the up-front costs of adoption or in vitro fertilization. Madonna may be snatching up babies in Malawi, but she’s the Material Girl. What about the rest of us?

So how do you actually assess whether you can afford a baby or not? Can you really reduce a child to a financial calculation? They’re questions my new husband, Jay, and I have thought a lot about. We got hitched in October, after co-habiting for six years, in large part because we’d been talking about starting a family. But when the economy collapsed, what seemed like a no-brainer suddenly looks more like a tricky computation.

My pragmatic mind first focused on two types of variables: cold, hard facts (employment status, mortgage/debt situation, health) and predictions (squishier things like job security).

We’re fortunate that the facts of our particular situation are neither particularly cold nor excessively hard. I still have my PR job and I’ve been snagging a few writing gigs on the side. Jay’s a New York City firefighter. But with businesses slashing marketing/PR budgets, newspapers and magazines closing at lightening speed, and Bloomberg threatening layoffs of uniformed city employees, you never know.

I’m a list maker, so, naturally, I broke out the ruled paper to map out our pros and cons.

Pros:

  • We want to become parents. Our relationship is solid and time-tested, and we agree we’re ready.
  • We’re both currently employed. Hallelujah.
  • I’m 34, Jay’s 35, and we’re not getting any younger.

Cons:

  • Neither of our jobs is recession-proof.
  • As noted, babies are expensive. According to The National Association of Child Care Resources families spend between $4,000 and $13,500 on infant childcare alone. You can bet our part of the country’s at the top of the scale.
  • We live in a one-bedroom apartment and can’t afford a bigger place in the neighborhood. (We have to stay in N.Y. as long as Jay’s a firefighter – FDNY rules.)
  • We have some indulgent habits—eating out too often, going on dreamy vacations—we will have to curb if we want to feed, clothe and educate another human being.

Objectively I’d say it’s probably a tie, but I’m also finding it’s impossible to be objective. Even for the most practical and responsible among us, the decision to start (or grow) a family shouldn’t hinge on dollars and cents. Other issues—the biological imperative, spiritual/religious beliefs—come into play.

Tracey Cassidy, a 33-year-old colleague of mine who’s due next month (she conceived right before the recession hit full force) says the economy is impacting how she and her husband are preparing for the baby. “With our first child we went above and beyond—expensive bedding, $3,000 birthdays. This time it will be bed-in-a-bag, a birthday barbeque and hand-me-downs. Also, I’ll breastfeed, which will save $20 to $40 a week on formula.” But when I asked if they would have put their family plans on hold had they foreseen the downturn, she said no without hesitating.

Given the macroeconomic climate, the early behavioral indicators, and demographer’s predictions, we will probably see a drop in the nation’s birth rate. Despite all the impediments and anxieties, however—and in our case they’re luckily relatively minor—there will still be babies.

As I thought about this subject I realized that my dad was conceived during the Great Depression. Though times were undoubtedly tough, things seem to have worked out just fine. Maybe history will repeat itself.

Victoria Grantham is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and Downtown Express. She lives in Manhattan .

Are you postponing a pregnancy because of the economy or going ahead in spite of it? Tell us below.

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