Since I got onto money in my last post, I am going to continue that line of thought (briefly). I worried a lot about money between the ages of 29 and 44 (roughly); it’s strange how hard it is for me to remember my feelings. Sure, I forget events as well. But the main outlines of my life’s history are there to be remembered. What I can’t pull up is how I felt, what I was thinking, at various points. My sense now that I was somehow not present at much of my life stems from this inability to reconstruct, even in imagination, who I was at any given moment. I did all these things—but don’t remember how I did them or what I felt as I was doing or even exactly what I thought I was doing. Getting through each day was the focus, and somehow I made it from one day to the next. But there was no overall plan—and no way to settle into some set of coherent, sustaining emotions. It was a blur then and it’s a blur now.
All of which is to say that I worried about money, about the relative lack of it, without having any idea about how to get more of it. I didn’t even have money fantasies—like winning the lottery or (just as likely) writing a best-selling book. What I did for a living, including writing the books that my academic career required, was utterly disconnected emotionally and intellectually from the need to have more money. When I made my first academic move (from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music to the University of North Carolina) the motive was purely professional, not monetary. I wanted to teach in an English department and be at a university where my talents would not be underutilized. That it would involve a substantial raise in pay never occurred to me until I got the offer of employment. And when I went and got that outside offer in order to boost my UNC salary (as mentioned in the last post), it was the inequity of what I was being paid that drove me, not the money itself. In fact, despite worrying about money for all those years, I never actually imagined having more than enough. It was as if I just accepted that financial insecurity was my lot in life. I could worry about it, but I didn’t have any prospects of changing it.
Certainly, my worries did make me into a cheap-skate. And undoubtedly those niggardly habits are the reason we now have more than enough each month. Habits they certainly are since at this point they don’t even pinch. They just are the way I live in the world—and allow me to feel like I am being extravagant when (fairly often now) I allow myself luxuries others would even give a second thought.
My main theme, however: the worries about money were utterly separate from the decision to have children. That this was so now amazes me. It is simply true that when Jane and I decided the time had come to have children, the financial implications of that decision never occurred to me. We made a very conscious decision to have children. Our relationship was predicated, in fact, on the agreement that we would have children. And when that pre-nuptial agreement was made the issue of having money enough to have kids was raised. But four years later, when we decided to have the anticipated child, money was not considered at all. And when we decided to have a second child after another two years, once again money was not an issue. I don’t know why not. Why—when I worried about having enough money for all kinds of other necessities—did I not worry about having enough money to raise our two children? That’s the mystery.
I have no answer. And I can’t say if that was true generally for those of us having our children in the 1980s, although it seems to have been true for most of my friends. On the other hand, as my wife often notes, I do have a fairly large number of married friends (couples who have been together forty years now) who do not have children. Very likely that a mixture of professional and financial reasons led to their not having kids.
I do, however, feel that financial considerations do play a large role now (in the 2010s) in the decision to have children. That’s part of the cultural sea-change around winners and losers, the emptying out of the middle class, and the ridiculous price of “private” and quasi-private education. Most conspicuous to me is the increasing number of single-child families among the upper middle class. Yes, that is the result of a late start for women who take time to establish themselves in a profession. But it also an artifact of worrying about the cost of child-care and of education.
I come from a family of seven children. And my parents, relatively, were less well-off when they had us than Jane and I were when we had our children. (That statement is a bit complicated since my parents had access to family money in case of emergency that was not there for me to tap. But, in fact, my parents didn’t rely heavily on that reserve until much later in their lives.) Was my not following my parents’ footsteps toward a large family financially motivated? A bit, I guess. But it really seems more a matter of style—plus the fact that my wife was 34 when she got pregnant with our first. But even if she had been 24 (as my mother was at her first pregnancy), it is highly unlikely we would have had more than two kids (perhaps three). The idea was unthinkable by 1987; it just wasn’t done.
It is also hard to see how we could have done it (even though that fact didn’t enter into our thinking). Certainly, it would have been done very differently. We paid $430,000 for our two children’s educations: three years of private high school and four years of private university (with a $15,000 scholarship each year) for my son, and four years of private high school and four years of private university for my daughter. And that figure is just the fees paid to the schools; it doesn’t include all the other costs. We would certainly have relied much more heavily on public education if we had more than two children.
Once again, I have no moral to draw. I am just trying to track what seem to me particularly significant shifts in cultural sensibility.